KANGEMA, Kenya (AlertNet) – The tea and coffee bushes growing on the hillsides around Isaac Kinyua’s home have long provided him and many of his kin with a livelihood, giving Central Kenya an economic edge over other parts of the country.
But the hillsides are also periodically hit by landslides – one reason Kinyua is now taking the precaution of building a concrete wall on the eastern side of his house, where the land falls steeply to the valley below.
Why now? Because lately, when Kinyua tunes in his portable radio, he receives weather alerts from the nearby community radio station. One recent warning advised that heavy rains are expected in November and December.
“Disaster preparedness is very important here because of unexpected changes in the weather and mudslides,” says Kinya.
Just three years ago, when Kangema had no such early warning system, tragedy struck in the form of a landslide that killed a 13-year-old girl and forced hundreds of people to leave their homes.
Kangema RANET 106.5 FM, Kangema’s local station, pulls in listeners with plenty of local music. When Kinyua goes shopping, he is happy to find the radio blaring in the rows of shops that line Kangema’s shopping area.
What grabs the attention of Winfred Chege, one of the stallholders, however, is not music but the occasional interruption for weather forecasts.
When the presenter has finished, Chege knows she has to find a way to shelter the food she has been selling all morning at her makeshift grocery shed, because there is likely to be some drizzle a few minutes after midday.
She pulls out a soiled plastic cover tucked into one edge of the stall and begins to roll it over the fruit and vegetables stacked in rows on the ground as the skies above begin to darken. She then puts on a heavy sweater and waits for the rain to pass.
“Since the community radio station was established it has been helping us to know what is around us in terms of short and longer term weather patterns,” says the 63-year-old grandmother. “Now I know what to do.”
That would have been difficult a few years ago, according to the officer in charge of the radio station, Josphat Kang’ethe, who grew up in this area, one of the rainiest parts of the country.
People used to rely on traditional weather forecasting methods, including the times at which trees flowered and shed their leaves, the snow and fog levels on Mt. Kenya and the varying calls of wild animals.
Those forecasts were often long term and not always accurate, he says.
That changed in February 2008, when Kangema RANET 106.5 FM went on air, the result of collaboration between the Kenya Meteorological Department and the rural community RANET - Radio and Internet Communication System. Today the station features regular reports from an adjoining weather station.
“Weather readings are taken from the automatic weather station and passed to the radio presenter on duty,” says Kang’ethe. “The details are then relayed to the community in the local language.”
The Kangema station is part of RANET Kenya and the global RANET project established to transmit vital weather and climate information to rural communities using internet and radio.
In Africa, officials say, it was founded by the African Center for Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD) and the University of Oklahoma in 1999.
Kenya now has four such community FM stations, powered by solar energy, or electricity where available. The others are Olmaa RANET 89.3 FM in Narok, Rift Valley, Bulala RANET 107.5 FM in Budalangi, Western Kenya, and Kwale RANET 103.5 FM in Kwale, Coast region.
The FM stations come with a transmitter of 50 to 100 watts and can broadcast in a radius of more than 25 kms (16 miles) from the mast, officials say.
Stations “are based in areas vulnerable to disasters such as flooding and drought,” says Peter Ambenje, deputy director at the Kenya Meteorological Department. “We also give the poor communities simple gadgets that use wind-up and solar technology to charge so that they can easily tune in to forecasts.”
In a country where almost half the population lives below the poverty line and natural disasters are a seasonal affair, radio remains the cheapest way for poor people to access information.
A 2011 study by the Kenya Research Foundation indicated that 93 percent of Kenyans listen to radio and 54 percent of listeners spent at least six hours a day tuned in.
At the same time, 68 percent of the audience preferred listening to broadcasts in vernacular or native languages.
Despite the growing reach of the information network, the government has moved slowly in other ways on reducing disaster risk, and is yet to make headway with a new disaster management bill, which is still at cabinet level.
Koitamet Ole Kina, the deputy coordinator of the crisis centre at the Office of the President, said that when passed, the bill would enable the establishment of disaster response centres all over Kenya.
So far, however, Kenyans like Kinyua, taking their own precautions on an individual basis, are still doing much of the work to protect the country from the next natural disaster, Kenyans say.
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.