In a hive of activity, the members of the Huruma Women Group weigh and pack their dried mangoes, cassava flour and millet. Formed in 1998, the group of 30 women based in Kibwezi, 119 miles (190km) east of Nairobi, grow and dry grains, fruits and vegetables, which they package and sell to local markets and dealers for export. For a long time, the women relied on the rain to grow their crops and the sun to dry their harvests, which wasn’t a problem in the arid and semiarid region of Makueni. Until late 2015, when El Niño reached east Africa.
“The weather changes hit us hard,” says Rehema Madege, a 45-year-old mother of five, who coordinates the group’s work. “It was rainy and cloudy as opposed to the mostly sunny and high temperatures we were used to.” As parts of Kenya flooded, the group began losing money. They missed delivery dates because their produce wouldn’t dry or their products were rejected by customers because the excess rain resulted in a change of color or too much moisture. “We had not anticipated it. Neither did we know how long it would last,” says Madege.
According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, over half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s labor force works in agriculture. But most farmers are caught unawares by extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent with the effects of climate change. Often, the consequences are devastating, as crops are destroyed by sudden dry spells or unanticipated heavy rainfall.
To help farmers adapt to variable weather phenomena, the county government of Makueni decided last year to train people as “climate information intermediaries.” Their job is to take data from the Kenya Meteorological Department, interpret what it means for farmers in the area, and then make sure that information gets to everyone who needs it. But the government realized the intermediaries had to be people everyone would trust. So they approached various groups to join the project, including the Huruma Women Group.
“To ensure the information generated reached the communities as intended, we identified trusted members of the community such as religious leaders, teachers, local administrators, women’s group leaders and youth groups to help disseminate information through the word of mouth as they are trusted among communities they serve,” says David Mutua, the meteorological services country director.
Using part of a $32,000 county climate fund set up by the U.K.’s Department for International Development, the Makueni meteorological department has so far trained about 1,000 climate information intermediaries. The money goes into teaching them how to read and understand weather reports and to buy rain gauges for area weather stations.
Every day at 2 p.m., Madege receives a text message containing the next day’s weather prediction. She says that information has become critical in making decisions on what time to prepare products for drying or whether to postpone. “Mangoes require about 26 hours to dry in a greenhouse dryer, with vegetables taking about eight hours,” she says. “With the fluctuating weather conditions, [the system] safeguards us from losses.”
Along with basic weather predictions, the information the women receive also gives them advice on the onset and cessation of the rainy or dry seasons. “They also advise on the specific varieties to plant, on fodder for livestock and if livestock keepers can reduce or add their number of livestock during the season,” says Madege.
Once Madege receives the text message, she shares it with the group, which meets every evening to plan for the following day. When the data predicts a significant shift in weather patterns, Madege tells the local chief, who calls meetings to spread the word to the rest of the village. “Huruma Women meets every day, hence it’s easy to pass the daily weather information to them, but it’s costly to meet the villagers daily or weekly to convey the information,” she says. “I only ask the chief to convene a meeting before the onset of rains, dry season or during abrupt weather seasons that have to be announced to the villagers.”
Apart from the intermediaries, the meteorological department also disseminates weather information through local F.M. radio stations broadcasting in local languages. “It’s about building trust with the communities while sensitizing them on the need for the information,” says Mutua.
Armed with the knowledge of what the weather might bring, the Huruma Women Group was able to bounce back and is now making $2,000 a year. The group has been giving members business loans and helping them buy water tanks to store water during the dry seasons. It’s also looking to expand.
“We have the market for our products, but we are limited by the number of products we can produce per day as our 7.5m [25ft] greenhouse only produces 65lb [30kg] of mangoes in two days,” says Madege. “We have bought land to construct a larger processing unit and a storage area.”
Mutua smiles when he talks about how the new weather information system “has transformed the communities.” Before locals were put in charge of disseminating the data, seasonal weather forecasting was much more generalized and could be misleading. “Today, we have built trust through … having communities validating the information we give,” he says.
For Madege, the new system means her livelihood is no longer at the mercy of the changing weather. “Now that we have access to daily weather information, we no longer take chances as we previously did,” she says.