HIGH AND DRY: Climate change will worsen Kenya's already tough food security challenges, experts predict. The World Bank estimates that African agricultural output could fall by 16 percent by 2080. Image: United States Agency for International Development
SAKAI, Kenya -- No one complained that the rains were late when they watered the parched hills and muddied the roads here in December. Normally, they would have begun weeks earlier.
Villagers were grateful the rain had come at all.
"God is great. After these two seasons of the worst drought, now there is something in the fields," proclaimed Daniel Muthembwa, 76, an elder in this small farming community, a three-hour drive on winding roads from Nairobi. Around him, cornstalks dotted the green slopes and promised relief from the worst dry spell he could remember. Never had two seasons' crops and three years of rains failed so completely, he said.
"Normal" has little meaning in Sakai today. Kenya is struggling to emerge from a drought that put 4 million on food aid last year and saw at least 10 million facing starvation, the highest levels in two decades, according to one report. And while dry spells are old hat in a nation dominated by an arid and semiarid climate, today rising global temperatures are ending what little predictability farmers could count on in the past.
Experts predict climate change will increase Kenya's already tough food security challenges. Its small landholding farmers feed most of the country and also make up most of its swelling poor population. By 2080, the World Bank estimates that African agricultural output could fall by 16 percent.
Recent drought periods have slashed Kenya's gross domestic product by 14 percent, for example. When both crops and livestock herds perished in droves last year, many Kenyans cut down trees to sell firewood or moved to cities in a desperate search for work. Food imports rose, hydroelectric power stagnated, trucks shipped emergency water supplies. Meanwhile, aid supplies were stretched thin.
In Sakai, however, residents have borne the recent hard times better than many neighbors. They credit a U.N.-funded small budget pilot program to buffer them against the shocks of growing climate uncertainty.
Corn remains king, but now it needs help
"Sakai is blessed because we have benefited from the project, even though things have not been good for us for the last three years," said Francis Mbithi Kimei, a farmer who leads the 120 families who were selected to participate.
Helping Sakai and much of Africa address their food woes starts with corn, or maize, as it's called here. It is the region's staple crop.
Corn is king in East Africa, a phenomenon shaped by global market demand and its colonial past. Kenyans now much prefer the taste of ugali, a cornmeal porridge that accompanies most meals, to traditional staples such as sorghum and millet. But corn is a thirsty, foreign crop that is more sensitive to East Africa's typical droughts than native grains.
Sakai's farmers deal with a host of impressive calculations and risks when planting corn on their overworked soils and cramped plots.
Buying seeds each season is a big and risky upfront expense for families who are eating one meal a day and earning maybe $200 at harvest time, according to Daniel Mbuvi, drought manager of Sakai's district area. Farmers only have one chance to time the planting right. If the rains fail to arrive on time, the crop dies, and with it, so does the bulk of their annual income.
This all wasn't so bad when climate patterns were more predictable. Village elders observed the flowering of the baobab tree or the flights of bees to tell them when to plant. Thirty years ago, there were two reliable rainy seasons in Sakai -- the short rains and the long rains. Over time, the latter has become so fickle in effect, the area only has about three growing months a year.
"Now people cannot now rely on these signs. They only used to work when the environment was ideal," said Kimei. In the meantime, villagers were skeptical and uncertain about how to use the government's more formal seasonal climate forecasts.