Kenyan farmers save for a rainy day
Whatever the weather
Twice a month, farmer James Muthoka gets on his bike and pedals nine kilometres to KARI Katumani , an agricultural research station.
Mr Muthoka owns six acres in an small, enclosed valley in Machakos, a dry, semi-arid region about one-and-a-half hours from Nairobi. The valley is filled from top to bottom with farms. The shamba (field) beside his house is four acres – and the other two acres are "very far away". The farm may be small, but the land is fertile, enabling Mr Muthoka, 53, and his wife Jennifer to raise five children, funding the oldest two through college.
But there is little water, for Machakos, like much of Kenya, is in the grip of drought  (Word document) – last rainy season was dismal.
There is a dried river bed in Mr Muthoka's valley – it fills up only in the rainy seasons. And there is also a well nearby – but it is salty and the water is unusable. A pipe brings water into the valley all the way from Kilimanjaro. But this is strictly rationed – it is not for animals or irrigation. And besides, water is expensive by local standards – five Kenyan shillings (4p) for 20 litres.
Lack of water makes pre-planning ever more important for when the rains do come; hence the reason for Mr Muthoka’s regular trips to Katumani (which is named after a drought-resistant maize).
On the 12-acre site – it used to be bigger until squatters grabbed some of the land – Katumani, houses a so-called Agro-Met . This is a meteorological station run by the Kenyan Meteorological Department (KMD), which among other things supports the country's large agricultural sector with rain forecasting services.
For Mr Muthoka, the visits are a double hitter: he can seek advice from the research station on crops and the welfare of his small flock of chickens. When the rains come he has enough water to increase the flock’s size, enabling him to sell the pullets to neighbouring farmers. Also, he can glean advice from the Agro-Met's resident officers, Jackson Mwangani and Frederick Waiinaina, on when the Spring rains will come and - crucially – how much rain can be expected.
With this knowledge he knows when to prepare his crops and what crops to prepare. "I do a lot of work as if I am doing research," he says.
Another Machakos farmer, Samuel Mweu, 59 - also an Agro-Met "customer" - told me that he "may change my planning if I know that the rain is going to be less than normal". Last season on the advice of the Met station, Mr Mweu plumped for a drought-resistant variety of maize, the local staple crop. The outcome – three bags – was not exactly a huge haul, but as he points out – his neighbours "got nothing".
The Agro-Met at Katumani is one of 35 meteorological ground stations in Kenya. Last year it received its first computer, one of 180 Pentium IIIs for the KMD refurbished by Computer Aid International , the UK PC recycling charity, and funded by the UK Meteorological Office.
Until the PC arrived at the station, all work was performed manually. Statistical information was laboriously plotted by graph, and information was sent to head office in Nairobi for input into the mainframe and analysis. Feedback from head-office could take up to three weeks to return to Machakos.
With the PC at hand, the meteorologists are able to provide information much more quickly – sometimes within minutes – to Mr Muthoka and other local farmers. None of Mr Muthoka’s immediate neighbours go to Katumani, but he tries to share his knowledge with them, in his capacity as leader of a local farmers’ group.
The Agro-Met at Katumani now has local rainfall data all the way back to 1950 stored on its PC. The station lacks an internet connection, so observation data is transmitted by email from the local cyber-café. The next stage in the Kenya Met Office’s decentralisation project would be to add a computer connection to Katumani
All over Kenya, the work of the Agro-Mets is assuming greater prominence at a time of prolonged drought. No water means “no green pasture, and humans and animals start fighting over the little available water and food”, explains Simon Gathara, senior meteorological officer at KMD. And in Kenya, the animals you are fighting for water are often elephants.
“We advise pastoralists to destock. Some Masai  can have up to 2,000 cattle, Mr Gathara says. "We advise them to sell off most of their cattle and put their money in the bank. When the rains come again they can buy more cattle. They have no interest in keeping the money, as they measure their wealth by the number of cattle they have."
The KMD is an important cog in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its Nairobi headquarters houses a training institute which teaches post- graduate students from all over English-speaking Africa, and sometimes from Francophone countries too. Courses include the reception and interpretation of satellite data, which naturally are entirely computer-based. The computer lab is filled with reconditioned desktops from Computer Aid. And students are often given laptop refurbs to take back to their home countries.
The KMD is also ploughing its way through years of paper-based data – a team of data-inputters is working through the backlog on computers supplied by the UK Met Office and fulfilled by Computer Aid. ®
All pics © Glenn Edwards