Relying on rainfall: How one community in Kenya is affected by climate change

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Lydia and her husband at their small shop. Lydia relies on rain-fed agriculture to support her family, a livelihood that has become increasingly fragile with the growing effects of climate change. © Ezra Millstein for Mercy Corps

When farmers and business owners in Kenya see rain clouds, they see income potential.

When they don’t see rain clouds, they see insecurity and loss.

These days, the rain clouds are rare. The loss is not.

Communities in Kenya, and around the world, are already bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change in their everyday lives.

And, to make matters worse, those same communities — some of the poorest in the world — often contribute to climate change the least.

Our AgriFin program is designed to help those communities. It empowers farmers all over the world by connecting them with innovative solutions to the pressing issues small farmers face, including climate change.

DigiFarm, a mobile farming platform that helps farmers get the most out of their crops each season, is one of those innovative solutions. DigiFarm provides farmers with critical resources like accurate weather information, soil testing and other key programs for optimizing crop management.

Lydia, 35, farmer

Lydia originally started farming in 2015 as a means of feeding her family.

In the past four years, farming has evolved into an additional source of income.

Lydia relies on farming to bring her the stability and security she needs as she works and raises four children. With support from Mercy Corps’ AgriFin program, she’s been able to increase her crop yield, buy livestock and insure her seeds in case they don’t produce crops.

In the two years she’s been using DigiFarm, she’s been able to get support for her farm in a wide range of areas, including veterinary advice for her livestock.

“There is information about medicine for animals. Learning about animal diseases,” says Lydia. “There are questions you send whereby if you don’t know the vaccine to use you are told, and so it is benefitting us. There is also this service of soil testing to know the right fertilizer to use and the right crops for the land.”

In addition to veterinary advice, Lydia and other local farmers receive advice on what kind of seeds to plant through the DigiFarm platform. Local seeds can often be low in quality and produce no crops when faced with inconsistent rainfall. DigiFarm certified seeds still struggle due to low or inconsistent rainfall — but produce more yield than local seeds, Lydia says.

With support from DigiFarm, Lydia was able to make her first livestock purchase, a brown and white goat that can provide milk for her and her family.

Good crop yields and sufficient rainfall mean that a better life is within reach for everyone in the community. Families are fed. Communities live in peace. They’re healthy. Children get the quality education they deserve and can build a better future for themselves. Life is good.

“It is very important to get quality education because the world is changing. If you’ll not have quality education then you’ll have no job,” Lydia says. “So I need them to get a high-quality education through the farming because I have nowhere to get the money from.”

When there isn’t enough rainfall, however, she, her family and her community suffer. Interpersonal relationships in the community and surrounding areas suffer. Diseases spread with ease. Growing children lose weight. Families skip meals. The overall quality of life decreases substantially.

For Lydia and her family, DigiFarm is a lifeline. If her crops dry up, her seed insurance will ensure that she doesn’t lose any income because of something she can’t control, which is especially important.

With the additional income she’s earned through DigiFarm, she’s been able to expand her business and open a stock shop, which she runs with her husband.

Matheka, 57, farmer

Matheka, another small farmer in Kenya, is also facing the growing reality and effects of climate change — both on his farm and his community.

He’s been farming for over 30 years and uses it as a way to support his family, along with his work as a researcher. He chose farming as a means to support his family because the weather was reliable and consistent, which led to him harvesting an abundance of crops. Every season he could expect 10 bags of cowpeas, 100 bags of maize, 20 to 30 bags of pigeon peas and more. He could take them to market and sell them in order to support his family.

Things have changed since then. Because of erratic rainfall, Matheka’s crop yields have been suffering.

“Now we don't make as much because of the weather,” he says. “The weather has been so unpredictable, erratic rains, very unreliable. So on account of that, farming is not very reliable. ... So, the day is determined by the weather.”

Raising livestock has become unreliable, too. Land is required for both raising crops and livestock to feed. Without healthy, fertile land for livestock — which provide the farm with meat, milk and farmland maintenance — to graze on, there can be severe consequences.

“But as time went on, since the climate change came, things are not as before,” Matheka says. “We cannot keep a large number of animals because there is not enough feed. Also from the fields where we normally farm, we cannot get as much as we used to get, and we cannot access more production because of the climate impact.”

There’s a lot on the line when it comes to climate change, especially for small farmers like Matheka. If climate change continues unmitigated, Matheka’s children and their futures will be affected. They too will struggle with raising livestock. They might not be able to farm at all. Education might be out of reach.

“I have a fear [that] if it continues for long, things may not be that good,” Matheka says. “Because maybe people will not be able to get an education. They may not be able to live a standard life. Maybe they're not be able to construct a good shelter.”

Through DigiFarm, Matheka has been able to build resilience and empowerment in the face of climate change. He got DigiFarm certified sunflower seeds and grew a successful crop of a plant he had never grown before. After harvesting, he was able to use DigiFarm to find a local market to sell his crops at without fear of exploitation from local buyers.

The stability DigiFarm provides, in the form of consistent access to reliable information, access to supplies and food for livestock and opportunities to make a secure income, makes him more optimistic for the future. It keeps him moving forward and to survive, you have to keep moving forward, Matheka says.

Peter, 60, agricultural supply store owner

Dr. Peter isn’t a farmer. He’s the owner of a store that sells agricultural and veterinary supplies — and a pharmacist. But he also feels the effects of a changing climate.

Peter works out of his store’s second location, which he was able to open with help from DigiFarm.

He began selling DigiFarm products at his store and saw rapid sales. Farmers were interested in products that would help them increase their crop yield, give them access to tools that will help them use better farming practices, and more.

“This being a new shop, and with the branding of DigiFarm and with the curiosity of the farmers, they came to see what it is, they came as customers, and they became instant customers,” Peter says.

As a supplier of such important resources, Peter plays a key role in his community. Agriculture is how the majority of people in his community make a living, and the supplies he sells at his store help make their work possible.

“[The supplies] are important because they are the inputs for the production of what they live on, their livelihood,” he says. “Here we live on farming. There are no other activities. It’s either farming, agriculture, crops or livestock. That’s the business here. ”

Support from DigiFarm has helped Peter’s business become more stable. He no longer has to buy goods for his store on credit and can buy stock for his store upfront, without stress or worrying about paying anything off.

Peter is hopeful that the support he and his neighbors have received from DigiFarm will continue to bring a positive change to his community. When people are supported and have the ability to make a stable income, crime is reduced, people are busy and focused on making a living for themselves and their families, Peter says.

Still, Peter’s business is beginning to feel the effects of climate change. While farmers like Matheka and Lydia are impacted through loss of crops, Peter is impacted through the loss of sales of agricultural supplies.

“The rains are poor. They fail, they come and we bear that,” he says.

Rainfall is what fuels businesses in Kenya. Peter and his neighbors work around the lack of rain by farming, harvesting and selling crops that are less likely to be affected by climate change, like hay.

“Somehow we have to cope, because we are here to stay,” he says. “We have to invest for the bad weather.”

While programs like DigiFarm are helping lessen the effects of erratic rainfall, more work needs to be done in order to help those experiencing the very real consequences of climate change.

Climate change is no longer a distant worry for Lydia, Matheka and Peter. It’s here and it’s now. Farmers — and the business owners who support them — are disproportionately affected by the growing climate crisis, and while other countries are working to slow climate change, they need support now as they experience the impacts of a warming planet. If they go without support, their businesses, families and lives can be in jeopardy.