Tim McDonnell

Multimedia environmental journalist

Farming Becomes the New Frontline in Boko Haram War

Nigeria wants farmers to return to land terrorized by Boko Haram. Is there really enough peace to replant?

Boko Haram militants occupied Bulama Alajiri’s village for three years and forbade him to farm. In April, he and his family fled to an IDP camp near Maiduguri. (Tim McDonnell)

Boko Haram militants occupied Bulama Alajiri’s village for three years and forbade him to farm. In April, he and his family fled to an IDP camp near Maiduguri. (Tim McDonnell)

On a recent Monday morning, under the blistering sun of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, two senior politicians – surrounded by a hoard of local officials and paparazzi – thought they spied victory in a small mountain of seeds.

Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, once a top general, picked through burlap sacks filled with 36 metric tonnes of maize, cowpea, and rice seed bred specially for the region’s arid climate. These are the latest weapons in the war against Boko Haram.

The seeds were sitting in a massive dirt lot in Maiduguri, the state capital, alongside hundreds of gleaming new tractors, all destined to be donated to farmers across the state. The donations weren’t just to grow food, Shettima announced. It was also to send a message to the Islamist militants who have terrorised this region for the last eight years.  

“At the risk of sounding immodest, I dare to say that there is no state in the Nigerian federation that is better prepared for agriculture than Borno State,” he said, to applause. “All we are lacking is peace, and gradually we are going to get that back.”

Shettima’s high-profile dedication of farming supplies signals the government’s readiness to convert its recent military momentum against Boko Haram into a revitalisation of the state’s agricultural sector. Doing so could be lifesaving for the 5.2 million peoplesuffering from acute food insecurity across the region, including an estimated 50,000 at risk of famine.

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Scientists Try To Break Nigeria's Cycle Of Replanting Bad Yams

A vital crop faces a crisis from an unlikely enemy: Its own genes. 

Ladi Adaikwu, right, and her business partner, Musa Ogbeba, run one of the few high-quality seed yam shops in central Nigeria. (Tim McDonnell)

Ladi Adaikwu, right, and her business partner, Musa Ogbeba, run one of the few high-quality seed yam shops in central Nigeria. (Tim McDonnell)

Ladi Adaikwu's top-shelf merchandise is hidden in a mud-brick shed in a warren of narrow alleyways in Angwan-Dodo, a farming village close to Nigeria's capital city Abuja. The steel door is secured with a heavy padlock, and when she opens it, a shaft of light cuts through the damp darkness to reveal what looks like a knee-high pile of narrow, dirt-encrusted footballs.

But don't be fooled by their humble appearance: These are high-quality yams, and around here they're as good as gold.

Adaikwu stoops to pick one up, and holds it under the light. "This one is just like a healthy child," she says. "If you plant it, it will grow directly."

Although this West African country is the world's biggest producer and consumer of yams, the ones inside Adaikwu's shed are special. They are "seed yams," meant to be planted, not eaten. Not only that, they're guaranteed to be disease-free, a trait that's increasingly hard to find here. While a typical seed yam might sell for the equivalent of 25 cents, these can go for nearly $10.

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PHOTOS: Here's What Climate Change Looks Like To Uganda's Coffee Farmers

What smallholder farmers saw when they were equipped with disposable cameras.

Portrait by Beatrice Nambozo

Portrait by Beatrice Nambozo

If you've ever bought coffee labeled "Uganda" and wondered what life is like in that faraway place where the beans were grown, now's your chance to see how climate change has affected the lives of Ugandan coffee farmers — through their own eyes.

Rising temperatures and prolonged drought can make coffee trees less productive and increase their exposure to pests and diseases. This is especially a problem in Uganda, where nearly all of the coffee is produced by small farmers who have little access to irrigation or other modern farming conveniences. Coffee is by far the country's most valuable industry: It accounts for one-fifth of export revenue, and about 1 in 5 Ugandans rely on it for part or all of their income.

Yet climate change could slash the country's coffee production in half by 2050 —a loss worth $1.2 billion, according to a 2015 economic analysis commissioned by the Ugandan government.

Because Uganda is a relatively small player in the global coffee market, disruptions there won't necessarily affect the price of your morning joe in the U.S. But within the country, a disturbing new reality is taking root. To find out exactly how Uganda's coffee farmers view their experience of climate change, I recently equipped a dozen of them with disposable cameras.

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Slum Dwellers In Africa's Biggest Megacity Are Now Living In Canoes

In Lagos, waterfront slums are the front line of an ongoing battle over the rights of the poorest residents.

Salako Hunsa lives in a canoe in the Makoko waterfront settlement in Lagos, Nigeria. His home was burned down last month. (Tim McDonnell)

Salako Hunsa lives in a canoe in the Makoko waterfront settlement in Lagos, Nigeria. His home was burned down last month. (Tim McDonnell)

This story first appeared on National Public Radio.

At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, Salako Hunsa awoke to the sound of gunfire. He left his wife and five children inside the house, and ran out to a shocking scene: A squad of police officers shooting indiscriminately and setting fire to his neighbors' homes.

"I had to run for my life," Hunsa says.

By the time the sun rose, the neighborhood was leveled, thousands of people were homeless and one young man was dead. The attack was a dramatic turning point in an ordeal that for Hunsa and thousands of his neighbors is far from over.

Hunsa was a lifelong resident of Otodo Gbame (pronounced BOM-ay), an informal waterfront settlement in Lagos, Nigeria, that is the front line of an ongoing conflict over the rights of some of the city's poorest residents.

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In Kenya’s Forbidden Forests, Conservation Can Turn Violent

An indigenous community living under siege has become a flashpoint in the fight against climate change.

David Kibor, 57, has lived in hiding in a makeshift cave dwelling for the last three years after his house in Embobut Forest was burned down. (Tim McDonnell)

David Kibor, 57, has lived in hiding in a makeshift cave dwelling for the last three years after his house in Embobut Forest was burned down. (Tim McDonnell)

This story first appeared in the Huffington Post.

KITALE, Kenya ― The truck rolled to a stop in the middle of a bumpy dirt road at around 4 a.m. The engine cut off, falling silent. Ahead of us, encased in glowing fog, was a wall of trees.

“Better to go in on foot,” my guide said. “The engine could wake up the officers.”

We walked quickly across an open field that, in daylight, is fully exposed to a nearby barracks for Kenya Forest Service officers. Our visit to the Embobut Forest is unsanctioned ― hence sneaking past the barracks in the dark. I breathe a sigh of relief when we are successfully under tree cover.

Covering a 54,000-acre swath of rolling hills in western Kenya, Embobut is one of the country’s last intact mountain forests. It’s a vital watershed. The hills capture rain clouds, which feed rivers, which flow downhill to supply thousands of smallholder and commercial maize farms in Kenya’s breadbasket. The forest is also home to several thousand Sengwer, a hunter-gatherer ethnic minority.

Embobut looks like a place frozen in prehistory, or lifted from Dr. Seuss. Ancient trees tower over carpets of grass; strange fluorescent flowers mingle with twisted vines and ferns; crystal-clear creeks crash through boulders.

But the beauty belies an undercurrent of controversy. The forest has become a flashpoint in a debate about indigenous peoples’ land rights ― and the trouble that can ensue when those rights conflict with the country’s strategy for fighting climate change.

The Sengwer have lived in this forest for generations, building simple wooden houses, and keeping bees for honey and livestock for milk and meat. The population is spread over a large area, and signs of their presence are few. Without a guide, a visitor could walk for hours and only encounter occasional cows.

But the Kenya Forest Service sees forest dwellers like the Sengwer as squatters whose growing demand for timber, water, pasture and farmland puts too much strain on a delicate ecosystem, especially as Kenya works to confront climate change and adapt to its impacts.

The Climate Factor

Forests like Embobut store massive amounts of carbon, and when the trees are chopped down, that carbon is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Deforestation may be a less obvious culprit for global warming than a smokestack or tailpipe, but in fact it accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions globally than all cars, trucks, and airplanes together ― about 17 percent of all greenhouse gases released. Advocates against deforestation won a major victory in December 2015, when forest conservation in developing countries, which had been ignored in previous negotiations, was expressly mandated in the Paris agreement, as were billions of dollars in new funding to address the challenge.

For Kenya, preserving Embobut is an essential part of the country’s contribution to lowering global emissions. Deforestation accounts for about 14 percent of Kenya’s greenhouse gas emissions; the country loses an area of forest cover larger than Manhattan every year, as land is cleared for farming and trees are harvested, often illegally, for charcoal.

Nearly three-quarters of Embobut is considered “extensively degraded,” meaning stripped of its original tree cover as a result of either logging or clearing land for small farmsThus, improved forest conservation is key to reducing the country’s carbon footprint. The Kenya Forest Service, in collaboration with the World Bank and European Union, has targeted Embobut for a number of multimillion-dollar initiatives to improve deforestation protection and to restore already-denuded areas.

At the same time, mountain forests like Embobut are vital to the Kenyan economy, because they provide water for its massive agriculture sector. A 2012 United Nations report found that deforestation in Kenya’s mountain forests had cost the economy nearly $4 million, primarily because of dramatically decreased water availability for downstream farmers. Kenya’s small farms, which are almost exclusively rain-fed, are particularly dependent on mountain river water during times of drought, which, thanks to climate change, are becoming more frequent.

Incentives, Intimidation

The upshot is that preserving Embobut is necessary for shielding Kenya from the ravages of climate change. Since the forest is already full of residents, how best to protect it is highly controversial. For the Kenya Forest Service, the answer is so-called fortress conservation: Remove the people and secure the forest.

Since the early 1980s, the Sengwer have lived through dozens of Kenya Forest Service eviction attempts. In some cases, families were induced with cash, up to $4,000, to pay for new property outside the forest. Other attempts were less diplomatic: The charred remains of houses and other buildings line the path through the forest, which the Sengwer allege forest service officers burned as part of a campaign of intimidation and harassment to drive them out. A 2014 World Bank investigation confirmed that evictions were commonplace, although the investigation failed to directly link evictions to bank-financed conservation programs. 

Life in the forest remains perilous. In early December, activists say, forest service officers burned a dozen homes before a court order temporarily halted further evictions.

Rose Akombo, a senior official in the Kenya Forest Service climate change division, denied that officers were responsible for burning homes. But she said non-violent evictions are justified, as forest dwellers have transitioned from low-impact hunting and gathering to settled farming and construction of larger, more permanent housing, which is illegal in national forests.

“Many years ago they were smaller populations, and they weren’t building houses, so the impact was minimal,” Akombo said. “But every day the population is increasing, and the impacts have already been felt. When [the Sengwer] are there, the forest will be degraded and will not recover.”

 

David Yator Kiptum, a Sengwer community organizer leading the campaign for a peaceful compromise with the forest service, disagreed. He said the Sengwer recognize the vital role forests play in the global campaign against climate change. The forest dwellers want to be seen as partners in conservation, he said ― not obstacles.  

“Our ancestors have lived here since time immemorial, living the traditional way,” Kiptum said. “Evicting us from our ancestral homes is not a solution to conservation. Neither is it a solution to climate change. But the evictions have really pushed the Sengwer community to the verge of extinction.”

With each visit from Kenya Forest Service representatives, the Sengwer push deeper into the forest.

I followed Kiptum past several glades littered with the charred wreckage of old settlements, then veered off the trail straight up a steep hill. Houses are targets, so traditional wooden structures often have been replaced by small thatched huts, or even more primitive dwellings. At one point, we pass a hollowed-out tree trunk containing a dirty blanket and the remains of a cooking fire.

The most common refuges are caves. As we approached the top of the hill, Kiptum let out a whistle. A beat later, another whistle answers. We follow, Marco Polo-style, until we meet a man in rubber boots, a mud-splattered jacket, and a floppy bucket hat. He leads us toward an outcrop of rock overhanging the hillside. Beneath the outcrop, a rough wooden fence surrounds two dozen goats hungry for breakfast and raising hell. In the center of the pen is a secondary enclosure, pressed against the rock wall, containing a small mattress, a log bench, and a fire, over which a teenaged boy is preparing a pot of tea. Articles of clothing, water bottles, jerry cans, and cooking implements hang off the fence; goat feces and mud carpet the ground.

Scorched Earth And Prayers 

David Kibor, the man who met us on the path, has lived here for the last three years. His wife and sons move between here and houses with family outside the forest. Here, Kibor, 57, tends to his goats and manages a few beehives. A yellow bucket near the bed is filled with dripping orange honeycombs. Kenya Forest Service officers burned his old house in the glade, he said. They haven’t found this spot yet, although they’ve come close. The place is cramped and a bit smelly, but it’s relatively safe.

“The bed is covered when it rains, at least,” Kibor said.

After tea, Kiptum took us up the hill past another cave dwelling. It’s unoccupied, but the cooking fire is still smoldering. The occupants have taken their goats out to graze, he said. At the top of the hill, an odd pile of fresh cow and goat bones, some still sticky with hair and bits of flesh, marks the place where a group of Sengwer elders recently completed a traditional religious sacrifice to pray for peace.

The view from the top of the hill is spectacular, revealing an expanse of rolling forest and grassland that stretches toward the horizon. It’s easy to understand why people would be reluctant to leave this place. As we take in the scene, two young boys approach, one clutching a dinged-up Walkman crackling out Kenyan pop. They’re shy and skittish, but guide us into a stand of trees. On the ground is a circle of blackened wood chips, like the remains of a giant campfire. Their family had a hut here that was intact when the boys left the forest a week ago to attend school. When they returned, a charred patch of dirt was all that was left. It was the second time the same house had been burned.

“They feel very bad,” Kiptum translated. “Every time they come back, the situation is no better.”

From Forest To Courtroom

Now, the Sengwer are fighting to give the younger generation a future beyond tree trunks, goat-filled caves, and burned huts. A growing chorus of activists and scientists say Kenya Forest Service’s scorched-earth approach ignores the potential value of the community as live-in conservators, who could limit development to agreed-upon areas and help the forest service patrol for illegal logging.

“The truth is that most officials think the way out is just to pay people off and resettle them,” said Liz Alden-Wily, a land rights lawyer with decades of experience in sub-Saharan Africa who has helped the Sengwer lobby the government for titles to land in Embobut. “There is hardened opposition to the obvious solution, which is that indigenous peoples should be made conservators and strictly bound to that duty. The tenure fate of these areas is directly linked to social justice, peace, and how climate change is mitigated.”

That approach is grounded in research: A 2012 peer-reviewed survey by ecologists with the Center for International Forestry Research of 73 forests around the world found that those managed by local communities generally see lower rates of deforestation than those protected by government agencies.

Philosophical differences aside, Kibor insisted that the Sengwer claim to residency is supported not just by ancestry, but also a slate of new laws meant to confer formal land titles to indigenous communities for the first time. The fight over the Sengwer’s future is shifting from the forest to the courtroom.  

Recently, Kenya has adopted a series of land law reforms that, at least on paper, recognize a new right to communal land ownership by indigenous people. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution provides for community ownership of “ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities,” and the 2016 Community Land Act lays out the protocol for communities to apply for titles.

‘It Cannot Be Owned By One Community’ 

Kenya Forest Service’s Akombo said the agency is slowly loosening its grip on the forest, and adopting a more liberal policy toward access for forest dwellers. But Sengwer ownership is still off the table.

“We have to appreciate that the forest is full of people. There are people who are settled near these critical ecosystems and call it home. But these ecosystems are public goods,” Akombo said. “It cannot be owned by one community, because other communities depend on it.”

Over the last few years, the forest service and Sengwer leaders have argued the point in a series of mediated arbitration meetings, without reaching a resolution. The question of who owns Embobut will most likely have to be settled in court. Kiptum, with the help of Alden-Wily and the Katiba Institute, a Kenyan legal nonprofit that litigates constitutional cases, is gearing up for a challenge under the Community Land Act. But Kenyan local courts are notoriously sluggish, and the process is certain to be drawn-out and expensive. The act requires, among other things, exhaustive surveying and mapping of the land in question and a formal census of the community.

Still, Kiptum said as we walked out of the forest that it’s a fight worth having: “We are hopeful that one day we will reach a solution where our rights will be recognized, to live in and to own our ancestral land. One day our voice will be heard.”

This Is What a Climate-smart Farm Looks Like

How one Kenyan farmer went from ‘nothing’ to the envy of the neighborhood

Purity Gacaga’s small dairy farm in Embu, Kenya, is a model of climate change adaptation. All photos by Tim McDonnell.

Purity Gacaga’s small dairy farm in Embu, Kenya, is a model of climate change adaptation. All photos by Tim McDonnell.

The highway from Nairobi to Purity Gacaga’s dairy farm runs through the croplands of central Kenya: hundreds of square miles of maize and vegetables, interrupted halfway along by the country’s largest rice plantation sprawling toward the horizon like a glassy green sea. The rice is industrially irrigated, hence the green; in contrast, the maize and vegetable plots are rainfed, and with this year’s rainy season weeks late, the hills are brown, dusty, and denuded.

The highway leads to Embu, a hub of a half-million farmers and traders, where the produce of this region is gathered to be sent south to Nairobi or north to the pastoral drylands. Purity’s farm is a bumpy 15-minute drive out of town and, compared to the farms leading up to it, is scarcely recognizable as a farm. It looks more like a miniature rain forest: four acres of dense trees and shrubs nestled in a valley that in the early morning captures a low-slung mist. It’s only when you get closer, under the tree cover, that you see the dazzling array of tomatoes, coffee, kale, and napier grass, and the hand-built corral that houses three cows and a motley herd of goats.

Purity’s homestead is an anomaly that emerged over the last few decades through a combination of luck, foresight, scientific curiosity, and a willingness to gamble on experimental approaches to farming. Once as barren and degraded as the farms alongside the Nairobi highway, it’s now the highly productive envy of the neighborhood. It’s also living proof of the efficacy of agroforestry: the strategic use of trees on farms to improve soil health and insulate crops from drought. The practice has lingered for years outside the mainstream of Kenyan agriculture, but some scientists see it as a low-tech, low-cost, readily available weapon for farmers against climate change.

Temperatures in Kenya are steadily climbing, up nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s on average. And while total rainfall has increased marginally during that period, the distribution is increasingly unpredictable—mistimed rainy seasons and stretches of drought punctuated by downpours. With less than one percent of the country’s cropland under irrigation, the brown fields en route to Embu are now the rule, not the exception.

That’s a bad sign given that one-fifth of the Kenyan population is already considered food insecure by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the population is growing at a rate twice the global average. And there are broader implications for the economy: Agriculture is by the far the country’s biggest employer, the primary income source for some 11 million people, mostly on small farms like Purity’s.

In other words, small-scale farmers here need all the help they can get. There are countless solutions on the table, from drought-resistant seeds to hyper-local crop insurance to daily market information delivered via SMS to farmers’ cellphones. But trees might offer the lowest-hanging fruit.

“Anything with deep roots is going to be much more resilient,” said Dennis Garrity, a senior agronomist at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. “For small-scale farmers on the edge, it’s starkly obvious that trees are the future of agriculture.”

Purity’s farm wasn’t always what Garrity calls “just short of heaven for agroforestry.” When Purity inherited this plot of land as a young bride in the late 1970s, it was mostly bare dirt with patches of couchgrass, a fast-growing weed that’s notoriously hard to remove. With her husband often gone looking for work, Purity had to learn how to be a farmer solo, by trial and error.

“I started with nothing. I was just a primitive farmer,” she recalls. “But I decided I should do all that I can to work hard to get something for myself and sustain my family.”

She started with a few pigs, but they were expensive to feed and didn’t turn a profit fast enough. So she slaughtered them, sold the meat, and bought a few sheep. They took care of the couchgrass, but then chowed through every other plant in sight, and eventually she sold them as well. Things started to turn around when, with the help of a loan from her neighbors, she rustled up the cash to buy a heifer. It bore a bull, which she sold, and also produced milk that made for steadier income than her previous livestock had been able to offer.

But feed for the cow continued to be an onerous expense, and by this time Purity was eagerly looking for ways to grow more crops for subsistence (she eventually raised 11 children here) and to slow the steady erosion of her field into a neighboring ravine. Taking a tip from some local government agriculture advisers, in 1980 her husband planted the farm’s first sapling, a macadamia that now towers behind the cow stables.

Purity, meanwhile, went looking around the area for calliandra, a leafy shrub in the pea family that she had heard could prevent erosion and make good fodder for the cow. She picked a different plant by accident, and was disappointed by the results. But she didn’t give up, and in the early 1980s signed on to a pilot project with the government and some scientific research groups that aimed to experiment with agroforestry techniques on local farms.

“She became a farmer research agent, willing to risk a bit of her land to test different systems,” said Jonathan Muriuki, an agronomist who joined the project a few years later and has remained friends with Purity. “And what we’ve seen in the last few decades is a massive transformation.”

Muriuki estimates that Purity’s farm now supports more than 100 species of trees and shrubs (including calliandra, which grows in strategic patches alongside crops), and that at least 45 percent of the land is shaded. 

Purity has transformed, too: Where she once had never heard the word “agroforestry,” this farmer who never attended high school now rattles off the scientific names of plants like a biology professor: “These nitrogen-fixing shrubs, like tephrosiacrotalaria, and desmodium, they make the soil biodiverse by putting nitrogen into the soil, so you can make the soil fertile even without using manure or fertilizer.”

Aside from restoring soil nutrients, trees can provide other important services to climate-vulnerable farmers. They prevent soil erosion, help the soil store more rainfall, and shade crops from direct exposure to the sun. They provide alternate means of earning income, should crops fail: Trees can be trimmed for fuelwood or construction materials, or produce fruits of their own (Purity’s farm, in addition to macadamias, has several large avocado trees). Perhaps most importantly for farmers with livestock, trees provide free fodder that’s often more nutritious than store-bought dairy meal. And the nutrient-rich manure from the animals can be recycled back onto the trees and crops, instead of store-bought fertilizer.

I think you have seen my animals, they look healthy,” Purity says. “You see, instead of going to buy dairy meal, you have enough fodder trees in the farm to just harvest, every morning and every evening. [If] you go and buy dairy meal, and if you count the transport, and time wasted there, you save money. And you get enough milk, at a good quality.”

Garrity and other leading scientists and environmentalists in Kenya are trying to replicate Purity’s success on hundreds of thousands of other small farms. The Environment Ministry recently committed to restore 12.6 million acres of degraded forests, watersheds, and other important landscapes by 2030, largely by growing trees on cropland. That plan promises to make farmers more resilient to climate change without needing to invest in high-tech, expensive seeds or equipment. But Garrity cautions that it will require a sea change in how farmers envision the modern farm, which has always been associated with Western-style mono-cropping without a tree in sight.

“We’re turning the whole science around,” he said. “More and more we’re turning the corner in terms of realizing that Western agriculture just doesn’t make sense here,” especially in the context of climate change.

There’s also the challenge of thinking ahead. Big trees like Purity’s avocados can take more than a decade to mature, and even shrubs like calliandra require farmers to plan further in advance—and wait longer for a return on investment—than they may be accustomed to. And without the support from government agencies and NGOs that Purity has benefited from, neighboring farmers who may be inspired by Purity’s success wouldn’t be able to give their farms the complete agroforestry makeover overnight. In that respect, her farm is like a preview of what much of central Kenya could look like in the future, if more farmers start to follow her lead now.

Purity’s children are all grown and most have moved off the farm, a few with their own small businesses in Embu and children of their own. But Purity still wakes up at 5 o’clock every morning to milk the cows and goats. She packages the milk in plastic soda bottles, then hops the matatu (a minibus) into town to make the rounds to a regular series of customers who pay about 60 cents (U.S.) for a litre of cow milk or 45 cents for a half-litre of goat milk. Add to that the money she earns selling coffee and other cash crops, and Purity has one of the neighborhood’s highest incomes. She keeps a well-swept house, adorned with pictures of Jesus and the pope, with a television blaring the local news.

She attributes her success to the trees. She regularly travels the region to preach the agroforestry gospel to other dairy farmers, and even joined a delegation from the European Commission to the UN climate summit in Paris last December. She’s keenly aware of the high stakes for her fellow farmers.

“If we remain without making farmers aware about climate change, there will be either famine or poverty,” she says. “If we don’t have enough trees to make it better for the crops that we grow on the farm, we find that the land will remain barren, and nothing will grow there. For some time, we shall suffer.”

This story first appeared on National Geographic Voices. 

Climate Change Is Coming For Kenya’s Delicious Grilled Goat Meat

East African chefs worry that a staple business is threatened by a changing environment.

A full nyama choma spread: Sauteed greens, salsa, ugali, grilled goat leg, and, of course, cold beer.

A full nyama choma spread: Sauteed greens, salsa, ugali, grilled goat leg, and, of course, cold beer.

This story first appeared on National Geographic's The Plate.

Chege Waruingi has a word of warning for patrons of his restaurant: “If you are dying of hunger you will get upset with us. But once you get it, you will see it was worth the wait.”

The fact is, good nyama choma takes time. And Waruingi’s spot, the Olepolos Country Club, has some of the best you can find in Kenya. So I ordered, popped an ice-cold Tusker lager, and settled into a picnic table with a panoramic view of the rolling hills east of Nairobi that are the traditional haunt for a community of goat-herding Maasai.

Kiswahili for “grilled goat,” nyama choma is Kenya’s unofficial national dish, and can be found at innumerable “choma zones” that appear along every major road, in hotels, back alleys, and anywhere else with enough space for a grill and a few seats. Served family-style and torn into with bare hands, it’s a great equalizer, enjoyed by peasants and princes, silk-tied Nairobi businessmen with rolled-up sleeves and bare-chested Samburu cattle-herders in the remote northern desert. President Uhuru Kenyatta recently surprised a downtown hole-in-the-wall for lunch and dropped the equivalent of $210 to buy every ounce of nyama choma in the joint.

But as Waruingi will eagerly tell you, not all nyama choma is created equal. The choma-chomping public seems to agree: Olepolos has been named best in Kenya. Dozens of picnic tables spiral out from a small stone kitchen, which billows smoke. Goats about to meet their maker wander around the grassy parking lot, munching their last meals.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the place was just beginning to fill up with post-church crowds. One goat serves about a dozen people; for a group of three visitors, a leg (about $20) will more than suffice. Pick your own from behind a deli-style counter, then order a selection of sides: Ugali, a fluffy cornmeal bread; sukuma wiki, collard greens sauteed to within an inch of their lives; kachumbari, a salsa-esque mixture of fresh tomatoes and onions; and chapati, essentially a thick tortilla. And did I mention beer?

Waruingi is a big man, starting to go grey, who presides over his nyama choma empire from a prime booth near the kitchen. Growing up in a Maasai family, Waruingi was raised on nyama choma, but never had an interest in cooking it himself until a cousin sold him a big plot of land in prime goat territory. After a long career as a manager in a nearby soda ash mine, he was ready for something a bit more fun, and the setting seemed perfect for an eatery.

He worked out a deal with the local community: They could graze their goats on his property in exchange for giving him a discount on the ones he bought for the restaurant. He also hired a few locals to butcher and grill the goats. There was no electricity; for water, he drilled a well. The “club” opened in 1996 with a clear philosophy carved into the entrance doorframe: “Keep it simple.”

“This is simple African cuisine,” Waruingi says. “We don’t add anything. There’s no seasoning, not even salt. People know this is the real thing.”

The meat is started directly on the grill, then transferred to a foil wrap to finish cooking.

The meat is started directly on the grill, then transferred to a foil wrap to finish cooking.

The secret, he says, is freshness. The goats served here were born within a few miles, raised on whatever they forage from the hills, and slaughtered the same day they’re put on the menu. There’s no meat refrigerator on the premises. Usually three or four goats killed in the morning will take care of the day’s customers; for bigger parties, you can pick your own from the herd (if you’re planning to make a whole day of it).

Waruingi says his most loyal customers are Kenyans who live abroad, desperate for an authentic meal while they’re home. They’ve helped him turn this place from a one-room locals-only joint to a sprawling nyama choma empire. But now he worries that some of them won’t be coming back: “Three weeks ago customers began to complain that the goats are too tough.” He blames climate change.

Rainfall was below-average across much of Kenya this year, as it has been for the last few years. The drought was so bad in the region around Olepolos that Waruingi’s well ran dry for the first time, and he has had to begin trucking water in; the weekend I visited he spent more than $240 on it. When water is scarce, goats have to walk long distances to find it, and well-traveled goats make for unappetizing meat. This has never been a problem for him before.

“Climate change directly impacts my pocket,” he says. “It’s very real out here.”

That may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from this unsophisticated mazungu diner. An hour and a beer or three after I ordered, the leg I purchased reappeared on a wooden cutting board, resplendent, golden, and crispy. A waiter chopped it into bite-sized pieces at the table, while we walked over to a water spigot to wash our hands (there are no forks or knives). The meat can be devoured solo or with an accompanying handful of ugali or veg; the brave-paletted can request diced fiery chile peppers to sprinkle on top. I liked to make little tacos with the chapati, although I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this approach.

Nyama choma is rich, with a hint of game. Each piece is started directly on the grill and transferred into aluminum foil once browned to finish cooking. As a result, the color and texture is basically uniform throughout, rather than a gradient from pink inside to char outside the way a steak might be. Each bite begins with a slight crisp, followed by just enough chewiness to require a bit of conscientious effort.

The meal was delicious, and I saved just enough room for one more Tusker to settle the stomach and raise a toast with Waruingi to the victory of grilled meat over climate change.

“It’s amazing that some educated people don’t believe in it,” he said, with a conspiratorial wink. “Tell the people out here that, and they’ll tell you you’re crazy.”

Could Climate Change Build Big Business in Kenya?

The country is riding a wave of entrepreneurialism, but the Rift Valley is still a long way from Silicon Valley. 

Most people saw rice husks as garbage. Sam Rigu saw an opportunity. (Tim McDonnell)

Most people saw rice husks as garbage. Sam Rigu saw an opportunity. (Tim McDonnell)

This story first appeared on National Geographic. 

When Sam Rigu was a kid, growing up on a maize farm in central Kenya, his grandmother made a disturbing prediction.

“She said something I’ll never forget,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Twenty years ago we were harvesting double this. Twenty years from now we might have nothing to feed our children.’ That really scared me.”

It wasn’t until many years later, when Rigu first learned about climate change as a university student, that he realized just how right she was.

After college, Rigu began managing his own maize farm, and saw firsthand the toll that rising temperatures and unpredictable rain had on his corn. He sought solutions, but he was never much of a green thumb: His dream was to help farmers with the business side of farming. One day, on a shopping trip to the rice-trading hub of Mwea, he saw his opportunity.

Outside every rice processor’s storefront were great mountains of chaff, the featherweight rice husk that is separated from the grain during processing. Many of the heaps Rigu saw were burning, just to get rid of the stuff. But where most people saw trash, Rigu saw shillings.

“I decided to work around the waste and see if I can make it into something economically viable,” he says.

Rigu’s entrepreneurial spirit is common in Kenya, where everyone seemingly has a side hustle and every sidewalk teems with ad-hoc businesses. But he’s also part of a growing niche that could help small-scale farmers—the lifeblood of Kenya’s economy—adapt to the challenge of climate change.

Farmers like Josephine Wamela are reeling from climate change, but struggle to get the money needed to buy adaptive tools. (Tim McDonnell)

Farmers like Josephine Wamela are reeling from climate change, but struggle to get the money needed to buy adaptive tools. (Tim McDonnell)

New start-up companies offer tools like solar-powered irrigation pumpsand all-natural pesticides that are tailor-made to Kenyan conditions. Meanwhile, nonprofits and financial institutions are trying to improve farmers’ access to such products through microloans and weather-based insurance.

Three years later, Rigu has quit the maize farm and now operates a thriving business, Safi Organics, that turns rice chaff into high-quality organic fertilizer. He buys chaff from a network of local rice processors for about $30 per ton. He burns it into a kind of loose charcoal, then mixes it with a secret cocktail of crushed limestone and other plant waste, to produce a fertilizer that he sells back to local farmers for $15 per 50-kg bag. He can typically process four tons of chaff in a day; once sold, a single ton can net him up to $200.

Rigu’s success also enriches the processors, who now get paid for a product they used to throw away, and his farmer customers, who are enjoying improved yields for about half the typical price of traditional (often imported) fertilizer.

“We realized that we can create a new value chain to empower farmers,” he says. “We’re the first people to pay for the husk."

A HUNGRY MARKET

Companies like Safi Organics are at the forefront of a larger movement to equip Kenyan small-scale farmers with the tools they badly need to cope with global warming.

Temperatures across East Africa are rising—up nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s on average—as seasonal rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable. Meanwhile, millions of farmers still operate without the basic implements; things like high-quality seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation, that are needed to make farms more resilient.

According to a 2015 World Bank survey of 22,000 farming households across sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds use no fertilizer; no more than 3 percent use irrigation; and fewer than one percent use more than one of these improvements on the same plot of land. There are many reasons. For one, so-called “inputs” like seeds and fertilizer are expensive: Fertilizer in sub-Saharan Africa is two to six times the global average price, according to Harvard University agro-economist Calestous Juma, thanks to high import and transportation costs. And it’s hard to access: Juma estimates that up to 70 percent of farmers live between two and five hours away from the nearest market.

There is little help to be had from local banks; farmers typically have little or nothing to offer as collateral, and are seen as a risky bet for loans. The World Bank found fewer than one percent of households use any kind of credit—even informal loans from neighbors—to purchase inputs.

All of this, combined with rapidly rising rural populations, notoriously poor soil quality across much of the continent, and climate change, has led to sub-Saharan Africa being the only place on Earth where per-capita food production is falling.

But in Kenya, a market is gradually emerging for climate solutions for small-scale farmers. That’s where entrepreneurs like Sam Rigu come in.

“The climate change space in Kenya is vibrant,” says Edward Mungai, CEO of the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, a startup incubator based at Strathmore University in Nairobi. “It’s heating up, let me put it that way. And agriculture is the focal sector.”

KCIC takes funding from the World Bank and the Danish and British governments and distributes it in the form of small grants,ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand U.S. dollars,for climate-related startups. When Mungai opened the centre in 2012, he expected to receive around 150 proposals and be able to fund one-third of them. Instead, he received 3,000 proposals, of which he was able to fund fewer than ten percent. More pour in all the time.

“That shows that Kenyans are thinking about this concept and how it can be commercialized, this concept of climate change,” he says. “That means the opportunity is huge.”

Kenya Biologics is one company that used KCIC funding to take advantage of that opportunity. The company’s signature product is an all-natural pesticide targeted at crop-destroying caterpillars. Lab technicians at a facility outside Nairobi raise millions of caterpillars and then infect them with a virus lethal to them but harmless to other organisms (including humans). The caterpillars themselves act as a living petri dish for mass producing the virus that will go on to kill their cousins in the wild.

“They reproduce the virus in millions, then you squash the caterpillar, you put it in a bottle, and that is what the farmer sprays,” says Chris Kolenberg, the company’s CEO.

The product allows farmers to control pests without synthetic chemicals that can damage soil, pollute water, pose health risks, or cause a crop to fail quality control tests for export to foreign markets.

“At the moment East Africa is a booming market” for agricultural products, Kolenberg says, because farmers are becoming more sophisticated, more eager to tap export markets, and more determined to overcome adverse environmental conditions. Although it started in the late 2000s with an exclusive focus on large-scale commercial farms, Kenya Biologics is increasingly focused on smallholders: The company now employs a dozen sales staff who fan out across the country to connect with farmers at local markets and pitch the product.

But even with customers in sight, you still have to spend money to make money. And that remains a major hurdle. Both Kolenberg and Rigu shared similar stories about the difficulty of securing their first round of investment. In a well-established startup hub like Silicon Valley, a good idea can quickly attract financing from venture capitalists. But in Kenya there are still few financial institutions willing to gamble on small, unproven ventures.

“During our first period, we weren’t asking for enough money,” Kolenberg says. “If you ask for $400,000 or less from a private equity fund, they’ll say it’s not even worth putting one guy on this project.”

Mungai agreed that finance is the biggest challenge Kenya’s entrepreneurs face.

“We still haven’t been able to provide an enabling environment to these enterprises, and I attribute it mainly to lack of understanding: The people with the money not understanding the people with ideas,” he says. “These are new technologies, innovations. The commercial banks and private equity funds do not understand them, at least at the startup phase. When they start scaling up, then you start seeing the big boys becoming interested.”

But scaling up could be difficult if farmers aren’t able to afford what the innovators are selling. So the next challenge is to improve farmers’ access to finance

CASH ON HAND

Christine Wasike’s farm in Bungoma is typical of this region of western Kenya, not far from the Ugandan border. Her plot is no bigger than a football field, tucked between a towering rock outcrop and a cluster of wood and mud brick buildings where she lives with her husband, some extended family, and crew of rowdy children that seems to grow ever larger over the course of the morning.

Here, she grows maize, beans, and kale, and keeps a few chickens, goats, and cows. On the day I visited, she was hard at work shelling beans by hand, tossing them in a woven basket to get them clean and ready to eat and sell.

Wasike, a lifelong farmer, said she constantly worries about how deteriorating climate conditions will impact her family. The farm is watered exclusively by rain, which has been increasingly in short supply.

“This year and last year, drought was very bad and it affected crops,” she says. “When there is drought, farmers suffer a lot. There is a lot of hunger, especially with children at home. But as farmers, we don’t give up. We must have food. We must continue.”

Wasike is sometimes able to spring for better seeds, fertilizer, or other inputs. But a shopping trip to the local supply store can set her back up to $55. In a year like this one, when she’s only able to produce two or three sacks of maize to sell, she won’t even break even on that investment. In other words, investing in inputs is a huge risk: If severe drought hits, she will have thrown away a season’s worth of income, and with it her childrens’ school fees, healthcare budget, and other vital expenses.

And that’s if she can even get her hands on the money at all. As in many Kenyan farming households, the family purse is controlled by Wasike’s husband, even though women are the ones who perform most of the farm labor. Getting money means having to beg for a handout, she says, which is an exhausting and often fruitless exercise.

“Most of the farmers here are women; it is very rare to find a man farming,” she says. “We face many challenges in farming. Getting seeds to plant is very difficult because we need money, and it is hard to get money.”

So a few months ago, Wasike followed the advice of some neighbors and signed up for One Acre Fund. The nonprofit grants small loans to farmers in the form of seed and fertilizer delivered directly to the farm, that farmers have a year to pay back. Each loan is worth about $100, and comes with an insurance policy so farmers aren’t on the hook in the event of a totally lost crop. Founded in Bungoma in 2006 with 37 clients, in the decade since One Acre Fund has grown to serve 200,000 Kenyans as well as farmers in several countries across East Africa.

“Smallholder farmers are the most vulnerable population when it comes to the effects of climate change,” says Kelvin Owino, a spokesperson for One Acre Fund in Bungoma. “With climate change, their potential of producing enough food reduces year by year, or season by season. They need access to high-quality seed, high-quality fertilizer, and training. That will enable them to produce much more than before, and also become more resilient to shocks.”

Maureen Simiyu runs a farm supply shop in Bungoma, Kenya. Because many small-scale farmers struggle to afford basic supplies, business is often slow. When drought hits, it can drop by half. (Tim McDonnell)

Maureen Simiyu runs a farm supply shop in Bungoma, Kenya. Because many small-scale farmers struggle to afford basic supplies, business is often slow. When drought hits, it can drop by half. (Tim McDonnell)

Josephine Wamela, another One Acre Fund farmer in Bungoma, says in the last few years she lost so much of her harvests to drought that she almost had to give up on farming altogether.

“As the climate keeps changing,” she says, “farmers are scared of planting because they plant but don’t get anything out of it.”

One Acre Fund was the first institution willing to give her a loan, she says, and now “even when there is drought I’m still able to harvest.”

One Acre Fund was a pioneer in finance for small-scale farmers, but the field is steadily growing, and farmers’ access to financial instruments seems to be improving across East Africa. The continent’s largest weather-based insurance program, known as the Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise (ACRE), added more than 160,000 farmers between 2010 and 2013, and is projected to grow by an order of magnitude by 2018. That program acts as a kind of middleman between traditional insurers and farmers, using high-tech weather data to predict crop yields and then distributing payouts if conditions worsen beyond a predetermined threshold. A 2015 study led by Columbia University scientists found that farmers enrolled in ACRE earned 16 percent more by the end of the harvest season than their uninsured neighbors. A similar programsponsored by the World Bank was launched in spring 2016, which included specialized offerings for Kenya’s nomadic pastoralists in addition to crop farmers.

Programs like this create a positive feedback loop: When Kenya’s farmers are able to afford technology, the country’s climate innovation sector grows, making technology more easily available. The end result is a stronger national economy, and a vulnerable population made more resilient.

“If we can manage to provide better technologies for agriculture,” says KCIC’s Mungai, “then we have gone a long way in terms of fighting the menace of climate change.”

Where I Was When I Heard the News

My surreal experience of Donald Trump’s election, far away from America.

A kid naps in a “video store,” while news of Trump’s win comes in on the TV, courtesy of solar power. (Tim McDonnell)

A kid naps in a “video store,” while news of Trump’s win comes in on the TV, courtesy of solar power. (Tim McDonnell)

This story first appeared on National Geographic Voices

When Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States, I was sitting in a tin-roofed, dirt-floored cafe on the shore of Lake Victoria, in a bustling Kenyan fishing village called Usenge, waiting for a ferry and watching the sun rise. It should have been a serene morning. It wasn’t.

I was trying to follow the election, but my phone’s battery was dying and I had terrible data reception. Occasionally a latent WhatsApp message would dribble in, or the New York Timeshomepage would refresh, but mostly I was in the dark. I was pacing the floor, swilling milky tea, jabbing at my phone, and muttering to myself like a lunatic. Whenever I heard the words “Trump” or “Clinton” on the Kiswahili-language radio, I would grab the nearest patron and beseech them to translate. They were hardly paying attention to the news; their conversations were about that day’s market prices for the anchovies and perch they were about to gather from the lake. I got mixed messages. Trump was up, then Clinton was up, something about Florida, about Michigan. None of it made any sense. But I could tell the news wasn’t good. Something had gone terribly wrong. Then my boat appeared, and I had to push off without knowing the conclusion.

The port village of Usenge, where I waited in vain for news about the US election. (Tim McDonnell)

The port village of Usenge, where I waited in vain for news about the US election. (Tim McDonnell)

There are plenty of reasons for plenty of people to fear what Trump’s presidency will entail. As the New Yorker’s David Remnick put it, “That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering.” As a journalist, my focus is on climate change, so I am particularly sensitive to the “decline and suffering” that Trump will bring about in that arena. Trump is a climate change denier. He believesglobal warming to be a hoax “created by and for the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”; he intends to withdraw the US from the global climate agreement reached in Paris in December; he is already staffing key environmental positions with climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry stooges; instead of limiting carbon dioxide emissions and speeding a transition to clean energy, he wants to bring back a renaissance of dirty, dangerous coal.

I found myself reciting this disturbing litany as I stepped into the ferry. It was a giant wooden canoe held low in the murky water with the weight of two dozen passengers, several pallets of flour, some burlap sacks of ice, a few woven baskets, a plastic table-and-chairs set, and some other odds and ends. We were destined for Mageta Island, an isolated fishing outpost on the lake near the Ugandan border. The fishers and traders on the boat with me were mostly Luo, the same tribe that produced Barack Obama’s forebears. A few of them were familiar with Hillary Clinton; most had never heard of Donald Trump (yes, such a place does still exist in the world). They just wanted to know when Obama could come “home” and be president of Kenya. It was a surreal setting in which to experience this shocking pivot in American history, especially because my companions were living on the front lines of an environmental phenomenon Trump pretends doesn’t exist. I was surrounded by the future victims of President Trump

The ferry to Mageta Island was filled with Luo people, the same tribe that produced President Barack Obama’s forebears. (Tim McDonnell)

The ferry to Mageta Island was filled with Luo people, the same tribe that produced President Barack Obama’s forebears. (Tim McDonnell)

The fishery industry on Lake Victoria is already impacted by climate change. The lake, although Africa’s largest by area, is shallow, essentially a gigantic muddy puddle. During times that are hot and dry, the lake recedes, and fish seek cooler, deeper waters. Fishers catch less, so they earn less, so it becomes harder for them to feed their families and afford necessities like school fees and healthcare. Across East Africa, temperatures are rising (up nearly two degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s on average), while seasonal rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable and periods of drought become more common. As I am reporting this year through a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellowship, the impacts of these changes are widespread across African societies. In Kenya, one-fifth of the population, some 10 million people, are smallholder farmers and pastoralists who rely almost exclusively on rainfall to grow crops and support livestock for their subsistence and income. These people supply nearly 80 percent of the country’s agricultural output, which accounts for one-third of gross domestic product. When they suffer, all Kenyans suffer. Increasingly, their suffering can be traced to greenhouse gas emissions produced by the US, Europe, China, and other big polluters.

I had come to Mageta to report on a possible solution. A few years ago, a British start-up called SteamaCo installed a solar power micro-grid here, in the island’s main village. A few big solar panels sit atop a battery and and generator system, which connects via overhead cables to a selection of homes and businesses. Kenya’s main electric grid will never reach this place, and prior to the solar system the only source of power was diesel generators. These are dirty, loud, unreliable, and expensive, on the order of $5 per day to fuel and maintain. Power from the solar micro-grid is clean, reliable, and can be purchased for around $1.50 to $3 per day depending on usage

The solar system on Mageta Island was set up in 2009 by British start-up SteamaCo. (Tim McDonnell)

The solar system on Mageta Island was set up in 2009 by British start-up SteamaCo. (Tim McDonnell)

Solar systems like this can be an effective way to increase rural peoples’ access to energy, and allow for heavier uses than the small hand-held panels that people across East Africa commonly use to power cell phones and light bulbs. Several shops in Mageta had refrigerators, to chill food and sodas. There was a barbershop with electric razors, and computer kiosks where people can stay connected and even earn extra cash working for web-based services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The main street now has security floodlights at night.

Rebecca Aluoch owned a shop selling cold drinks and blasting Ugandan pop hits from a boombox. The solar system is life-changing, she said.

“It facilitates sales,” she said. “I can work at night, anytime I want, and draw in customers with entertainment.

A barbershop and phone charging station, one of the several small businesses on Mageta Island that use power from the solar micro-grid. (Tim McDonnell)

A barbershop and phone charging station, one of the several small businesses on Mageta Island that use power from the solar micro-grid. (Tim McDonnell)

In general, energy access allows people to diversify their incomes away from climate-sensitive industries like fishing. To be sure, millions of anchovies are still spread out in the sun to dry behind every house here, and the place smells a bit like the galley of a Blackbeard-era pirate ship. But now, a bad fishing season doesn’t necessarily mean an instant plunge into poverty. And while the emissions from the old diesel generators were negligible on a global scale, everyone prefers clean air to breathe in their own home. Mageta is an inspirational example of how measures to adapt to and mitigate climate change can come together to improve peoples’ quality of life and protect the environment.

Then I remembered Trump.

I wondered what he would make of this community. I expect he would see nothing of value here. A post-election nosedive in solar industry stock prices is enough to tell you what he thinks about renewable energy innovation. The real estate of the whole island is probably worth about as much as a square foot in midtown Manhattan. Nothing is gold-plated. The locals would undoubtably be written off as losers, too dim to move out of the outer, outer boroughs and rise above subsistence fishing. Their ratings are in the toilet! Sad!

He might ask: Why would America concern itself with people like this? What’s in it for us?

I wandered into a video store. There are a few of these in town, essentially communal living rooms with TVs where people can watch movies, or TV, or play video games. A few kids were fixated on one screen showing the Colin Firth spy movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, likely a pirated copy, badly overdubbed in Chinese. On another screen was Al Jazeera English. At the very moment I stepped inside, piped out of solar-powered speakers, I heard the anchor say the words:

“Donald Trump has been elected the next president of the United States.”

I had traveled to more remote places than this, faced higher language barriers, been lonelier, more exhausted. But at that moment, I had never felt further away from home.

A woman on Mageta Island lays out anchovies to dry in the sun. (Tim McDonnell)

A woman on Mageta Island lays out anchovies to dry in the sun. (Tim McDonnell)

I stepped outside, blinking in the blinding sunlight, my head in a fog. Little kids shouted at the muzungu to take their picture. I ignored them. I felt like I was walking on the moon.

I heard the sound of music, the same tunes as Rebecca’s soda shop but louder. I followed, and came to a kind of central square where a few guys were dancing in front of a stack of giant speakers. It was noon, and they were very drunk, and having a ball, and I envied them. At least someone is having a good time, I thought. At least we can still get drunk and dance.

As I made my way back to a hotel on the mainland that night, I thought about the Paris Agreement. It was never perfect. When the final draft was circulated, everyone knew that it didn’t work hard or fast enough to really “solve” the problem of climate change. But I always thought that what the document signified was at least as important as what it stipulated. For the first time, after two decades of labor, nearly every government on Earth agreed that climate change was real and needed to be addressed. As President Obama frequently reminded us, meaningful progress is always slow and piecemeal and unsatisfactory at first. But we find common ground where we can, and then move forward together step by step. We must continue that progress regardless of obstacles. There’s far too much at stake to take any steps backward.

Now, Trump will be the world’s only head of state who denies climate change. Who knows what will happen to the agreement itself; Trump, his statements during the campaign notwithstanding, is unpredictable, and the agreement may contain legal firewalls that could prevent him from withdrawing immediately. In any case, I hope that the American people will carry the spirit of Paris forward, in whatever ways possible, even if it’s without the support of our government’s policies. For me, that means continuing to deliver news about climate change, and working hard to hold Trump’s environmental administration fully to account.

I’m all for making America great; but to my mind, that means recognizing our responsibility to a place like Mageta Island. We cannot leave the world’s poorest people to clean up our mess.

Mahanga Beach, the main village on Mageta Island, now has a security floodlight on the main street at night, thanks to solar power delivered by overhead cables. (Tim McDonnell)

Mahanga Beach, the main village on Mageta Island, now has a security floodlight on the main street at night, thanks to solar power delivered by overhead cables. (Tim McDonnell)

Tim McDonnell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellow reporting on climate change impacts to food security in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. You can follow him here, on the Plateblog, and on Instagram and Twitter

 

 

The Science Behind Ethiopia’s Hunger Crisis

The country's last mega-droughts killed hundreds of thousands. Could the same thing happen again?

Ethiopians in the rural Ziway Dugda district await distribution of emergency food aid in January. Mulugeta Ayene/A

Ethiopians in the rural Ziway Dugda district await distribution of emergency food aid in January. Mulugeta Ayene/A

This story first appeared on Mother Jones.

Tens of millions of people are facing a hunger crisis as a widespread drought is decimating crops and livestock in Ethiopia and southern Africa. The drought—which has received far less US media coverage California's dry spell—could prove to be one of the most devastating consequences of the ongoing El Niño event that is wreaking havoc on global weather.

What's happening?

Last month, the United Nations found that drought in southern Africa has exposed 14 million people to hunger. In South Africa, 2015 was the driest year on record since 1904. And across huge swaths of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, and elsewhere, conditions are the driest they've been in the last 35 years, according to the UN:

Famine Early Warming System

Famine Early Warming System

The majority of staple grains in these countries are produced by small-scale farmers who don't have access to irrigation, making them especially vulnerable to low rainfall. And because most crops there are grown for subsistence, rather than for sale, a bad harvest has graver consequences than simply lost income. From the Associated Press:

Families are going up to two weeks without a solid meal in Madan'ombe, a village in Masvingo province in southern Zimbabwe…Loveness Ndlovu and her six children prepare smoked fish on a fireplace in a round hut devoid of any other food. The children, who last tasted meat a month ago, know better than to salivate over the six catfish caught in a lake by their father, Zimaniwa.

"They can only touch the fish, they cannot eat," Ndlovu said. "It's two weeks now since I last had a proper meal. If it gets worse, I will have to beg from other villagers so I can at least feed my kids."

The parents plan to barter the fish for other foodstuffs such as maize. Ordinarily, the entire family would be busy in the fields, weeding a knee-high maize crop. Now they can only watch as skinny donkeys graze on failed crops. Vast fields lie dry and fallow.

The last resort is foreign food aid; last month, Zimbabwe declared a state of emergency in the hope of mobilizing a greater response from the UN's World Food Program and other donor organizations.

The most severe drought impacts could be further north in Ethiopia, the site of massive famines in 1973 and 1984 that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a US-government-led coalition that tracks hunger crises, 10.2 million Ethiopians are now in need of emergency food aid. Only about a quarter of the aid that's now required has come in so far, and current aid supplies are expected to run out by April. 

Here's a look at rain conditions in Ethiopia during the summer and fall of 2015, a period which is normally expected to provide rain for winter crops. As you can see, huge parts of the country received less than three-quarters of their typical rainfall:

FEWS

FEWS

A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders said the situation in Ethiopia has not yet developed into a full-blown famine but added that "if the next rains also fail and food distributions are not properly organized, far more people could become malnourished."

Fortunately, whatever happens with the rains, the country's political situation is much more stable than in previous decades, when neglect and human rights abuses by the government were as much to blame for the famines' death tolls as were the climatic conditions. From the Washington Post:

These days, early warning systems alert the government when famine threatens, and in 2015, these kicked into action after the spring and summer rains failed, leaving herders trapped in desert pastures and farmers with extensive crop failures across the north and east of the country.

"I remember 1984, people would migrate or just die," said Mohammed Abdullah, a haggard farmer in his 40s in a village in the highlands of East Hararghe, about 300 miles east of the capital. Normally, villagers would be harvesting corn and sorghum now, but the terraced hillsides were largely empty. "This time, the government response is on time and coming before people leave."

He shuddered, though, when asked what would happen if the handouts stopped, as may happen if an additional $700 million in funding is not secured. "If there was no support and the rains don't come, people will start dying."

Is El Niño to blame for Ethiopia's drought?

Most likely, yes. During El Niño years, warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific slow down natural circulation in the atmosphere, producing a ripple effect on rainfall across the globe. South America tends to get above-average rainfall during El Niños—hence the link to a population boom in Zika-carrying mosquitoes—while Southeast Asia gets below-average rain. Coastal East Africa—Kenya and Somalia—is expected to get above-average rain. But next door in Ethiopia, the elevation is much higher, and that extra moisture doesn't make it in.

"So Somalia becomes wetter, but in Ethiopia it actually becomes drier," explained Jessica Tierney, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona.

That effect is particularly pronounced in the summer, which was exceptionally dry in 2015 (see the map above).

"This was forecast ahead of time and the world should not be surprised."

"The major reason for the drought in that region is the shortfall of precipitation during the summer monsoon season, which is the primary precipitation season in that region," said Park Williams, a climatologist at Columbia University. "This is consistent with the general effect of El Niño."

In other words, we should have seen this drought coming, said Richard Seager, another researcher at Columbia: "This was forecast ahead of time and the world should not be surprised."

Some relief could be on the way soon. Williams said that the upcoming spring rainy season, which is particularly important for agriculture, is generally less sensitive to El Niño, so "hopefully the seasonal forecast models are correct and Ethiopia starts getting some good rain beginning in March or so."

But as in much of Africa, good weather data is scarce, so any predictions will be much shakier than for, say, California. In any case, lasting drought relief will have to wait for the major monsoons this summer—will they be missing for another year, or will they return?

"The area hurting most from this drought will need to wait until June or so to see whether their luck can turn around," Williams said. Unfortunately, he added, "the El Niño event will very likely not be entirely over [by then]."

What about climate change?

As with other individual weather events, scientists are loath to blame global warming per se—especially since El Niños are a fairly common, cyclical occurrence.

"There is no good reason to assume the current drought is climate change-related," Seager said.

As for what the future holds, that's a thornier problem. There's some evidence that climate change could lead to exceptionally strong El Niños becoming more common, but the science is far from settled on that question.

"There is no good reason to assume the current drought is climate change-related."

There's even less agreement about what strengthening El Niños, and climate change in general, could mean for East Africa. That's because the region's main seasonal rainy periods—one from September to November, another from March to May, and a short but heavy monsoon in the summer—have proved a headache for atmospheric scientists to nail down in models.

Models produced by the UN'S Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "suggest that all of East Africa should get wetter" in a warming world, Tierney said. But, she added, "what we're actually seeing on the ground is the area getting drier."

At the same time, this year's El Niño effect has been compounded by a long-term decline in precipitation that is not well understood. Rains in Ethiopia have declined by up to 20 percent since the 1970s. But it's not clear if and how that could be driven by global warming.

The upshot is that the current drought is a product of El Niño making a bad situation worse. The question now is whether the Ethiopian government, and its partners at the World Food Program and other aid organizations, will be able to prevent a replay of the humanitarian disasters we've seen too many times before.

The Problem With Rooftop Solar That Nobody Is Talking About

Where does the green energy from your panels really go?

This story first appeared on Mother Jones.

A couple of years ago, Steven Weissman, an energy lawyer at the University of California-­Berkeley, started to shop around for solar panels for his house. It seemed like an environmental no-brainer. For zero down, leading residential provider SolarCity would install panels on his roof. The company would own the equipment, and he'd buy the power it produces for less than he had been paying his electric utility. Save money, fight climate change. Sounds like a deal.

But while reading the contract, Weissman discovered the fine print that helps make that deal possible: SolarCity would also retain ownership of his system's renewable energy credits. It's the kind of detail your average solar customer wouldn't notice or maybe care about. But to Weissman, it was an unexpected letdown.

To understand his hang-up, you need a bit of Electricity 101. If you have solar panels on your roof, the electrons they produce flow across the electric grid like water, following a path of least resistance. As they whiz around, electrons are impossible to track and look identical, whether they're coming from solar panels, a coal plant, or whatever. But there is value in keeping tabs on the renewable ones, so energy wonks came up with renewable energy credits (RECs), a tradable financial instrument that corresponds to a certain amount of energy produced by a certain renewable source like solar or wind.

By selling the RECs instead of keeping them for yourself, you could just be helping the utility meet a goal it was already mandated to meet.

Because RECs have value—ranging from under a penny to a buck or two for each hour's worth of electricity your roof produces, depending on the state, companies like SolarCity can sell them and thus help justify giving you the solar panels for little to nothing. The biggest buyers of RECs are power companies looking to satisfy state-mandated clean-energy requirements, known asrenewable portfolio standards. In effect, the power company pays for the right to claim the climate benefits of the panels on your roof.

It sounds like an esoteric distinction, but it matters: By selling the RECs instead of keeping them for yourself, you could just be helping the utility meet a goal it was already mandated to meet—thus helping excuse it from building more solar capacity itself. In other words, your direct net contribution to reducing greenhouse gas pollution is nil.

SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive argues that his REC-less customers are still part of the climate solution by creating the RECs in the first place. "By you installing solar, whether you own the REC or not, every kilowatt-hour [of electricity] you produce is clean," he said. But the half-­dozen energy economists and lawyers I spoke to—from universities, think tanks, REC brokers, and the federal government—said that solar leasing companies' marketing can be misleading. "A lot of individuals buy green power because they want to know that the power they're buying wouldn't be there unless they bought it," says Jennifer Martin, executive director of the Center for Resource Solutions, a nonprofit firm that certifies RECs' authenticity. But if that's what you think, and you don't hold onto the RECs, "you're not getting what you're paying for."

Politicians who see solar on their constituents' rooftops are "going to be encouraged to dream big," says one expert on renewables.

So does that mean you should skip the panels altogether? Hardly. There are still many good reasons to go solar, including the possibility to save money on your electric bill. Meanwhile, the more people who adopt solar panels, the more the price drops, as panel manufacturers and installers get more efficient. This is already happening, as the cost of solar has plummeted 73 percent since 2006 and could soon be equal to or less than the cost of other electricity in many states. Industry insiders have a rule of thumb that every time production of panels doubles, solar prices drop 20 percent.

Then there's the powerful "Prius effect," wherein the conspicuous use of a green product like an electric vehicle or solar panels prompts neighbors to follow suit. That growing customer base can be a source of pressure on governors and state legislators to ramp up their climate ambitions. Politicians who see solar on their constituents' rooftops are "going to be encouraged to dream big," said Nathanael Greene, director of renewable-energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. California, the country's leading solar state, recently boosted its renewable portfolio standards to one of the most ambitious in the country, requiring utilities to get half of their power from renewables by 2030. By 2045, Hawaiian utilities will get 100 percent of their energy from renewables, in accordance with a law passed last summer.

Those factors were enough to tip Weissman in favor of installing panels. While he still thinks it's misleading to market solar leases as providing green energy if they don't include RECs, he ultimately decided to sign on the dotted line.

"I think if you have the ability to do so, you should be part of the conversation," he said, "part of the effort to move us away from fossil fuels."

One of the World's Biggest Lakes Is Dying and We're to Blame

Global warming and overfishing are killing Lake Victoria, and locals are scrambling for options.

This story first appeared in Mother Jones.

At Ibrahim Mohammed's fish stall, business is slow.

He's sitting behind a wooden table piled with a dozen tilapia and Nile perch at the market in Katoro, a roadside town in northern Tanzania. The fish—a staple of the Tanzanian diet—came in that morning from Lake Victoria, an hour's drive north. Around us, hundreds of shoppers are snatching up pineapples, textiles, and motorcycle parts. But Mohammed explains that basic economics is keeping customers away from his fish.

"There's less fish," he says. "So the price goes up, so customers can't afford to buy."

In the two years Mohammed has operated this stall, the retail price for both species has doubled. An average Nile perch has gone from roughly $2 to $4; tilapia from $4 to $8. That's far above the overall rate of inflation.

Stories like Mohammed's are becoming common among vendors and fishermen across Tanzania. The freshwater fishing industry here is nine times larger than the ocean fishing industry, and it's a vital source of income for more than 2 million people, according to the United Nations. Half of the freshwater haul comes from Lake Victoria.

Nile perch makes up the majority of the catch. An invasive species that has dominated the lake for half a century, it's driven many of the native fish to extinction, earning it a reputation as an ecological disaster. For fishermen, though, it has become a cornerstone of the economy.

Overfishing and climate change, O'Reilly says, are "the perfect storm."

But over the last several years, locals here say, fish yields have begun to drop. The culprit: a worrisome combination of overfishing and climate change.

Hard statistics are notoriously difficult to come by, as the resource-strapped federal fisheries agency struggles to keep tabs on an industry composed almost entirely of small-scale, informal operators. But a 2013 government audit painted a disturbing picture. Between 2009 and 2011, according to the audit, yields of Nile perch on Lake Victoria fell about 5 percent.

Further evidence of a population in decline came from the reported size of fish caught. When a fish population is being snatched up faster than it can reproduce, the average length of caught fish tends to decrease, because fewer of them are able to survive into maturity. The audit found that between 2008 and 2010, the number of fish meeting the minimum size criteria at major processing facility near the lake dropped by more than half.

The main problem, according to the audit, is overfishing. It blamed the federal fisheries agency for failing to set and enforce catch quotas, and it found that reported yields of Nile perch greatly exceeded the limit at which the population can be sustainably harvested.

But some scientists also point a finger at climate change. East Africa has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, a trend that is expected to continue. The rising temperatures are gradually altering conditions within Lake Victoria and the region's other "Great Lakes"—Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi.

"The warming of the water bodies in the lakes so far has actually shown some serious impact on the productivity of the lakes," says Pius Yanda, a climatologist at the University of Dar es Salaam and a contributing author to the 2007 report issued by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

A 2003 study in the journal Nature examined algae records from the bottom of Lake Tanganyika and found that over the last century, warming waters have driven down the lake's fish yield by 30 percent. Water near the surface, warmed by the sun and air, traps cold water underneath and prevents the lake from mixing. This prevents nutrients from the depths from reaching plankton near the surface, which in turn leads to a diminishing supply of food for fish.

At the same time, deeper water in the lake gradually loses dissolved oxygen, forcing fish to swim closer to the surface, where warmer water impedes their metabolism and makes them more susceptible to hooks and nets. The result is fish packed into a smaller area, competing for less food, and struggling to survive, says study author Catherine O'Reilly, a hydrogeologist at Illinois State University.

Add in overfishing, O'Reilly says, and "it's the perfect storm."

"These things are making life hard for fish, so you're going to see those populations decline rapidly," she adds.

The same problems could be playing out in Lake Victoria, O'Reilly says, even though that lake is very different from Tanganyika. Tanganyika is extraordinarily deep—second only to Siberia's Lake Baikal—so a lack of mixing is especially problematic. By comparison, Victoria is very shallow and mixes more easily. And because Victoria has such a large fishing industry, as well as polluted runoff from cities on its shores, the climate change signal is harder to tease out. But, O'Reilly says, "there's reason to think that fish populations in Victoria are probably struggling."

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Consider the Cannibal Lobster

Warming seas bring out an unsettling side of our favorite crustaceans.

This story first appeared in Mother Jones.

Noah Oppenheim's plan was simple: Rig a young lobster underneath a waterproof, infrared camera; drop the contraption overboard off the coast of Maine; and see who comes along for a bite to eat. The takers, he expected, would be fish: cod, herring, and other "groundfish" found in these waters that are known to love a good lobster dinner. Similar experiments conducted in the 1990s showed that apart from being snatched up in one of the thousands of traps that sprinkle the sea floor here—tools of this region's signature trade—fish predation was the principle cause of lobster death. Instead, Oppenheim, a marine biology graduate student at the University of Maine, captured footage that looks like it comes straight from the reel of a 1950s B-grade horror movie: rampant lobster cannibalism.

Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Warming waters can cause lobsters to grow larger and produce more offspring, and the last decade has been the warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine. That, combined with overfishing of lobster predators and an excess of bait left in lobster traps (see info box below), has driven the Maine lobster harvest to thoroughly smash records that stretch back to 1880. One of the side effects of this boom, Oppenheim says, is cannibalism: There are countless lobsters down there with nothing much to eat them and not much for them to eat, besides each other

Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Lobsters are known to chomp each other in captivity (those rubber bands you see on their pincers are more for their own protection that the lobstermen's), but Oppenheim says this is the first time this degree of cannibalism has been documented in the wild (oh, yes, we've got the footage; check out the video above). From his remote research station on rocky Hurricane Island, floating in the lobster-grabbing chaos off nearby fog-shrouded Vinalhaven Island (one of Maine's top lobstering locales), Oppenheim has seen that young lobsters left overnight under his camera are over 90 percent more likely to be eaten by another lobster than by anything else.

While the lobster boom is clearly a terror for the lobsters themselves, it's no picnic for the people here whose families have made their livings off lobster since before the Revolutionary War. Lobster prices are down to lows not seen since the Great Depression, taking a serious pinch out of profit margins already made slim by high labor and fuel costs. Even more unsettling is the prospect that the boom could go bust: Southern New England saw a similar peak in the late 1990s, followed by a crash that left local lobstermen reeling for years. Maine's lobster experts worry that their state is next.

Even more unsettling is the prospect that the boom could go bust.

A crash here could have devastating results. Starting in the late 1980s, lobsters began to dominate Maine's seafood catch: In 1987, they made up 8.6 percent of the total haul; by last year, that number had climbed to more than 40 percent. In part, the industry's dependence is due to the fact that, increasingly, there's an abundance of lobsters and a deficit of anything else. But at the same time, the state's fishing permit system favors single-species licenses, so many lobstermen are locked into that product, a change from earlier decades where fishermen changed their prey from season to season.

In order to survive, experts say, Mainers will need to get creative with their tastes. For that, maybe they can take a cue from the lobsters themselves.