Traditional weather prediction incorporated into Kenyan forecasts

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 February 2012 11:32 GMT

The Met office works with western Kenya's rainmakers to produce more accurate, locally acceptable predictions in the face of climate change

EMUHAYA, Kenya (AlertNet) - In Essong’olo village, some 32 km west of Kenya’s Kisumu city, Japheth Olukune Akhati and his neighbours are busy tilling their small plots of land in preparation for planting. It hasn’t rained for a few months here, and the skies are still azure blue. But thanks to traditional knowledge, the farmers know it might rain in three weeks’ time, and they want to be ready.

Kenyan farmers like these have relied on indigenous forecasting methods through the generations. Some fear these methods will be made redundant by more extreme and unpredictable weather linked with climate change. Others say they remain valuable tools – especially when used in conjunction with modern science.

The Kenya Meteorological Department is one organisation that thinks ancient practices have something to offer. Based on the findings of a study released in April 2010, it now blends traditional forecasts with science-based predictions to produce more accurate - and more well-received - weather and climate data at the local level in western Kenya.

The met office employs satellite technology and other modern methods to produce forecasts, while the ordained rainmakers from the region’s Nganyi family are asked to make their traditional predictions.

The results are then analysed and synthesised, translated into the Luhya language and disseminated to the public through a vernacular radio channel called Mulembe FM. Social gatherings, word of mouth and chief’s meetings spread the message further.

Farmers say the combined forecasts, added to their own observations, give them added confidence about what to do in the face of changing climatic conditions.

“From last week, the wind has been blowing from west to east, and that is a real sign it is going to rain in the next three or four weeks,” said Akhati, the Essong’olo  farmer who produces maize and horticultural crops on a three-acre piece of land.

As the rain approaches, local farmers sharpen their predictions of when it will arrive, down to a matter of hours. They say they can tell if the rainfall will be accompanied by hailstones just by observing the colour of clouds.

“When ants begin moulding (structures) on decaying matter, that means it is likely to rain in the next three to four days,” explained Akhati.  “As well, when we wake up in the morning and find no dew on the grass, then it is an indication it will rain on that very day. It is also important to note that, on the night before a rainy day, the temperatures usually rise beyond normal.”

Combining natural observation with modern science can build up climate change intelligence and help make the data accessible to subsistence farming communities, according to the 2010 study on using indigenous knowledge to manage climate risks.

The two-year research project was carried out by scientists from the Kenya Meteorological Department, the University of Nairobi and Maseno University, and funded by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Applications Centre, the British government and the International Development Research Centre.


The scientists approached traditional rainmakers from the Nganyi family in western Kenya’s Emuhaya County. Here it is widely believed that the Nganyi of the Abasiekwe community can make or stop rains, lightning or hailstorms.

“We respect their word. When they predict something, it usually comes to pass,” said Josephat Atieli, a smallholder farmer from Mumboha village in Emuhaya. “We actually depend on their word, especially at the beginning of the planting season.”

In return, the villagers pay the Nganyi family in kind with produce from their farms.

“We have a belief that if we do not appreciate the work of the rainmakers, then they could cause hailstones to destroy our crops in the next season. We also believe that they have magic powers they can use to bring drought,” said Atieli.

While most Luhya community members have some general knowledge about predicting weather conditions, the Nganyi family is revered for its superior insight because it has shrines said to possess natural indicators that can give a more accurate forecast.

The shrines consist of huge and rare indigenous trees, which form a canopy and are regarded as sacred. The small patches of forested land attract reptiles, birds and insect whose behaviour is monitored to indicate upcoming weather.

“We have been able to study these shrines, and we can authoritatively say that they provide realistic information that can assist in predicting weather conditions in the local environment,” said Gilbert Ouma, who heads the Kenya Meteorological Department’s project to integrate indigenous knowledge with scientific forecasts.

Researchers at the Great Lakes University of Kisumu have developed a climate risk management curriculum that draws on the Nganyi’s knowledge, which could extend the reach of the project beyond Western Kenya. 

“We plan to use the Nganyi shrines and our new resource centre as laboratories for students pursuing graduate degrees, so that the knowledge can benefit the rest of the country and the entire continent,” said Ouma.  

In return for the rainmaking clan’s participation in the project, training and micro-credit opportunities are being provided for Nganyi women and youth, aimed at conserving indigenous trees and diversifying livelihoods.  The project is also producing a book that will preserve the community’s experiences, traditions and lessons from the collaboration.

Met officials say traditional knowledge is particularly useful in turning broad science-based weather predictions into useful local forecasts.

“While the meteorological department can forecast (weather) for a wider region, the Nganyi rainmakers can narrow their forecast to more specific areas,” said Ouma. “Blending these two techniques makes it more accurate and appropriate for small-scale farmers, especially now that the climatic conditions have changed.”


Western Kenya is one of the East African nation’s most important agricultural areas, especially for maize production. But in the recent past it has experienced severe droughts followed by heavy rains, and rain patterns have shifted significantly, making it hard for farmers to time their activities.

“Traditionally, we used to receive rains in the month of April. But today, this is not guaranteed. We have seen seasons where rains come as early as March, or as late as May. This has a huge impact on timing for planting,” said Atieli.

Indigenous knowledge is proving to be very useful in helping local communities adapt to shifting climate patterns, believes Ouma of the Kenya Meteorological Department.

“In this community, it means a lot when a particular tree sheds its leaves early or late in the season. Formation of clouds on a particular side of the hill, as well, has a deeper meaning to them than what modern science says at that particular moment,” he said.

Other natural indicators include the call of the Laughing Dove bird, the behaviour of ants, the croaking of frogs and toads, and bee migration.

Perhaps mindful of the power of their knowledge, the rainmakers are not keen to disclose all their techniques, preferring that some things remain a mystery to the men with the machines.

“One of the tools they use is a tree locally known as ‘shibelenge’. But they are not willing to say what they observe in the tree,” Ouma explained.

You can watch a video on the Nganyi indigenous knowledge project here.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.