A Novel Way to Predict the Weather in Malawi

How Malawi's participatory weather forecasting project is helping farmers adapt to climate change

June 2024
September 2023
June 17, 2024
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KARONGA, MALAWI -- For centuries, farmers in Karonga, in northern Malawi, have relied on a time-tested trick to determine whether the coming farming season will be wet or dry: the Nkhokoko fly, an insect commonly seen buzzing around ponds and livestock, will fly upwards toward the sky.

This technique has long worked well in a region that has been a breadbasket for crops like rice, cassava and groundnuts. But in recent years, climate change has made the weather more unpredictable.

As annual temperatures increase and rainfalls slow, it’s becoming harder to interpret the natural patterns of the weather – and harder for farmers to make educated guesses about what crops to plant, when. The results can be disastrous: entire crops lost to droughts or floods; or missed opportunities during an unexpectedly rainy season – pushing many already-vulnerable farmers deeper into poverty and hunger.

In response, local leaders in Malawi have followed the lead of countries like Kenya, Ghana and Niger, and for the past several years tested a novel, collaborative method to predict the weather: participatory scenario planning (or PSP).

Weather forecasting is an important science – and it will only become more important in coming years. The process has three steps: observation of atmospheric conditions; analysis; and finally communication of the findings to the public. This process is made more difficult in developing countries, where there has been less investment in state-of-the-art weather stations.

Participatory scenario planning is a collaborative approach to developing weather forecasts. It works in two directions: allowing farmers to provide ground-level information “up” to weather scientists to analyze; and allowing scientists to “downscale” their predictions from the national level to local communities.

Ultimately, PSP helps farmers translate jargon into action, and make informed predictions about what to plant and when to sow crops.

A decade on, the PSP experiment in Malawi could be considered a qualified success. Farmers have fallen short of convincing the government to expand it nationwide; but in towns across the country, farmers like John Speek are using the method to better predict the consequences of a rapidly changing climate.

Planting Millet in Khungubwe

John Speek is a 44-year-old subsistence farmer living on the frontlines of climate change. He lives with his wife and family in the village of Khungubwe in Malawi’s hot lower shire district of Chikwawa.  He has four children; his oldest son, ten years old, is already into farming. 

In 2018, the family was in a desperate situation. Malawi had been wracked by a recent spate of droughts. “The crops that I planted during the dry planting season for that year as per tradition did not germinate at all due to delayed downpour,” Speek recalls. “This hurt us really badly.”

Around this time, local leaders in Chikwawa began working with international NGO CARE International to bring a participatory scenario planning process to the district. The project was run through a local NGO, the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), a Christian umbrella organization that supports more than one hundred church denominations around Malawi.

EAM decided to pilot the project in Chikwawa and Nsanje districts in the southern part of the country, and in Chitipa and Karonga districts in northern Malawi – areas already prone to climate disaster. To start the process, EAM formed a PSP committee with local farmers and hold initial meetings.

When Speek first heard the project was coming to his village, he didn't hesitate to join. He was soon elected chairperson of his local committee by other members. In this role, he was tasked with passing advisory messages to the rest of the community. He also worked on behalf of EAM to organize “community sensitization” meetings where farmers gathered in a physical space to learn about forecasts for the coming season.

So far, Speek says, the process has made a notable difference for his community. “Many people here, like myself, used to farm without following proper methods due to lack of climate information,” says Speek. “But we have witnessed a considerable change since EAM introduced us to PSP. The process has enabled us to make proper decisions and cultivate crops which do well in accordance to the forecasted weather.”

Over the last two years, Speek was able to use the localized weather information to harvest enough maize and millet in the 2021/2022 season to feed his family. Traditionally, most farmers in Malawi plant in early November, but the new communication process provided better information.

“Initially, I was planning to plant maize and millet in November,” Speek says, “but I quickly changed because through the PSP advisory messages; I was told to plant in early December because that was the period where we were going to have good rains.”

The rainmakers: indigenous weather knowledge in Kenya

A few years ago, weather scientists at a major Kenyan university were facing a dilemma: the weather forecasts that they were providing weren’t being taken seriously. Thanks to climate change, farmers were losing crops and finding it increasingly difficult to predict the weather.
The film "The Rainmakers of Nganyi tells the story of how new research is bringing ancient and modern ways of knowing together to build climate resilience in Africa. part of a series of short films as part of the Food (R)evolution exhibition (www.foodrev.net) that profiles innovative approaches to research and the co-creation of knowledge as a key to the transformation of the African food system.

Scaling PSP in Malawi

The growth of PSP as a tool for Malawi farmers offers a useful case study in how this kind of participatory process can take hold in a country – and where challenges can arise.

Malawi’s experiment with PSP can be traced back to Kenya, where CARE International first tested a PSP process in 2011 in Garisa county during the winter rainfall season. Since then, PSP has scaled to all 47 counties in Kenya, and has been introduced in 11 other countries in East, West, and Southern Africa in particular Ghana, Ethiopia, Niger, and Zimbabwe.

The prospect of using PSP in Malawi was first introduced by an NGO, Civil Society Network on Climate Change (CISONECC), in 2013. CISONECC arranged with CARE to provide training to several local NGOs and government departments, including the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

PSP was implemented at the district level in Malawi in the 2014-15 season. Since then, it has been adopted by NGOs in about 15 districts.

Noel Chinyama is the Coordinator for Climate Change Resilience projects for EAM, the local NGO partner that supported PSP in Chikwawa. He says that PSP has helped communities in Malawi better prepare for drought or low rainfall in a given season, by allowing EAM to advise farmers to practice conservation agriculture.

During low rainfall periods, EAM also advised farmers not to grow maize. “We encourage them to grow drought tolerant crops like sweet potatoes," Chinyama says. “They were able to realize high yields and they cover up for the losses they might have incurred.”

“We did research to see the impact of this approach, where we had one farmer adopting conservation agriculture, and another one not following this approach,” says Chinyama. The results were obvious – “those that adhered to the advisories benefited more as they harvested like there was no dry spell.”

The role of government

Despite early successes, the adoption rate for participatory scenario planning has been relatively slow at the national level in Malawi.

There are a number of districts in the country that lack meteorological stations; PSP is impossible to implement in these communities. To compound matters, experts say it can be hard to convince farmers to embrace a new way of reading weather patterns as many of them still prefer the traditional way of predicting the weather. To a certain extent, this is because the country is coming from a background where farmers do not put their full trust in what weather forecasters have to say; a challenge that will take time to overcome.

Julius N’goma is the National Coordinator for the CISONEC in Malawi. He says that implementing the practical process of PSP requires heavy resources, such as providing training to community stakeholders and building the capacity of meteorological stations and scientists around the country. He argues that national government leaders in Malawi need to make a significant investment in PSP for it to scale effectively.

“The truth is that the implementation process of PSP is entirely reliant on NGOs who most of the time do not have adequate resources to see through the adoption process,” N’goma says. “Even when government officials are trained, they will still tell you that they need resources to downscale the forecasts in the districts.”

“Even though CARE had a significant role to play in PSP’s success in Kenya, so did the Kenyan government,” N’goma says. “We need to have our government championing in addition to having NGOs at the forefront.”

Still, for Speek back in Chikwawa, he is confident that he will have high yields between March and April next year due to the advisory messages through PSP. “For the coming season, farmers in our area have been told that the best time to plant crops this year is during the third week of November and second week of December. So we are looking forward to that.”

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