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Time is ripe to predict drought to help African farmers 0

The scorching heat of Kenya’s south coast is causing nightmares to many farmers. Just two months ago, after the rains arrived, Kenya’s south coast was lush with green scenery. The maize fields were thriving and the tomatoes and bell peppers were flourishing. Farmers were happy and looking forward to a bumper harvest.

Today, however, the green is gone, the maize is withered and the situation is grim.  A drought is looming.  Even the drought-tolerant crops such as Syngenta’s Kilele F1 tomato variety and amaranth greens are being affected by the extreme heat.  The farmers are asking themselves hard questions about what they could have done differently to avoid losing their crops.

The farmers at the Kenyan south coast are not alone. Drought is ravaging crops and destroying harvests in countries across Africa and Asia [1].  In Malawi, as many as 6.5 million people are in dire need of food aid as a result. According to the World Food Programme, the number of people expected to need food aid by the end of the year in southern Africa alone is 14.1 million. [2]

Where we are failing? What can farmers, governments and non-governmental organisations do differently to cope with recurring droughts, and ultimately mitigate the effects of climate change?

Measures againts drought

Many countries are already taking active measures to cope with drought. For instance, the government Kenya has established a National Drought Management Authority — a specialised institution to ensure coordinated, high-quality interventions and generate credible early warning information. [3] In Malawi, the government has implemented disaster forecasting and risk modelling measures — efforts aimed at reducing the impact of drought and other natural disasters. [4]

At the same time, there are increasing collaborations to promote so-called “climate-smart” agriculture that can improve farmers’ resilience to climate change over the long term.

In my hometown of Mabafweni in Kwale County on the Kenyan coast, my brother and our neighbours are planting amaranth greens — a drought-tolerant crop. Many smallholder farmers have also diversified their crops in hopes that some of the crops will survive. Also, smallholder farmers are using mobile phone-based technology to obtain weather data, helping them to sow, fertilise and harvest crops at the optimum time.

Predicting drought

Yet, even with such changes, farmers still feel the dire consequences of drought and a changing climate.  But one underutilised strategy could serve them well.

It is predictive data: using historical data to predict the future.  Sophisticated algorithms and statistical techniques such as machine learning and predictive modelling come into play to analyse data related to rainfall patterns, land temperature and other factors.

Predictive data analysis could help determine where drought, floods and other impacts of climate change are most likely to happen, enabling governments and their partners to prepare and mitigate the impacts of the predicted disasters on vulnerable populations.

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By Esther Ngumbi

Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama, United States. She serves as a 2015 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. She can be contacted at

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