Nurturing My Corner of the World: How Indigenous Knowledge Combats Drought

By Dr. Muthoni Masinde

We are fast out-growing our planet. By 2050, there will be nine billion of us, and we will only have sufficient year-around consumable water for a third of this number. One can conjure all sorts of outer-worldly science fiction solutions to this looming crisis, but the fact is—the reality bite—answers will have to be found firmly on terra firma.

In other words, discovered within ourselves, our ingenuity, our determination and our courage to face climate-changing facts as if our and future lives depended on it—which they do.

So, where do we begin? I believe it is with each of us doing our part every day in terms of conservation, and that we also support innovative ideas of individuals and governments to solve this critical problem. I am one of those individuals who is fortunate to be involved in one project which can lead to better and more profitable lives for farmers. As a side benefit, the technology is aiding in making farmers more self-reliant.

From my post at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, South Africa, I run a program called ITIKI (Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence). Simplified, this means my team forecasts the weather by using scientific meteorological data and combines this with indigenous knowledge passed down through the ages. Sound a little far-fetched introducing the proliferation of dragonflies, crickets and beetles, and other tell-tale signs into the scientific metrics of modern weather forecasting?

It’s not.

My advice for girls who dream of being entrepreneurs is simple: Work harder than your male counterparts.

Since we started the ITIKI program, we have been able to help farmers increase crop yields in drought-stricken areas of South Africa, Kenya, and Mozambique by 10 percent. Additionally, our program was chosen by a consortium of four governments—USAID, Sweden, Netherlands, and South Africa—for funding under the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program*. We applied to SWFF in the Round 4 competition. Overall, there were 1,500 innovation projects worldwide competing for funds and only 35 innovators operating in 40 countries were chosen.

Our methodology had to undergo a rigorous examination at several levels before we were chosen. But it was especially important for the region since 80 percent of calamities that befall Africa are weather-related. Drought is a common problem.

My own background is as a meteorologist and computer scientist, as well as a professor at the Central University of Technology. Though from Kenya, I have been in South Africa for the last decade. As a successful African woman in science, I am proud to have helped and at times inspired other young women to enter the technical fields.  My advice for girls who dream of being entrepreneurs is simple: Work harder than your male counterparts. There is a whole world of possibilities out there for them; and women should not feel sorry for being aggressive and for dreaming bigger than life itself. Women play an important role in empowering the family, and, in fact, the entire village.

We localize weather forecast so farmers know when to plant and the best times for fertilization. Traditional weather projections are difficult for farmers to understand and they lack the specificity that farmers need. We send text messages that are in the farmers’ native languages over any mobile telephone. The cost is minimal to the farmers, though having to pay anything, even minimal amounts, is often difficult for them.

Recently, I attend the World Bank’s Water Week in Washington, DC, hoping to stir interest and additional funding. The verdict on this is still out, but it was an excellent forum to explain my innovative approach. I believe I did convince many that the project is worthy of serious investment and that the innovation can be exported to other countries with drought issues.

Finally, there was the most important selling point. The innovation works.


*USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.