A farmer in the high-altitude side of Bomet, Katam had planted high-yielding highland maize varieties, which require plenty of water. But that season turned out to be one of the driest, and most of his crops failed.
2018, Predicting a similar scenario at the beginning of this year, the farmer from Matarmat Village switched to Katumani, fast-maturing and drought-tolerant varieties which achieve good yields with little rain.
With the Katumani seeds, Katam knew he was safe, and that a bumper harvest would soon follow. Unfortunately, the prolonged drought was followed immediately by heavy rains, which stunted his crop.
So once again he has found himself in the middle of yet another massive crop failure. He is now contemplating switching to tea.
Without proper early warning systems or weather information, most smallholder farmers find themselves in trouble thanks to unpredictable climatic conditions, which forces them to keep switching crops r just to survive.
But as weather conditions become increasingly erratic, this category of farmers and economies which rely on agriculture will more likely to be pushed to the brink of poverty as they lose acres of crops and livestock to unforgiving conditions.
The Climate Change Exposure Index (CCEI) released in 2016 by risk analytics firm Verisk Maplecroft indicated that for those who rely on rainfall, the physical risks posed by climate change are “high” or “extreme” sometimes up to 85 per cent — leaving their economies vulnerable to shocks and a disrupted food supply chain.
Last year, for instance, the government spent a staggering Sh245.3 billion on food and beverage imports to contain a looming food crisis at the height of a prolonged severe drought.
And while prolonged drought makes crops wilt, the consequences of heavy rains are just as severe, or even worse, because farms get flooded or crops get swept away, while tens of homes and property are also destroyed.
Patrick Mwangi, a tomato farmer in Narok County, spent at least Sh1.4 million at the beginning of the year planting the crop on his seven-acre piece of land.
In Narok East, where tomato farming is popular, the crop is grown mainly along river banks under open-field irrigation.
So Mwangi and othe farmers in Olektukat in Narok East were preparing for a bumper harvest in April when all hell broke loose. The farms become water logged. The tomato fruits were immersed in the floodwaters and began rotting while the plants started wilting.
“Ile yote unaona n’gombe wanakula ni nyanya, Hiyo shamba iliharibiwa yote na maji…mwenyewe alikasirika akawachana nayo ikakuwa ni grazing field (See what those cows are eating? They’re tomatoes. That whole farm was damaged by floodwater. The owner was extremely disappointed and abandoned it. It has now became pastureland),” explained Mwangi.
After his dismayed neighbour abandoned his seven-acre farm with tomatoes worth Sh2 million, cattle herders drove their herds there.
The destruction of the tomato farms saw tomato supplies decline across the country, pushing the commodity price from Sh4,500 to Sh11,000 per crate.
But Mwangi refused to give up.
“Although I might not recoup my capital, I’m sure I can get something little from here, so I go through the farm and pick tomatoes that I can still take to the market,” he said.
To add to the farmer’s troubles is the problem of impassable roads.
One day, the farmer recalled, he brought a lorry to ferry the produce to Narok Market about 30 kilometres away. But no sooner were they done loading the truck than it began raining heavily.
The truck had to remain at the farm for the next four days — with the perishable commodities already packed — as they waited for the water to drain and so that they could use the road.
“Every morning we had to unload and air the tomatoes in the open to minimise rotting. Unfortunately, more than half went bad” he recalled.
Mzee Topoika Koila, who grows barley, wheat, and potatoes in Mau Naro, says has not witnessed anything so devastating in his 17 years as a farmer.
“More than 300 acres of wheat and barley are going to waste on the farm due to cold and frost. I also have more than 30 acres of potatoes but the tubers are rotting on the farm due to the rains, which have caused flooding on the farm,” he said.
Koila, who insured his barley against the vagaries of weather, now wishes he had insured his other crops as well.
While the recent rains plunged thousands of farmers into acute financial distress, it has at the same time thrown the entire country into a dire food scarcity situation.
The National Economic Survey 2018 report released last month by the National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) estimated that farmers lost more than 1.9 million tonnes of food last year as they struggled to manage, store, and transport their produce to market. Other produce went to waste due to poor storage and handling, transport, and fungal attacks or aflatoxin contamination, the report said.
And for a country where food worth Sh150 billion was wasted last year, going the same route for another season can be tragic.
In Narok County, a region known for potato farming, large-scale potato, barley wheat and maize farmers remain pessimistic of any meaningful returns from the soil. In some areas, farmers had to delay planting due to excessive rains.
“As traders, we cannot find enough tomatoes even though we are offering what we were offering in April,” revealed Joel Olesoit, a tomato trader in Narok.
Maimuna Kabatesi, a climate and renewable energy expert at Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries (Hivos), says that farmers have been severely hit by climate change in recent years without them doing they are wrestling climate change impacts.
In the past, she notes, farmers could predict weather patterns, which enabled them to plan effectively, but this is no longer the case. As a result, they get less produce from their livestock and land.
Two years ago, the country passed the Climate Change Act 2016, which the expert says is very critical for smallholder farmers and social entrepreneurs working around climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Mr Peter Odhengo, a senior policy adviser at the national Treasury on climate finance, explained that the act makes provisions for the establishment of climate change funds to support the mitigation, adaptation and creation of an enabling environment for resource mobilisation. The policy also supports scientists and researchers to come up with new technologies to help farmers respond to climate change impacts.
“The fund covers activities aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and financing the construction of climate-proof structures besides supporting all other climate change-sensitive sectors,” he explained.
The Climate Change Act, which is under implementation, has been localised. In addition, legislation on climate change funding at the county level has been passed by five of the 47 counties, namely Isiolo, Wajir, Garissa, Makueni and Kitui.
Ms Kabatesi says the document addresses the issues around building farmers’ resilience to deal with adverse weather mitigate its effects.
“International climate finance, which in the Act enables national and county governments access to funds to support, among other things, technology transfer, capacity building of the farmers to enhance their awareness, for instance, of relevant meteorological data or new seed varieties which are climate resilient,” she said.
However, it does not compensate farmers for the losses they incur due to extreme weather patterns such as prolonged drought or flooding, she added.
At the moment, farmers need to insure their crops through climate-specific insurance schemes to protect themselves, Ms Kabatesi points out.
“The issue of climate change compensation — also known as loss and damage — has been a huge debate at climate change summits since developed countries, whichare the biggest polluters, do not want to pay for the losses and damages attributed to climate change,” she added.