An arid lands program takes root
In 2006, a group of nongovernmental organizations, funded by a grant from the Global Environment Facility, Norway and the Netherlands, chose Sakai to test measures that would alleviate today's current climate stresses. They also recruited Mbuvi, who works with Kenya's World Bank-funded arid lands program, to help. Since then, farming practices there have changed dramatically.
Agricultural extension officers now offer seasonal and locally relevant climate predictions explained in simple terms in Kikamba, the regional tribal language. They are now producing a handbook to translate weather predictions into practical advice about what and when to plant.
Selecting a maize variety is important, Mbuvi said. If rains are not plentiful, there are seeds with a 90-day growing cycle, for example, that might survive where higher-yielding 130-day varieties would not.
The project has also helped farmers set up a seed bank. A group of about 40 men will collect, process and preserve the best local seeds and loan them out again during the next planting season, slowly selecting for the best climate-adapted varieties. Now, farmers can circumvent the expensive seed market, where they can't even tell if they are getting the seed varieties they are paying for.
A total reliance on maize also is a big part of the current problems. More often, now, Sakai's farmers are hedging their bets. Increasingly, they are diversifying their crops by planting more drought-tolerant grains, peas and beans.
Crop diversification and seeding small businesses
They are also producing income that isn't linked to the rain cycles. One-thousand-dollar loans were made to groups of women who have started small businesses: an egg hatchery, a paraffin shop and even a small lending bank. The bank's loans helped families pay for emergency health care and food purchases during the drought.
"It is a way of diversification, so we are not just relying on farm income," one of the women said.
Gilbert Ouma, a University of Nairobi climate researcher who is part of the project's team, said that the actions that might prove to be the most important for long-term climate adaptation are also the most expensive, however.
For more than $20,000 each, three sand dams -- partial stream blockades that filter and store rainwater for later use -- have supplied drinking water for villagers and livestock during the drought. Before they were installed, Sakai women might walk two hours to fetch water from streams that later dried up. The plan is to next install small drip-irrigation systems that will use some water for the farms.
Now, as the U.N. funds wind down, the arid lands program's drought managers are expanding the Sakai project to weave scientific climate forecasts and adaptation strategies into their work across the country.
Experts say the next phase of scaling up to national-level policies is critical. "Climate change is a long-term phenomenon. It's not going to be solved by a project that goes only for a few years," said Ephraim Nkonya, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. He is critical of many climate projects that do just this.
More broadly, development experts say, Sakai's experience illustrates two forces at work as Africa strives to increase food security and reduce rural poverty.
One side goes like this: Short-term climate adaptation needs to be woven into development work in poor nations and, in the end, isn't always distinguishable from other poverty reduction goals.
The work in Sakai, for example, has demonstrated how far some agricultural education, better outreach and low-level investment in water infrastructure can go in improving rain-dependent farmers' crop yields and cushioning against climate variability.