How African indigenous knowledge in weather forecasts, agriculture can enhance food production


Local solutions can help beat climate change, a veteran farmer has proposed.

Kenny Matampash, a crop and livestock farmer and an agricultural solutions expert in Kajiado County says African Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) are crucial to addressing effects climate change in Kenya.

Matampash says his knowledge in irrigation has helped him grow crops in a dry land for commercial use.

“From October this year, I have lost 130 heads of cattle. This shows how urgently Government should engage us to get our views on how to incorporate our indigenous system in improving agriculture,” he says.

The farmer who keeps livestock, rabbits, bees and grows various crops says indigenous knowledge can help in the use of storage of animal feeds and water for irrigation.

“I use my indigenous knowledge prepare land for pasture conservation. Here, I can conserve Napier grass and beetroots. I have also drilled two boreholes at a cost of Sh4.5 million. I use the water to irrigate crops like maize, vegetables, water melon and yellow beans,” Matampash says.

He reveals that he has trained farmers locally and internationally to adopt diversification and adaptation of innovative techniques for sustainable agriculture.

Together with his wife Phylis Nadupoi, the couple now sells their products in Elangata-Wuas, Ilbissil and other markets in Kajiado.

“My knowledge has created a miracle in this arid and semi-arid area. This can be replicated in all ASAL regions when water availability and storage is made a priority,” Matampash says.

Mary Kiminza, a farmer in the arid area of Makueni in Eastern Kenya says farmers in the region have used IKS to devise innovative ways of water storage to help them plant crops even during droughts.

The farmers have come together to build a traditional rock catchment system to harvest rainwater, and despite dry weather, the village still has plenty of water.

“Apart from the gift of life from God, this is the other biggest blessing that has come to us,” says Mrs Kiminza, a mother of five and a member of the village's Ithine Self Help Group.

Rock catchment systems use naturally occurring rock outcrops to divert rainwater to a central collection area. A concrete wall is built to direct the water that trickles down the rock surface into sand and gravel filter, then down pipes into covered storage tanks to be used for irrigation.

“We use our knowledge to build resilience to climate extremes among the worst-hit areas, using locally acceptable techniques and making them as sustainable as possible,” Mrs Kiminza says.

 “Residents here in the dry-land regions face an acute water shortage. But with innovative traditional water harvesting techniques, most of them have become food secure and not dependent on food aid any longer,” Mrs Kiminza says.

In Mbeere region, another dry land, farmers have abandoned growing traditional crops like maize, sweet and white potatoes and have found a way to stay afloat as water becomes scarcer.

The farmers are now breeding catfish in “home dams” that capture rainwater, to help them cope with water scarcity.

“This is my new source of income,” said Sylvester Kinyori, 32, who operates a kiosk in Isiolo town where he sells fish products from local farmers who have turned to aquaculture.

Farmers in the region started rearing fish four years ago, after they were introduced to a simple way of trapping and storing rainfall run-off in what are known as “home dams”.

The water is stored in reservoirs sunk in the grounds of a household compound, fitted with a thick polythene lining to stop it percolating away into the soil.

John Njiru said experiment by farmers in Mbeere had shown catfish which have distinctive whisker-like filaments around their mouths could be more resilient to a harsh climate than tilapia, withstanding higher temperatures.

"We are now healthier because we can eat the fish, and sell the surplus to generate income. It is my hope that fish farming in this region will stand the test of time given the tough and changing climatic conditions,” Njiru says.

Weather, climate change and IKS experts unanimously agree that tapping IKS will make conventional weather services more relevant and accessible, thereby increasing update and use by local farmers.

The experts note that local farmers have in-built indigenous knowledge weather forecasting practices established after long years of observation of their respective natural environments.

They also agree that African IKS pertaining to weather have not been fully integrated in climate change information services and this has led to existing weather information services to lack relevance to local communities.

Dr Richard Lesiyampe, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture agrees. He explains that unpredictable weather patterns have negatively affected farming in Kenya.

“We have a shortfall of nine million bags of maize this year. This is because farmers in this region, considered the country’s main grain basket harvested 36 million bags of maize last year,” Lesiyampe said.

He added, “The shortfall has been caused by adverse weather effects that have caused prolonged wet or dry seasons and new emerging diseases. Government has a programme to tap farmers’ knowledge in weather forecasts and irrigation to find ways of mitigating against such negative effects.”

Dr Richard Muita, a lecturer at Institute for Meteorological Training and Research works closely with the traditional Nganyi rainmakers based in Bunyore in Western Kenya.

The Nganyi observe changes in nature that would be unnoticeable to most people - in air currents, the flowering and shedding of leaves of certain trees, the behaviour of ants, bird songs, even the croaking of frogs and toads.

“They are able to interpret weather patterns and provide valuable advice. The Kenya Meteorology Department (KMD) works together with the traditional rainmakers to produce more accurate forecasts and disseminate them to a wider number of farmers.

This, he adds has enabled the meteorologists to blend ancient and modern weather systems together to build climate resilience.

Prof Joseph Mukabana, Head of African Offices and Least Developed Countries at the World Meteorological Organisation (MWO) in Geneva, Switzerland emphasised the role of IKS in agriculture.

“The Nganyi have key information in astronomy and botany that can be used to address climate change. These people can look at stars and plants and predict whether there will be strained or enough rains. This knowledge can be used by governments to advise farmers on what crops to plant to last the predicted spell of rain,” Mukabana says.

Prof Hassan Kaya, the Director, Centre in Indigenous Knowledge  Systems, University of  KwaZulu-Natal, South  Africa said that understanding of the importance of IKS is key in explaining the symbiotic relationship between ecosystems and human dynamics for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

“This includes the correlation between habitat, ecosystem services, culture including language, natural resources and their collective impact on community livelihoods in terms of food security and nutrition and energy needs in the face of climate change,” Kaya says.

He called for research and documentation of African cultural and ecological histories, including indicators of natural early warning systems and innovative adaptation strategies to climate variability and change,

“This will provide a clear and broad conceptualization of climate change and variability in the African context across time. It will also provide foundation for devising policy strategies which are culturally and ecologically specific. It will also identify IKS-based commonalities in ecologically and culturally comparable zones for climate change policy development and implementation,” he said.

Prof Joseph Matowanyika, the Director of Indigenous of the Knowledge Systems, Environment and Lifelong Learning Department, Chihonyi University of Technology, Zimbabwe says the history of how African countries are inter-related through the river systems is useful.

“The whole of African is connected by its river systems. When we work with experts in IKS, we will be able to minimise conflicts among countries and be able to produce enough food for all of us,” he says.