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Kenyan farmer in maize field

Texting the Climate: How Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa are Meeting a Changing Future

By Andrew Zimmer

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A Life of Science: A Series by New Scientists

  
It’s 5 a.m. and farmers in the Mwea district of Laikipia, Kenya begin to stir. The clouds atop the majestic peak of Mount Kenya are thin and the air is dry. The village wakes slowly. Farmers emerge from their homes, gazing upwards at the mountain for a sign of approaching rain, any sign. Today is May 15, the most important day of the agricultural year for thousands of farmers nestled on the flanks of the mountain. The land is fertile—when it rains.

The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program—A Life of Science—with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.

Charles and his wife are among the first to venture into their fields, kicking up dust as they walk. They pass over rows of prepared soil, ready for rain and seeds. Charles turns to his wife and asks, “Why is it so difficult to predict when the rain will come? It used to be simple.” When I visit Charles in the summer of 2018, he’ll tell me this story.

Farmers gather a few hours later, awaiting the visit of their agricultural extension agent, a key link between the farmers, government, and weather service, but no one arrives. The farmers discuss how extension agents are spread so thinly, how they struggle to achieve what they set out to do. Some extension agents are tasked with organizing and providing technical advice to over 1,000 farmers.

These smallholder farmers, like Charles, depend on the rainfall to grow the majority of their crops, which include maize, beans, and sorghum. Farmers must make decisions about how much of their land to sew, which seed varieties to plant, and how much fertilizer to apply. In addition, the farmers’ most important decision is deciding when to plant, since crops grow best if planted just at the start of the rainy season. If farmers plant too early, or too late, it is likely that their crops will fail, reducing the food and money they have for the following year.

But climate change is making these rainfall patterns harder to predict, challenging Charles’s years of traditional knowledge. The farmers’ livelihoods depend on making good agricultural decisions, something that is becoming ever more difficult as the variability of seasonal weather patterns increases.

The stories from the slopes of Mount Kenya are similar across Sub-Saharan Africa. Everyone, but especially farmers, feel the effects of climate change. Not only is weather more difficult to predict, but the ambiguity is layered with chronic poverty, malnutrition, educational issues, and pest infestations.

Farmers once could predict when the rainy season would begin, with their farm management decisions following suit. The tumultuous weather patterns of late, however, have made their management decisions more important and more difficult.

Corn drying in shed
Maize drying in a shed.
Photo by Zack Guido.
Around midday, after Charles receives a text from me on his mobile phone, he thumbs a response: No rain, did not plant.

Using these text message responses, I am able to study small-scale farmers’ adaptations to climate change.

In an average week, wherever I am—at my doctoral program in geography at the University of Arizona, at home in England, or in Africa itself—I send 2,000 text messages to farmers in Kenya and Zambia, asking them about the weather on their farms and the different management decisions they have made: planting crops, applying irrigation, fertilizing, and harvesting. Researchers in a collaborative project spanning multiple U.S.-based institutions, including the University of Arizona’s School of Geography and Development, have been sending these messages every week, throughout the year, since 2015 to glean important insight into how farmers are making decisions in different seasons and weather conditions.

Pairing high-frequency social data with actual weather information allows us a deeper understanding of decisions that farmers make. Understanding what, when, and how farmers employ different management strategies on their farms allows us to assess the best practices to deal with climate variability—and how farmers cope with risk.

It will take years to compile and understand what we are gathering from their responses. Once we know more, we’ll be able to provide farmers with useful information to help their agricultural practices, such as accurate weather forecasts, promising seed information, and successful diversification opportunities.

My interest in climate change and agriculture developed both from academic experience and time in the field. Having studied geography at home in the northwest of England since the age of eight, I have tried to understand how the natural and human world interacts, and what the impacts of those interactions are. I spent countless hours in classrooms, lecture halls, and clinical libraries reading books and articles and studying computer models and data that were supposed to explain it all.

Twenty-four hours after I arrived in Kenya for the first time, in 2018 , it became clear how complex these systems are, and how important the human connection is. Farming in Kenya is a social endeavor, with farmers learning from their neighbors, and us learning from them. Hearing stories from generations of farmers who have been battling with a changing climate, struggling with pest outbreaks, and having difficulty growing enough food to provide for their family was difficult but provided a vivid representation of real-world issues.

My field experience opened my eyes to the scale of decisions that people must make in the face of climate change and have been key in directing my research. These experiences motivate me to understand, develop, and offer solutions to farmers. Promising opportunities lie in developing accurate and useful weather information to inform farmers of the coming season. Coupled with reliable advice on seed choice and agricultural diversification, farming in Kenya can become more resilient in the face of climate change. 

Kenyan farmer in field
Kenyan farmer walking through fields.
Photo by Zack Guido.
We are back in the field, driving along dusty roads with Mount Kenya again on the horizon. The fields have grown tall with maize, so much so that spotting Charles’s farm is difficult. Walking to his house, Charles greets us, enthusiastically relating my presence to the text messages he has been replying to as he realizes I am not in fact a computer, but a real live person just like him!

He shows us around his fields, citing local weather forecasts for his bumper harvest. He smiles as his hand flows over the thick, healthy green leaves. Although climate change threatens the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Africa, understanding how they can make effective management decisions in an uncertain future is essential to their continued success.

 

 

Andrew ZimmerAndrew Zimmer is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on the human-environment interactions between climate change, agricultural production, and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Header photo of Kenyan farmer among his maize crops by Zack Guido.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.