News Archive

posted 04/01/02

Kenyan Farmers Show Willingness to Use Probabilistic Climate Forecasts
Two-year research project bears fruit
by Jennifer Freeman

When IRI climate scientist Jennifer Phillips arrived in the mountains of Machakos, Kenya in late February, the first question the farmers there asked was had she heard there might be an El Niño event this year, and what might that mean for them. The farmers wanted to discuss farm management options, to avoid a repeat of crop failures that were caused by floods and cool, wet weather during the El Niño of 1997.

One of the survey leaders discussing details of the forecast with local farmers in the village of Lita, in Machakos District.

"I was so pleased to see the farmers using climate information alongside their traditional indicators," says Phillips. "I was really impressed that they were neither ignoring nor swallowing it whole, but thinking about when to use forecasts, when to be cautious."

The meeting, organized by colleague Dr. Robinson Kinuthia Ngugi of the Department of Range Management at the University of Nairobi, comes at the end of a two-year IRI research project aimed at understanding what climate information would be useful to farmers in the Greater Horn of Africa, a region prone to climate extremes. Dr. Ngugi also helped implement a survey over the last year that showed that more than 80% of farmers in the Machakos region are now aware of and listening to climate forecasts.

A field of maize growing in the highlands of Machakos, Kenya, a mountainous dairy area which often resembles Switzerland.

Phillips also found reason for optimism in a group of four journalists who attended this year’s Climate Outlook Forum in Eldoret, Kenya in late February. The journalists had attended Phillips’ media workshop about reporting probabilistic climate information last summer in Uganda, another portion of the two-year IRI research project.

Now the journalists were using the Outlook Forum as an occasion to found a formal network for helping the public to understand and learn how to respond to climate information. They took on assigned roles and appointed a Secretariat, all in recognition of the serious responsibility of their undertaking. (for more information on the IRI'S Climate Outlook Forums, see http://iri.columbia.edu)

Since the primary entry point for climate information in Kenya is through radio broadcasts, the ability of broadcast journalists to convey climate forecasts in a useful, non-distorted manner can be crucial for farmers.

A leading dairy farmer who participated in the farm survey describes the problems he faced during the last El Niño event and how he might prepare better for it this time.

"We’re starting to overcome obstacles to trust and confidence" in Western, scientific information, notes Phillips. Part of the progress has come because Western researchers, including Phillips herself, have begun to acknowledge qualities and value in the farmers’ traditional methods. "The idea that you can’t really talk about Western and traditional forecasting methods in the same breath is now becoming outmoded," says Phillips. "Farmers and researchers are now entering into dialogue and exchanging ideas on what indicators have forecast skill."

In the beginning, just trying to get farmers to accept the basic idea that it is possible to sway odds in their favor was a big conceptual leap.

In view of the fact that "God willing" is about the best way of conveying the sense of a future event in probabilistic terms in Swahili, Philips found it ironic though the meeting in Machakos took place in a meadow, the defining architecture of the site was a big yellow church.

The International Research Institute for Climate Prediction aims to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability through the use of climate prediction science. From forecasting and modeling to fishery management, IRI researchers focus on where climate information and public policy intersect. By collaborating with societies to make climate a routine part of regional planning and decision-making, the IRI enables communities to better manage the challenges posed by climate fluctuation. For more information, visit http://iri.columbia.edu.

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit www.earth.columbia.edu.