Information Is Power

Today I want to tell you the story of a brilliant initiative that Christian Aid ran between 2014 and 2016 in Kenya. It's a really great example of an elegantly simple solution to a complex and seemingly insurmountable problem.

Kenya continues to suffer from the ravages of climate change. To be blunt, its weather can be chaotic, unpredictable and entirely contradictory. For example, although scientists think that global changes to the climate will mean there will be more rainfall overall, research has also shown a link between a warming Indian Ocean and a decline in rainfall during the main, long rainy season. When it does rain, it actually rains much harder than it would normally. That's a problem because farmers rely on that season's historically consistent rainfall to grow crops.

Add to that a rise in temperature (up 1C since 1960 and projected to increase by a further 1-2.8oC by 2060) and you're looking at a farmers nightmare. It's either raining so hard the soil is getting washed away or it's so dry and so hot that everything becomes desiccated and dies.

Not ideal.

There's a crop-growing sweet spot in between those two extremes and in the past farmers used signs from nature to predict them but these are becoming increasingly unreliable.

Truphena Ireri is a mother of three who lived in the Mbeere district in eastern Kenya. She told us, "When there is poor judgement of the weather and we find ourselves in crisis – the crops have dried up because the weather was poorly judged or there was no information – it becomes very painful and frustrating for a mother or for a family, looking at the children looking at you and you’ve got nothing to offer to them.

We’ve learnt that there are a lot of changes in the climate. There isn’t enough rain for us. It was there before; now it is getting hotter and drier than it used to be, with erratic rainfall. You cannot predict it."

So, like I said - big problems, catastrophic consequences and all the traditional solutions were being rendered invalid by climate change. What to do?

Enter a rockstar organisation called Christian Community Services Mount Kenya East (CCSMKE). They had a brilliantly simple idea. One of those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments.

'Why don’t we text people the weather forecast?'

That was their plan in a nutshell: they combined detailed scientific forecasting with mobile-phone technology, enabling farmers to make better-informed decisions about what and when to plant, boosting their crop yields. It was a no-brainer - over 80% of farmers already had an SMS capable handset. The infrastructure was already there.

Jimmy Wetindi, part of our Christian Aid team in Nairobi (who support CCSMKE), explained further:

“We decided to get tailor made information from the Kenyan Meteorological Department and then disperse this information to the farmers on the ground”

Of course there was a little more to it than that - texts needed to be carefully abbreviated and translated into local dialects, new farming techniques were taught and new hardier crops planted, we even installed ‘booster’ telephone masts to keep the signal strong. But at its core, that original idea held true - give ‘em a text.

And we did. Soon, over 3000 farmers benefited from our messaging service - each one receiving detailed and specific information tailored to them.

By the end of the initiative in 2015 we estimated that the impact of the project had yielded:

  • A 66% increase in land-use by farmers
  • Increase in crop yields by nearly a third
  • A 25% increase in farmers’ incomes.

Which is pretty impressive if we do say so ourselves. In fact it was so successful that the initiative was scaled up and now works across three additional counties in Kenya.

Truphena Ireri told us it had empowered her and her community.

“We have been enlightened more on climate change and the ways to cope. When we wake up we think about what we plant, when we should plant it, and how we plant.

The hope of tomorrow – today may be bad, but there is tomorrow to live.”