SAKAI, Kenya -- No one complained that the rains were late when they watered the parched hills and muddied the roads here in December. Normally, they would have begun weeks earlier.
Villagers were grateful the rain had come at all.
"God is great. After these two seasons of the worst drought, now there is something in the fields," proclaimed Daniel Muthembwa, 76, an elder in this small farming community, a three-hour drive on winding roads from Nairobi. Around him, cornstalks dotted the green slopes and promised relief from the worst dry spell he could remember. Never had two seasons' crops and three years of rains failed so completely, he said.
"Normal" has little meaning in Sakai today. Kenya is struggling to emerge from a drought that put 4 million on food aid last year and saw at least 10 million facing starvation, the highest levels in two decades, according to one report. And while dry spells are old hat in a nation dominated by an arid and semiarid climate, today rising global temperatures are ending what little predictability farmers could count on in the past.
Experts predict climate change will increase Kenya's already tough food security challenges. Its small landholding farmers feed most of the country and also make up most of its swelling poor population. By 2080, the World Bank estimates that African agricultural output could fall by 16 percent.
Recent drought periods have slashed Kenya's gross domestic product by 14 percent, for example. When both crops and livestock herds perished in droves last year, many Kenyans cut down trees to sell firewood or moved to cities in a desperate search for work. Food imports rose, hydroelectric power stagnated, trucks shipped emergency water supplies. Meanwhile, aid supplies were stretched thin.
In Sakai, however, residents have borne the recent hard times better than many neighbors. They credit a U.N.-funded small budget pilot program to buffer them against the shocks of growing climate uncertainty.
Corn remains king, but now it needs help
"Sakai is blessed because we have benefited from the project, even though things have not been good for us for the last three years," said Francis Mbithi Kimei, a farmer who leads the 120 families who were selected to participate.
Helping Sakai and much of Africa address their food woes starts with corn, or maize, as it's called here. It is the region's staple crop.
Corn is king in East Africa, a phenomenon shaped by global market demand and its colonial past. Kenyans now much prefer the taste of ugali, a cornmeal porridge that accompanies most meals, to traditional staples such as sorghum and millet. But corn is a thirsty, foreign crop that is more sensitive to East Africa's typical droughts than native grains.
Sakai's farmers deal with a host of impressive calculations and risks when planting corn on their overworked soils and cramped plots.
Buying seeds each season is a big and risky upfront expense for families who are eating one meal a day and earning maybe $200 at harvest time, according to Daniel Mbuvi, drought manager of Sakai's district area. Farmers only have one chance to time the planting right. If the rains fail to arrive on time, the crop dies, and with it, so does the bulk of their annual income.
This all wasn't so bad when climate patterns were more predictable. Village elders observed the flowering of the baobab tree or the flights of bees to tell them when to plant. Thirty years ago, there were two reliable rainy seasons in Sakai -- the short rains and the long rains. Over time, the latter has become so fickle in effect, the area only has about three growing months a year.
"Now people cannot now rely on these signs. They only used to work when the environment was ideal," said Kimei. In the meantime, villagers were skeptical and uncertain about how to use the government's more formal seasonal climate forecasts.
An arid lands program takes root
In 2006, a group of nongovernmental organizations, funded by a grant from the Global Environment Facility, Norway and the Netherlands, chose Sakai to test measures that would alleviate today's current climate stresses. They also recruited Mbuvi, who works with Kenya's World Bank-funded arid lands program, to help. Since then, farming practices there have changed dramatically.
Agricultural extension officers now offer seasonal and locally relevant climate predictions explained in simple terms in Kikamba, the regional tribal language. They are now producing a handbook to translate weather predictions into practical advice about what and when to plant.
Selecting a maize variety is important, Mbuvi said. If rains are not plentiful, there are seeds with a 90-day growing cycle, for example, that might survive where higher-yielding 130-day varieties would not.
The project has also helped farmers set up a seed bank. A group of about 40 men will collect, process and preserve the best local seeds and loan them out again during the next planting season, slowly selecting for the best climate-adapted varieties. Now, farmers can circumvent the expensive seed market, where they can't even tell if they are getting the seed varieties they are paying for.
A total reliance on maize also is a big part of the current problems. More often, now, Sakai's farmers are hedging their bets. Increasingly, they are diversifying their crops by planting more drought-tolerant grains, peas and beans.
Crop diversification and seeding small businesses
They are also producing income that isn't linked to the rain cycles. One-thousand-dollar loans were made to groups of women who have started small businesses: an egg hatchery, a paraffin shop and even a small lending bank. The bank's loans helped families pay for emergency health care and food purchases during the drought.
"It is a way of diversification, so we are not just relying on farm income," one of the women said.
Gilbert Ouma, a University of Nairobi climate researcher who is part of the project's team, said that the actions that might prove to be the most important for long-term climate adaptation are also the most expensive, however.
For more than $20,000 each, three sand dams -- partial stream blockades that filter and store rainwater for later use -- have supplied drinking water for villagers and livestock during the drought. Before they were installed, Sakai women might walk two hours to fetch water from streams that later dried up. The plan is to next install small drip-irrigation systems that will use some water for the farms.
Now, as the U.N. funds wind down, the arid lands program's drought managers are expanding the Sakai project to weave scientific climate forecasts and adaptation strategies into their work across the country.
Experts say the next phase of scaling up to national-level policies is critical. "Climate change is a long-term phenomenon. It's not going to be solved by a project that goes only for a few years," said Ephraim Nkonya, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. He is critical of many climate projects that do just this.
More broadly, development experts say, Sakai's experience illustrates two forces at work as Africa strives to increase food security and reduce rural poverty.
One side goes like this: Short-term climate adaptation needs to be woven into development work in poor nations and, in the end, isn't always distinguishable from other poverty reduction goals.
The work in Sakai, for example, has demonstrated how far some agricultural education, better outreach and low-level investment in water infrastructure can go in improving rain-dependent farmers' crop yields and cushioning against climate variability.
More help needed to avert famine in the future
"My belief is we need to act. We need to act to let people survive right now. We don't need to know whether we're surviving through climate variability or climate change. So if early warning systems can work well for now -- people may be able to survive," said Ouma.
But there is also a hard reality that development as usual will fall short in the face of wholesale climate shifts. Without millions of dollars in annual climate adaptation aid to invest in more expensive irrigation and road infrastructure and researching new seed varieties, Kenya's hope to reliably feed itself could hit a wall.
Nkonya said Kenya's government is aggressively promoting agricultural investments in irrigation, at least relative to neighboring Uganda. To compare the countries' policies, he studied pairs of similar villagers in places that straddle the national border and found Kenyan farmers faring better and deploying more irrigation.
Others, however, are critical that government investments aren't coming nearly quickly enough. "There is no political will to invest in agriculture," said Claudia Ringler, another International Food Policy Research Institute research fellow. "Urban elites run the country, and poor have little pull," she said.
Ouma said the project has been successful in Sakai, but was clear about its limits. "The biggest fear -- the biggest weakness -- is the dependence on rainfall. If it doesn't rain, it doesn't rain. There's nothing you can do," he said.