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Using Technology to Combat Drought in Kenya

How Kenya Uses Technology to Combat DroughtIn Kenya, only 27 weather stations are operational and they are spread over vast distances. This scarcity leaves many farmers without accurate weather forecasts, particularly rainfall, crucial for their agriculture. Farming in Kenya, a region prone to droughts, depends heavily on timing. The absence of reliable rainfall predictions forces farmers to risk planting seeds that may fail if expected rains do not materialize. This ongoing challenge is compounded by the region’s climate, which is not only prone to erratic rainfall and frequent droughts but is also expected to experience worsening conditions over the next decade.

The Impact of Drought in Kenya

Droughts in Kenya pose severe threats to the livelihoods of the poorest populations, who are predominantly smallholder farmers and pastoralists. These groups rely heavily on rainfall for irrigation and extended droughts often deplete alternative water sources like boreholes and rivers. The primary impact of drought is the destruction of agricultural assets. Without adequate water, crops fail prematurely, leaving farmers without food or income from harvests. Additionally, the loss of crops prevents future planting due to the loss of seeds. Livestock farmers face similar challenges, with water scarcity leading to the death of essential forage and, subsequently, their animals. Recent reports have highlighted extreme conditions, with visuals of even camels perishing from dehydration, symbolizing the dire situation in the region.  

Recurring and intensifying droughts in Kenya have left more than 4.35 million residents of arid and semi-arid regions facing severe food shortages and limited access to clean water, leading to widespread malnutrition. These droughts not only pose immediate threats but also perpetuate chronic poverty. A study from the Technical University of Berlin reveals that households impacted by drought often experience deteriorating living conditions and reduced educational spending up to 10 years later. Moreover, early exposure to malnutrition significantly impairs cognitive development in children, affecting their abilities into adolescence and adulthood.

The Bridge Between Bird Songs and Weather Stations

Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence (ITIKI), is a groundbreaking drought forecasting tool. This system integrates conventional meteorological data, inputs from locally stationed wireless sensors and indigenous weather indicators, processing all this information through artificial intelligence to deliver highly accurate weather forecasts.

ITIKI stands out among forecasting tools because it uniquely incorporates local indigenous knowledge into its predictions. This allows for highly specific, micro-level forecasts that the Kenyan National Meteorological Services cannot provide. Indigenous knowledge includes local signs that correlate with weather patterns, such as specific bird calls or the behavior of dragonflies, which are traditionally recognized as indicators of imminent rainfall. Residents report these signs through communication channels and the ITIKI system processes this data with artificial intelligence. Professor Masinde, a user of ITIKI, recounts, “My sister and I would hear that bird, we’d have to run home because it would rain precisely three hours later. It’s so precise.

Kenya’s youth often dismiss indigenous knowledge as outdated, viewing it as a primitive forecasting method. Yet, from a data analysis perspective, indigenous knowledge represents a long-standing correlation between natural phenomena and meteorological patterns, as recognized by local observations. Although these traditional indicators may be too general to serve as the sole method for predicting droughts, when integrated with modern forecasting technologies, they significantly enhance accuracy at the local level by contributing specific meteorological insights.

ITIKI Combatting Drought in Kenya

With a remarkable micro-level precision of 500 meters, ITIKI boasts a 98% accuracy rate for forecasts up to 18 months and 70% for those extending to four years. This precision enables smallholder farmers to receive specific rainfall predictions for their villages, enhancing their agricultural planning. Professor Muthoni Masinde explains the practical applications: farmers can save seeds and funds by not planting ahead of anticipated dry spells, investing in drought-resistant crops if only limited rainfall is expected or even relocating if long-term forecasts predict insufficient rainfall.

The 2019 USAID performance report on ITIKI highlighted its impact on agricultural practices, with 74% of users reporting improved crop yields due to the system’s accurate forecasts. Additionally, all interviewed users expressed their endorsement of ITIKI to other farmers. The adoption of drought-resilient crop varieties increased among ITIKI users, who, leveraging precise weather predictions, often planted before anticipated rainfall, enhancing crop survival rates.

ITIKI’s Future

The ITIKI project, currently operational in Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa, assists smallholder farmers in managing drought in Kenya. According to a USAID report, while ITIKI has been beneficial, farmers have shown reluctance to pay for subscriptions themselves. In response, Professor Masinde has pivoted to a business-to-business model, partnering with government institutions keen on enhancing self-sufficiency among these farmers. Furthermore, Professor Masinde plans to broaden ITIKI’s user base across Africa, refine forecast accuracy and incorporate predictions for other environmental threats like locust invasions. This project offers a promising avenue for enhancing drought resilience and addressing poverty in innovative ways.

Looking Ahead

ITIKI’s integration of traditional knowledge with modern technology offers precise weather forecasting, vital for smallholder farmers in managing drought in Kenya. By providing accurate, village-specific rainfall predictions, ITIKI helps farmers make informed decisions, improving crop yields and reducing losses. As the system expands across Africa and incorporates additional environmental threats, it promises to enhance agricultural resilience and combat poverty in the region.

– Siwon Kim

Siwon is based in Boston, MA, USA and focuses on Technology and Solutions for The Borgen Project.

Photo: Flickr