Independent Appeal: Why Kenya's farmers can now predict the rains

Computers have transformed the accuracy of Kenya's weather forecasts – and the fortunes of those who rely on them.
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The Independent Online

What a difference two days make. Forty-eight little hours. In the case of Titus Kitabu it was the difference, during last season's drought, between getting a modest crop and getting nothing at all.

His hillside farm outside the small town of Machakos in central Kenya was the only one to beat the dry spell that shrivelled his neighbours' crops, and his haul of 15 bags of maize was the equivalent of a fortune in an epically bad harvest. The reason he was able to produce anything at all was because Titus knew when the "short rains" would come, allowing him to plant two days beforehand.

Today, his terraced slope of swaying maize, half-a-dozen cows, some chickens and a field of beans are the envy of the area. And Titus' new-found wealth is being set in stone, as a four-bedroom house rises from the baked earth next to the chicken coop.

He was not born a man of the soil, and there is no history of farming in his family; indeed, he looks more like a golfer in his immaculate blue slacks and striped polo shirt. He used to run a shop in town until he decided to buy a "big farm", which here amounts to about four acres.

Titus' uncanny knack for managing the unpredictable rains has nothing to do with instinct or experience – it's simply a question of listening to the weatherman. But until the recent arrival of computers at the local meteorological office, even that would have been a waste of time.

Jackson Mwangangi sits in his shed-like office at the weather station in nearby Katumani staring at his computer screen with an air of concentration born of novelty. Satellite images show an almost cloudless sky over all of Kenya, with only a small low pressure area huddled over Lake Victoria to the west.

With an easy smile he admits that the plastic box on his desk has transformed his work from drudgery into a proper career. The "weatherman", as his village likes to call him, describes how his day used to be spent. He would take readings on air and soil temperatures, solar radiation, wind, rain and evaporation, then glance at the colonial-era barometer and write his report. This would be sent by post to headquarters in Nairobi, arriving about a week later. They would analyse his findings according to their weather models and a forecast would be posted back to him.

"By the time I got it was useless," he says with a shrug. "We weren't able to assess daily or seasonal forecasts – we would just do manual data entry." The largely pointless work would then be painstakingly filed, he adds, pointing to a cupboard covering the entire office wall.

Two years ago all of that changed when Computer Aid – one of the three charities for which The Independent is raising funds in this year's Christmas Appeal – equipped Jackson's meteorological station with refurbished PCs and gave him and his colleagues the training to use them.

Now the morning's readings are fed straight into a live system and then modelled into a forecast which is available instantly on the internet. "That means we can forecast the start of the rains, their seasonal length, the length of the dry spells. All at the touch of a button," he beams. "It's much more interesting and I feel more motivated to work."

The arrival of the digital age hasn't just cheered up Jackson, it's begun to change the way that farmers in the region are working.

"It's helping them to decide which crops to plant, which fertiliser to use and when to plant," he says. The station, which is attached to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, has developed its own breed of drought resistant "Katumani maize".

The new fast forecasts are available to anyone with an internet connection or a phone. They are also circulated by more old-fashioned means via a motorcycle dispatch rider, who takes them to the local chiefs to be distributed to the hundreds of smallholders in the locals hills.

The arrival of computing power has also helped the weatherman to confirm a more worrying phenomenon – climate change. "The weather is not behaving well, this climate change has upset the system so we get rains when we are not supposed to and then when they're expected they don't come," he says.

All of which makes the met man's job even more important. A farmer himself in his spare time, Jackson has noticed that his neighbours are carefully watching what he sows and when he sows it. With the right timing, yields can be increased up to five-fold, he reveals. In a good year farmers like Titus are now getting 70 bags of maize, compared with 15 before.

"At first I didn't even know there was a weather centre at Katumani but now I call them two times a week," says Titus as he inspects progress on the new farmhouse.

For his part the weatherman was supposed to have retired already to spend more time with his own fields. Pointing at some faded bar charts on the wall of his office he explains that he has elected to stay on for another five years instead. He speaks proudly of a recent presentation he has given to colleagues in Nairobi on the regional impacts of climate change. "I don't want to retire," the 55-year-old laughs. "I'm enjoying my job too much."

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