Courtesy Seyllou Diallo/Food and Argiculture Organization of the United Nations
A farmer in The Gambia shows a dry tuft of rice in a drought period.

Indigenous Knowledge Fighting Drought in South Africa

Linda Daniels

Indigenous knowledge and modern software have been brought together to mitigate the devastating drought in Southern Africa.

The drought has affected large parts of southern Africa including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Madagascar.

A government statement released last week confirmed that South Africa’s agriculture sector has incurred losses of $1 billion.

South Africa's diverse agricultural sector, from grains to livestock, has been hard hit by a scorching drought which has been exacerbated by a powerful El Nino weather pattern.

El Nino is the name given to a weather pattern associated with a sustained period of warming in the central and eastern tropical Pacific which can spark deadly and costly climate extremes in other parts of the world.

However, a unique attempt to stave off the serious effects of the drought has been spearheaded by a team of researchers at the Central University of Technology in the Free State in South Africa.

They have integrated modern approaches of predicting drought using sensor networks with indigenous knowledge on drought for an effective drought early warning system.

In a written response to ICTMN; Dr. Muthoni Masinde explained that most developing countries, (especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa) frequently suffer from the devastating effects of droughts.

Masinde wrote: “Further, the production of scientific drought forecasts in these countries is hampered by many technological challenges while their utilization is dismal.

“Consequently, many communities (especially in rural areas of Africa) continue to consult indigenous knowledge; especially visual aspects of it. As the effects of climate change become a reality, innovative ways are required to forecast droughts especially because, the effect, when compared to other natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and epidemics lasts longest; this renders the use of indigenous knowledge alone ineffective. This calls for innovative solutions; in our case, the novelty was found in the integration of indigenous with scientific approaches to drought prediction. This resulted in a functioning system that has been tested and piloted in South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya.”

The unique system is able to predict drought in the short-, medium-term and long-term with accuracies as high as 96 percent. However, it is a purely-research based project and has not as yet been implemented for use.

Masinde confirmed that the system can be used anywhere in the world and is not specific to South Africa.

The process of working with Indigenous Peoples by the scientific team was a unique collaboration.

Masinde explained: “Some of the indigenous knowledge is based on beliefs and myths and its handling is surrounded by some secrecy. Some communities we visited still maintain religious shrines where they consult their ancestors on upcoming drought; the interesting thing is that women are not allowed in the shrines and since one of the researcher’s is a lady; she was locked out during the visits to the shrines. It also emerged that the younger generation shun indigenous knowledge; most people aged below 35 years were not familiar with most aspects of the indigenous knowledge in the communities we visited. This calls for urgent measures of conserving indigenous knowledge and ensure its lives beyond the elders.

“Finally, the actual process of gathering indigenous knowledge involved meeting the local people. Since most of them do not speak English, we recruited an intermediary from the community to act as an interface between community members and the researchers. This way, we were able to gather this knowledge through workshops, questionnaires, and one on one interviews. Apart from the fact that some of the places are quite remote, the fact that the researchers are not part of the community also presented some resentment at times. The process took several months and we had to offer some monetary incentives to the participants in order to meet cost such as for bus-fares and lunch.”

The community that shared their knowledge with the scientists will be compensated.

Masinde said that ideally the indigenous people are the owners of the system and the information thereof.

“The system enables them to get enhanced drought forests. Once rolled out, the community representatives in charge of the system will get smartphones from where they can provide input into the system (indigenous knowledge indicators) and receive forecasts. It is also proposed that they get some form of monetary compensation for their contribution,” she said.

With regards to the consent of the community that the scientists worked with Masinde explained:

“The consent of every community member interviewed is always sorted through a consent form. An optional section of this questionnaire also requests the community members to voluntarily provide further details of themselves (names, phone numbers and ID numbers). These volunteers are subsequently consulted during the implementation of the system.”

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