Going mobile: How phones have become a critical farming tool

10 Sep

When planting season arrives, Eleanor gathers what seeds she can find and hopes for the best. She gently places them in neat rows of crumbly red soil, using the same techniques her neighbours use, not really knowing if they’re correct. She listens to the radio, putting her faith in an unreliable forecast. And then she waits.

Around 75 percent of people in Kenya earn at least part of their income this way — from agriculture, including growing crops, raising animals and running related businesses. And the majority is small-scale, rain-fed agriculture, like Eleanor’s farm.

For her and millions of others, whether they can feed and provide for their families is tied directly to the success of their farm. But a host of systemic challenges have made this livelihood a dangerous gamble.

Poverty is high, with around half the population living on less than $1 per day, making supplies like fertiliser, pesticide, medicine, animal feed or other beneficial investments out of reach for many famers. In rural communities, where most farming takes place, the seeds available are often old, mislabelled or poor quality, and unlikely to produce to their full potential, if at all.

Additionally, there is usually not a market for farmers to sell what they have grown at a fair price.

Local weather and rainfall information, which establishes when farmers should plant, is chronically incorrect. And there is little to no access to formal agricultural instruction, meaning they rely on communal knowledge when determining what to plant, and how to prepare their land and treat their seeds — practices that may not be appropriate, but are all they have.

“Initially we would just do things locally without knowing whether we are doing it the right way or the wrong way,” Eleanor explains, of the conventional way of farming in her community. “We were just taking chances without really knowing what we were doing.”

And when it failed, her only recourse was acceptance — even if she lost everything. “There was very little I could do about that,” she says.

An unreliable livelihood complicated by climate change

Eleanor raises animals and grows sorghum, legumes, maize and cabbage to support her family, but recurring drought and a lack of access to accurate forecasts have made regular harvests impossible. “It’s difficult to prepare for the planting season,” she says.

On top of all this, Eleanor’s already-vulnerable way of life is being made more fragile by the effects of climate change.

“There used to be enough rainfall in the area, and the harvest used to be good and we could predict when the rains could come and [we should] start planting,” she says. "There is a lot of change between those times and now.”

Weather shocks — drought, extreme temperatures, flooding — have been happening at a more frequent and unpredictable pace, and five years of drought conditions across the country have destroyed crops, dried up animal pasture and fuelled hunger.

Eleanor remembers the worst of it, in the beginning, when the drought was so bad nearly all her animals starved to death, and her family had to survive on emergency food assistance from the government.

“During that period things were almost impossible for us,” she says. “I was getting desperate.”

Even today, after another poor rain earlier this year, the country has suffered a near total failure of its maize crops, a staple food source; an estimated 3.1 million people are expected to be food insecure by October; and fields across Eleanor’s community are parched and desolate.

When yields are low like this, “it means [people] have to reduce the number of meals they take in a day,” Eleanor says.

More frequent droughts are major setbacks for farmers like Eleanor, who have few resources to fall back on and often end up depleting their savings or investments to make ends meet until the next good rainfall.

As she walks her own dusty land, she points to the withered remains of a legume called green grams, row upon row of small, brown seedlings dried up at only a few inches tall.

These are the crops she would normally rely on to meet her family’s basic needs and pay her children’s school fees. Without the opportunity to earn that money, she traditionally has only two options to cope: make ends meet with a combination of other earning sources, like informal day labour, making bricks or migrating to another area for work; or sell off her assets, like land, animals or equipment, which means losing an investment and an important source of stability.

“It is a short-term solution to address the burning issue at that particular time,” Eleanor says.

Building livelihood security with technology

While Eleanor faces many of these same struggles year after year, one thing is different for her this season: her crops are insured.

Eleanor participates in Mercy Corps’ AgriFin programme, which uses mobile technology to provide farmers with services to improve their farms’ production and earn more income. Mobile phones are a common and critical form of connectivity for people around the world, including those in developing countries. In Kenya, almost 90 percent of adults report owning one, making the technology an effective way to reach farmers like Eleanor with resources they otherwise don’t have to strengthen their livelihoods and grow more food.

One resource offered through AgriFin is soil testing through a mobile platform called DigiFarm, with which farmers can learn how to optimize their land to grow more successful crops.

Through the programme, Eleanor can order seeds for a specific cash crop — something with a market demand to grow in a larger quantity — and sell the yield to a commercial buyer. The seeds are high quality and come automatically bundled with insurance so if the harvest fails, like it did this year, she doesn’t lose her investment and fall farther into hardship.

The seeds, and other supplies like fertiliser and animal feed, are stocked at local retailers so they are easy to access, and many can be purchased on loan if necessary, which is critical for farmers with few financial resources.

“I never knew that there were certified seeds suitable to this area, suitable to our climatic conditions,” Eleanor explains. “Now we have a place where we can get certified seeds at a fair price.”

The programme also offers soil testing, which Eleanor ordered to verify what crops are most suitable for her land, and SMS-based training, so she can use her phone to learn how to raise different crops and animals and build diversity in her production. Through a new partnership with NASA, the programme will also begin providing farmers with more accurate weather information so they can better prepare for the growing conditions ahead.

“Initially there were no such services,” Eleanor says. “[Now] knowledge has been imparted to us, and we can engage in the best agricultural practices.”

Helping farmers look forward

Ensuring farmers are able to successfully grow crops and raise animals is vital to helping communities around the world overcome poverty and hunger.

Last year, during a good rainy season, Eleanor purchased seeds to grow a new crop — sunflower — through AgriFin. Because the seeds were certified and she had guidance to grow them properly, she produced a successful harvest which she was then able to sell to a buyer identified by the programme.

The venture earned her enough income to pay her children’s school fees and start an emergency fund, something she couldn’t do before. “I was happy about it and I realised that [the programme] is a friend,” she says.

This year, because of the crop insurance, drought does not equal total loss for her for the first time ever.

“I have some hope that I will not lose everything, no matter the weather condition,” she says. “I am more comfortable … now. I don’t have worries.”

With this system of resources in place, farming can be an investment in the future — instead of a wager on it.

“Without the kind of information that I’m getting … I would be in a worse position,” Eleanor explains. “The farmers could be in a worse position.”

Already Eleanor says her family’s income and access to food has improved, and she’s looking forward to what else is possible. “Through the benefits I’m getting … [my] livelihood will improve and the children will be in a position to go to school regularly,” she says. “[AgriFin] is empowering us to gain new experiences.”

How to help

You are an important part of this progress. Our work helping farmers in Kenya and across the globe grow more food and build better lives is only possible because of caring individuals like you. With your support, our teams are able to reach more families with food and assistance, and help more communities learn how they can grow stronger for the future.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us support farmers around the world to build a stronger, healthier future.

  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to spread the word about the millions who need us.


Wild weather: How we’re helping Kenyans fight climate change

6 Jun

What should be a welcome change to the weather in Kenya — rain — has instead turned the country into a life-threatening disaster zone.

Rainfall so heavy it can’t be absorbed by the dry, compacted ground has pelted counties across the country since March, overflowing reservoirs and rivers and causing extreme flooding that has wiped away crops, livestock and, at times, people.

Around 330,000 people have been displaced from their homes and another 183 killed by the flooding; water sources have been contaminated, skyrocketing the risk of disease.

These inundating rains — rainfall four times the normal average — come on the heels of a devastating four-year drought. Just a few months ago, many of the counties worst hit by the floods, like Wajir, were barren wastelands, packed red-clay ground pocked with dry brown trees and animal carcasses.

That dry spell had disastrous effects of its own. It dried up water sources, caused widespread death and disease of livestock, fueled inter-community conflict as resources dwindled, and plunged 3.4 million people into hunger.

While the number of people facing food insecurity in Kenya has dropped slightly with the recent rainfall, with these fluctuating weather patterns one threat remains a constant: climate change.

The effects of climate change in Kenya

Salada, 30, provides for her family by raising livestock, a livelihood that can be made very fragile by weather shocks like drought and flood.

The effects of the changing climate are playing out across the globe. But as weather becomes more unpredictable and climate-fueled disasters become more frequent and intense, rural pastoralists like Salada, a mother of five in Wajir, feel it acutely.

“The weather has changed between now and when I was young,” Salada says. “There was much drought even in those days, but it didn’t last year in and year out. It wasn’t as continuous as it is now.”

A quarter of Kenya’s population lives in arid or semi-arid climate areas like Wajir, a pastoral region with an economy based on raising livestock.

These areas, which are prone to being dry and receiving little rainfall, are already vulnerable to poverty, underdevelopment, conflict and disease. Families in these fragile areas rely on animals or related businesses to survive, so unexpected shifts in the rains that provide water and feed can be debilitating, sapping food sources and income, destabilising communities and threatening future development.

The options pastoralists like Salada have to cope with these weather shocks are difficult and few in number. She makes her living solely by raising camels and selling their milk, but drought means limited food and water to keep animals healthy and maintain their productivity.

“If there is no milk, then there is nothing else for us to do,” Salada says. “There are no other items we can trade. … We have no option but to stay without work.”

Pastoralists traditionally rely on regular rains to provide water and fodder for their herds. When the rains are inconsistent, it can have devastating impacts on animals' health.

In these conditions, pastoralists are forced to travel long distances to find water, fodder or safe shelter. They face conflict over limited resources. They may skip meals. Or they may pull their children out of school to flee elsewhere or work to help the family survive.

In 2017, at least 175,000 children were out of school due to the drought alone — and the odds haven’t been made better by the recent onslaught of rain. The flooding has displaced over 127,000 children and damaged schools and learning materials for more than 2 million students.

Halima, a mother of six, shares Salada’s grief. She supports her family by operating a selling station where she distributes milk from local pastoralists, but the effects of climate change risk collapsing her business.

“The weather was good [when I was young],” Halima says. “Milk was in abundance.” Now, there are periods when animals’ productivity is low or pastoralists must move their herds to different areas, and Halima only collects a small fraction of the milk she used to, which affects her income and ability to provide for her children.

“Food is scarce now,” she says. “It’s possible that you won’t find food for a whole day and will go to sleep hungry.”

People in rural areas, like Halima, are chronically vulnerable to hunger. Even with the current rain, 2.6 million people in Kenya still don't have the food they need.

How we’re helping Kenyans adapt to climate change

Halima sits in front of the refrigerated milk dispenser she received from Mercy Corps, which has made it easier for her to earn stable income. The machine keeps milk cool and dispenses the amounts customers want into plastic bottles.

It’s increasingly important to help fragile agricultural families in Kenya and around the world adapt to changes in the weather patterns they’ve relied for decades. But this work requires more than individual interventions — it means strengthening whole systems, communities and resources affected by the climate.

In Wajir, Mercy Corps is working to strengthen the market system for camel milk, so people like Salada and Halima can earn more reliable income and not be so vulnerable to precarious weather.

In the past, the process of selling milk was problematic — the only way to transport it to market towns was a long public bus ride in the searing heat, which often spoiled the milk before it could be sold.

Mercy Corps has made this process more efficient by providing a van with a solar-powered cooler to replace the public bus. Milk from rural pastoralists is stored safely in the van until enough is collected to transport it to a larger market town.

Once in the market town, the milk is directly transported to sellers like Halima who, as part of the programme, received refrigerated milk dispensers to replace their previous selling stations. The milk is deposited in the dispensers and kept cool until customers come to purchase it.

Less waste of milk means more income for those involved in the process, which helps them support their families more consistently — and build resilience for times when production is lower.

Without these changes, “I would not have made it,” Halima says.

Because livestock is such an important livelihood in his community, Musa wants to ensure the land can support his children and their herds in the future. "If that's protected, my kids will continue," he says.

We’re also focused on helping communities better manage their natural resources, which can mitigate the effects of climate change and help ease tensions over reduced water and grazing land.

Musa, 36, has experienced chronic weather shocks and knows the resulting struggles too well. “There is widespread inter-clan conflict because of resources,” he explains. “When you are grazing an area it gets depleted, and you move to a different grazing area and find another clan living [there], you upset them. You have to fight to get access to those resources.”

He has also seen the way deforestation for firewood and building has exacerbated the effects of drought in his community in Wajir.

The awareness campaigns Mercy Corps conducted have helped them make changes that will help them better cope with future dry spells.

“Community attitude and behaviours toward natural resources have already changed,” Musa says. “People used to cut trees and use [them] for fencing their homes and for firewood. [Now] they are not cutting trees. They are only picking up dead trees.”

In Wajir, Ahmed works as a DJ at a local radio station that broadcasts weather and natural resource messages tailored for the region's pastoralists.

And because information can be lifesaving in fragile communities, we have partnered with a local radio station and developed Wajir Community Radio, a radio programme that broadcasts climate information.

With our support, the station has doubled its reach and communicates important messages about the weather, so pastoralists know when to move their herds, as well as information on natural resource management and gender equity.

“The importance of reaching a larger audience is that … they are pastoralists,” says Halima Kahiya, the station manager. “They have been affected by different climate changes. We need to tell them about all the climate information: When is it going to rain? Is it going to rain heavily? Will it be enough? What are they supposed to do?”

Combined, these interventions are meant to give families in rural Kenya access to knowledge and support that help them preserve their resources, prepare for upcoming weather and build futures that aren’t left to the whims of climate disasters.

“From my business, I pay the school fees for my children,” says Halima, from the kiosk where she has her milk dispenser. “Mercy Corps gave me this … and I believe it will bring us more good things.”

How you can help

Seven-year-old Hadiba's father co-owns the refrigerated van used to transport milk from rural areas to the market town. The more efficient process helps everyone involved earn steadier income to support their families during weather disasters.

Our work to help communities adapt and adjust to climate change challenges is only possible because of people like you. With your support, we are able to reach more families with assistance and help more people build stronger, more resilient and peaceful communities for tomorrow. Here’s how you can help:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us meet urgent food needs and help families around the world build a stronger, healthier future.

  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to spread the word about the millions who need us.


A hotter planet, a hungrier world

5 Jun

Ali, 49, taps his staff gently as he shepherds his goats across the dry ground near his home in rural Ethiopia. Drought has been hitting his area with more frequency and intensity these days, depleting water sources and baking the surrounding pasture into dust.

The air is hot, the land rocky and littered with animal bones — relics of livestock that couldn’t survive the extreme conditions. Ali has just walked 50 miles to find water and fodder for his herd. One-third of them starved to death along the way.

Nearby, Meftuha and her husband, Abdi, stare at the empty pond they once used for cooking, drinking and watering their animals. Because of the drought, Meftuha rises at 6 a.m. to begin the 5-hour walk to collect water from another area. She frequently faints of exhaustion, but she makes the journey every other day anyway. They have already lost four of their five oxen; they can’t afford to lose another.

As rural pastoralists, Ali, Meftuha and Abdi depend directly on the land for life: to grow food, to provide clean water, to keep their animals healthy and to earn money. But climate change has turned their livelihoods into a desperate guessing game, disrupting the rain they've trusted for decades to keep them alive.

How we're fighting hunger in Ethiopia ▸

Three out of every four poor people on earth rely solely on agriculture and natural resources to survive. For each of them, the effects of climate change aren’t just an inconvenience: they’re a matter of life and death.

And this painful reality isn’t isolated to Ethiopia. It’s happening on every continent across the globe — with particularly destructive consequences for the people who have the least ability to endure it.

A global threat that punishes the poor

Flooding, like that caused by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, can wipe away crops, homes and tools — but it can also contaminate clean water sources and spread disease, creating another layer of risk. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Hurricanes in Haiti. Flooding in Timor-Leste. Drought in Nigeria. Heatwaves in France. The impacts of climate change are playing out in warmer temperatures, erratic rains and unpredictable weather patterns that pummel nations around the world.

And they’re intensifying: The rate of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. The last drought in Ethiopia was the worst in 50 years. Nearly 90 percent of the 254 floods that struck Timor-Leste between 2002 and 2013 occurred in just the last four years. In 2015, China experienced 20 percent more natural disasters than its annual average over the previous decade.

Before we helped Mya, 57, learn how to conserve water and use better farming practices in Myanmar, she struggled to grow quality crops and earn enough income. Photo: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

“No one is safe, irrespective of region,” says Selvaraju Ramasamy, a climate change officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). “Climate change affects everybody.”

“In particular, the poorest are the ones suffering the hardest consequences of climate change, due to their extreme vulnerability and limited capacity to adapt.”

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, many fisherman like Niño lost their boats. When Niño realised his family’s means of survival was gone, he cried. “I have no money. I am poor and I can’t even work now,” he said. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps, 2013.

According to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, climate change kills an average of 400,000 people per year already, largely by climate-related hunger and disease. And that number is projected to increase to 632,000 by 2030. Eighty percent of these deaths are in low-income populations that have contributed little, if anything, to the warming of the globe.

The fight to survive the hunger gap in Niger ▸

In poor communities around the world, farmers increasingly toil under hotter conditions. Failed rains reduce food supply. Rivers dry up. Heat waves kill thousands at a time. Flooding wipes away crops, destroys soil and contaminates clean water supplies. Hurricanes raze homes and demolish fishing boats and tools. People lose their livelihoods. They become more vulnerable. They go hungry. They die.

Climate change and hunger

Around the world, farmers like Concy must find ways to grow reliable crops amidst a changing climate. In Uganda, we’ve introduced chia, which is easier to grow and harvest than other traditional seeds. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

This destruction has a major impact on food. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports climate change has already affected the global food supply, and threatens to decrease yields even more by 2050.

“The impacts of climate change on agriculture, and the implications for food security are alarming,” Ramasamy says. “In many regions, agriculture and food production are already being adversely affected by increased temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns.”

Wheat, a staple crop grown around the world — and one that is sensitive to heat — is one of the first to be affected. The IPCC projects wheat yields could drop 2 percent a decade going forward. Maize, another staple food in many developing countries, has already suffered negative impacts as well.

Fighting hunger in Uganda, one garden at a time ▸

“Farmers depend on certain seasonal patterns so they know when to plant and when to harvest,” says Eliot Levine, deputy director of Mercy Corps’ environment, energy and climate team. “But those conditions are changing rapidly. In many of the places Mercy Corps works, climate change is making historically more stable climate contexts much harder to predict.”

Farmers don’t know when to plant crops anymore. The rain comes later than it did the year before, or it’s more sporadic. Warmer temperatures mean a crop a farmer once relied on no longer grows in his fields, because it’s too hot for that crop to flourish.

Changing temperatures can affect the availability of diverse foods, like fruits and vegetables, which can have disastrous consequences on health and nutrition. And as supplies dip, prices increase, making it even more difficult for families to get what they need.

Extreme weather, like failed rain, storms or flooding, can also hurt or halt food production. FAO estimates more than a quarter of all damage caused by climate-related disasters in developing countries between 2006 and 2016 was to the agricultural sector.

In the worst cases, these events can completely destroy a person’s means of survival. The drought in Ethiopia? It killed up to 90 percent of crops in some places and at least 1 million cattle.

More than 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population relies on rain-fed agriculture, like farming, herding and connected trades, to survive. When the drought hit last year, Mohammed’s veterinary business, which serves herders, came to a standstill. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

“The drought has severely affected this area,” says Mohammed, 45, a local veterinarian. “We had to feed goats like we feed our children. There was no pasture, there was no farming, there was no foraging. Before the drought I had so many ambitions to increase my outlet, to increase my services and the area I operate. But due to the drought everything has stopped.”

In Ethiopia and elsewhere, livestock and crops are savings, sources of food and means of income. So when the drought wiped out a third of Ali’s cattle, it took a third of his entire livelihood with it.

That’s why, for vulnerable people like him, one failed crop or disaster can mean an immediate plunge further into poverty and closer to starvation. Most are already barely subsisting to begin with and simply have no other assets to depend on.

To end hunger and poverty, then, we must tackle climate change, too.

Building resilience against climate change

Meftuha (back) collects water from the rehabilitated pond near her home in Ethiopia. A nearby water source saves her 10 hours of walking and ensures her family has the resources they need to care for their animals. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Back in Meftuha and Abdi’s village, the pond that provides their water is nearly full, returned to a sparkling reservoir in the middle of the vast desert. Mercy Corps rehabilitated it to help contain and filter the rain that will fall when the rainy season returns, and provide more stable access to the vital resource.

Nearby, Mohammed mans the rural veterinary pharmacy we helped him open, which has improved pastoralists’ access to the medicines and vaccines they need to keep their animals healthy, particularly during emergencies.

And Ali has newfound access to banking — thanks to a mobile banking app we connected him to — which means all his money isn’t invested in his livestock, and he can send cash to his children attending university around the country.

“I want a good life for me and my children,” Ali says. “I want to send them to learn, to get educated. I want them to work and start a business. In the future, I want to live a good life.”

Colombia is just one place where we’re helping farmers diversify their crops and learn agricultural practices that make them more resilient. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

In Ethiopia and around the world, in places as diverse as Colombia, Mongolia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, Mercy Corps is helping people adapt to the specific climate risks they face, because we know it’s a vital way we can help them build stronger lives once and for all.

We do this work by considering each community’s unique challenges, then developing localized solutions that will make the biggest impact.

We help farmers diversify their crops, learn new technologies, and redesign their farmland to maximize its productivity and protect its soil. We also improve access to weather information, so people can make informed decisions.

We train herders like Ali, Meftuha and Abdi how to keep their animals healthy in drier conditions, and boost market systems that can thrive in a changing climate.

REPORT: How investing in resilience helps fight drought ▸

We teach communities how to better manage their natural resources, and help them build stronger homes and reinforce river embankments to make them less vulnerable to natural disasters. And we collaborate with local and national governments to improve their ability to manage and prepare for weather-related risks in their communities.

CASE STUDY: A governance approach to building climate resilience in Indonesia ▸

As the effects of climate change worsen and multiply at a dramatic rate, this work is more important than ever.

“Climate change is happening,” Levine says. “It is already a significant driver of development challenges, and shocks and stresses that push people into poverty and keep them in poverty.”

“We don’t have a choice. It’s already affecting the places we work, and we’re never going to achieve our goals and objectives without addressing climate risks.”

How you can help

Our work helping communities across the globe adapt and adjust to climate challenges is only possible because of caring individuals like you. With your support, our teams in more than 40 countries are able to reach more families with assistance, and help more communities learn how they can grow stronger for the future.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us meet urgent food needs and help families around the world build a stronger, healthier future.

  • Sign the petition. Tell Congress to reject extreme cuts to humanitarian aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance. We must continue to support them.

  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to spread the word about the millions who need us.