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Technology is helping Kenya’s herders adapt to climate change

Weather forecasts are sent as text messages, so they are compatible with basic phones

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Technology is helping Kenya's herders adapt to climate change
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For generations, Kaltuma Hassan’s clan would study the sky over Kenya’s arid north for any sign of rain — some wind here, a wisp of cloud there — to guide their parched livestock to water.

But such divination has been rendered hopeless by intensifying droughts. Days on foot can reveal nothing more than bone-dry riverbeds and grazing land baked to dust, sounding the death knell for their herd.

“You might go a long distance, and they die on the way… It is a very hard life,” Hassan told AFP in Marsabit, a sparse and drought-prone expanse where millions of pastoral families depend entirely on livestock to survive.

Today, she leaves less to chance.

The 42-year-old relies on detailed rainfall forecasts received via text message from a Kenyan tech firm to plan her migrations, a simple but life-changing resource for an ancient community learning to adapt to increasing weather extremes.

Nomadic livestock herders in East Africa’s drylands have endured climate variability for millennia, driving their relentless search for water and pasture in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain.

But their resilience is being severely tested by climate change, forcing a rethink to traditional wisdom passed down for generations.

Kenya endures a severe drought every three to five years, the World Bank says, but they are increasing in frequency and intensity, and temperatures are rising too.

With conditions ever-more unreliable, Hassan no longer relies on warriors she once dispatched to scout for suitable grazing land for her cattle.

“They wake up very early in the morning and they look at the clouds, they look at the moon, to predict. I use this now,” she said, scrolling through customised weather updates on her phone, sent via SMS in Rendille, a local language.

The service uses advanced weather data from US agricultural intelligence firm aWhere to provide subscribers with rain and forage conditions for the week ahead in their locality.

The forecasts are sent as text messages, so they are compatible with basic phones often used by pastoralists in remote areas.

Kenyan IT firm Amfratech, which launched the SMS service earlier this year, has also rolled out a more advanced app-based version. They hope to eventually sign up tens of thousands of pastoralists.

Dry skies

Rainfall — the difference between feast and famine in East Africa and the Horn — is more erratic than ever, arriving late or not at all.

A long dry spell can set a pastoral family back years and erode their capacity to handle future shocks, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in a 2018 report. 

A second blow in quick succession can leave them teetering on starvation.

Such a crisis is already brewing in Kenya’s pastoral country to the north and over its borders in neighbouring arid regions.

This year’s so-called long rains failed to arrive, putting millions at risk. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network has warned that hunger in pastoral areas will worsen in coming months.

“It doesn’t rain like it once did,” said Nandura Pokodo, at a dusty livestock market in Merille, an outpost in Kenya’s northern pastoralist heartland. Nobody wants his drought-weary animals, so he will return home empty-handed.

“It’s harder to find pasture… year after year.”

As the rains failed, Pokodo, 55, wandered for days between March and April in search of grazing land but found nothing. He lost 20 goats and sheep — a ruinous outcome for nomads whose fortunes are intertwined with their beasts.

“Even if you have a million shillings but have no goats or sheep or camel, they consider you very poor,” said Daniel Kapana, the head of Merille market, and an intergenerational herder himself.

Turn to technology

The text messages have also helped Samuel Lkiangis Lekorima protect not just his livestock, but the safety of his community.

Longer, harsher droughts have stoked intense competition between pastoralists for ever-scarcer water and pasture. A feud between two groups over a watering hole near Ethiopia left 11 dead in May, local media reported.

Lekorima, a 22-year-old herder from Marsabit, said advance knowledge of rainfall helped keep his people wandering far, and avoid any potential tensions with distant clans.

“When I get that message, I phone people (and) tell them… don’t go far away, because there is rain soon,” he told AFP.

Other modern interventions are also playing a part, helping protect not just pastoralists but a sector that contributes more than 12 percent to Kenya’s GDP, according to the World Bank.

The Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute uses satellite imagery to determine when pasture levels are critically low — a portent of livestock death.

Some insurance products are linked to this index and issue payments before drought hits, so pastoralists can buy enough fodder for lean times ahead. Tens of thousands of herders have signed up, industry groups say.

“A drought should no longer be an emergency,” said Thomas Were, of CTA, an EU-funded institution that is driving a pastoralist-resilience project in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Helima Osman Bidu, a traditional herder and mother-of-three, has joined a women’s collective that invests in non-livestock related enterprises, another approach to drought-proofing the family finances.

“It is good to have something on the side,” she told AFP, nodding to a padlocked metal box nearby containing the group’s seed money.

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Africa News & Updates

Health minister issues Ebola threat alert in Tanzania

Tanzania’s northwestern Kagera, Mwanza and Kigoma regions are most at risk.

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Health workers stand at a non-gazetted crossing point in the Mirami village, near the Mpondwe border as Tanzania issues Ebola threat alert

Tanzania’s health minister issued an Ebola ‘alert’ Sunday after the disease, which has killed over 1,400 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, appeared in their shared neighbour, Uganda. “I want to alert the public that there is the threat of an Ebola epidemic in our country,” Ummy Mwalimu tweeted days after officials confirmed that members of a family who had travelled to the DRC had died in western Uganda.

The minister said the alert was necessary given the frequent interactions between Tanzanian and Ugandan people “via the official borders or by other, unofficial channels.” Tanzania’s northwestern Kagera, Mwanza and Kigoma regions were most at risk, said Mwalimu. But “given that this disease transmits very easily and very quickly from one person to another, nearly the entire country is in danger.”

The minister began a tour of the frontier regions on Saturday to assess the measures in place at ports and border posts to deal with potential incoming Ebola cases. The country has not yet been touched by the often fatal viral disease that causes violent vomiting and diarrhoea, impairs kidney and liver function, and sometimes internal and external bleeding.

Ebola spreads among humans through close contact with the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of an infected person, or objects contaminated by such fluids. The current outbreak in the DRC is the worst on record after an epidemic that struck mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone between 2014-2016, killing more than 11,300 people.

On Friday, the World Health Organization said the outbreak does not yet warrant being declared a “public health emergency of international concern”, meaning it would require a “coordinated international response”.The UN body declares public health emergencies when a disease outbreak in a country risks spreading beyond its borders.

Two members of a Ugandan family, a woman and her five-year-old grandson died of Ebola this week after travelling to the DRC to take care of a dying family member and attend the funeral. The boy’s brother, aged three, is also infected, and several family members are in isolation. To date, no locally-acquired Ebola cases have been reported in Uganda.

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East Africa News & Stories

Militant group kill nine civilians in Somalia

The victims were rounded up from the streets or their homes and then shot dead on the outskirts of Galkayo

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Militant group kill nine civilians in Somalia

Nine civilians were executed by a local militia in Somalia after the killing of a policeman by the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, police said Saturday.

The revenge attack on Friday just outside Galkayo – one of the most developed cities in the centre of the country – targeted the Rahanweyn clan, several of whose members are suspected of being Shabaab fighters.

“This was a horrible incident, a gruesome killing against nine unarmed innocent civilians in southern Galkayo. All of the civilians belong to one clan and the gunmen shot them dead in one location a few minutes after suspected Shabaab gunmen killed” a policeman, Mohamed Abdirahman, a local police official said.

“This is an unacceptable act and we will bring those perpetrators to justice,” said Hussein Dini, a traditional elder. 

“Their killing cannot be justified. It seems that the merciless gunmen were retaliating for the security official who they believe was killed by Al-Shabaab gunmen belonging to the clan of the victims.”

Witnesses told local media that the victims were rounded up from the streets or their homes and then shot dead on the outskirts of Galkayo.

Local officials have in the past fingered the Rahanweyn clan for fomenting instability in the region and supplying fighters to the Shabaab.

The local militia which staged the revenge attack are from the Saad Habargidir, a sub-clan of the Hawiye group which is dominant in the southern part of the city. 

Galkayo, situated about 600 kilometres (380 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu, straddles the frontier with the self-proclaimed autonomous regions of Puntland and Galmudug. 

The city has been the scene of violent clashes between forces of the two regions in recent years and also witnessed violence between the two rival clans occupying its northern and southern districts.

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Africa News & Updates

Inside Kenya’s Sh 3.02 trillion 2019/ 20 budget

There is an estimated deficit of Sh 607.8 billion, an increase from Sh 562 billion this financial year

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Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich leaves with the budget briefcase for Parliament to read

Kenya’s 2019/20 budget will be the seventh under the country’s jubilee administration. Its National government plans to spend Sh 3.02 trillion, about 10 billion higher than the current (2018/19) budget.

There is an estimated deficit of Sh 607.8 billion, an increase from Sh 562 billion this financial year. The government is likely to borrow more in the next fiscal year to bridge the deficit as Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) is expected to miss this year’s revenue collection target by Sh 118 billion.

Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich (C) poses with the budget briefcase before leaving for Parliament
Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich (C) poses with the budget briefcase before leaving for Parliament to read the budget speech for 2018-2019 in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 14, 2018. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

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Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, has set a revenue target of Sh 2.2 trillion while KRA is expected to collect approximately Sh 1.9 trillion. Experts say the government might also heighten the tax regime to fill this budget deficit.

In the 2018/2019 financial year, the government was forced to introduce stringent tax measures to raise funds to support the budget.

This year, the government will likely raise Value Added Tax (VAT) from the current 16 per cent and Capital Gains Tax, which targets the wealthy. The betting industry will also be targeted.

Raising the VAT will contribute to a high cost of living as prices of basic goods such as food will go up. According to the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), Kenya’s public debt stands at Sh 5.4 trillion.

In the financial year beginning July 1, 2019 Kenya will spend Sh 800 billion to repay maturing loans mostly owed to foreign lenders.

The budget as a share of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to decline to 28.1 per cent, from 32.4 per cent in 2018/19 financial year, a 4.2 per cent drop.

According to the Budget and Appropriation Committee, Sh 2.45 trillion will be allocated to the three arms of government, a slight increase from Sh 2.23 trillion in 2018/19 financial year.

Kenya budget: Kenya's National Treasury building is pictured in Nairobi
Kenya’s National Treasury building is pictured in Nairobi on June 14, 2018. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Related: Kenyans protest bid to build East Africa’s first coal plant

The country’s judiciary remains the least funded of the three arms of government having been allocated Sh 18.88 billion. The Executive and Parliament have been allotted Sh 1.84 trillion and Sh 43.78 respectively.

In the past financial years, the Education sector has always received the lion’s share of the budget, likewise Sh 473.3 billion has been allocated to the sector; followed by Energy, Infrastructure and ICT which have been allocated a combined budget of Sh 406.7 billion.

Rotich’s budget today will crown the total Jubilee administrations ambitious spending to Sh 13 trillion over eight years against total tax collections of less than Sh 8 trillion over the same period.

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