Environment / May 17, 2024

Climate Change Has Upended Kenya’s Agricultural Economy

As the region faces unprecedented flooding, farmers are struggling to make ends meet.

Emily Whitney
A portrait of Lawrence, whose livelihood has been threatened by the floods.(Kang-Chun Cheng)

Every year, it’s typical in East Africa for the autumn to come with a short rainy season from October to December. But the rain in this region has gotten progressively worse, with last season’s downpour displacing more than half a million people and killing at least 174 people. This year, the UN says that 210 people have died in Kenya because of the catastrophic flooding.

Researchers found that the heavy and tumultuous rainfall in 2023 was about two times what it would have been without human-caused climate change. While a natural climate cycle known as the Indian Ocean Dipole has also contributed to the uptick in rainfall, scientists from the World Weather Attribution say the extreme flooding is the result of man-made environmental neglect.

Access to villages by Athi River, a site of major flooding, has only worsened. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

On top of killing hundreds and displacing thousands, the extreme weather in Eastern Africa has also been particularly cataclysmic for those who rely on agricultural work to make ends meet.

“Since October last year ‘til now, there’s [been] no farming work,” says Elkana Wanyama. Along with nine of their children, Elkana and his wife Rose live hand to mouth, depending mostly on casual labor.

Elkana Wanyama stands beside his home on a rainy day during what is usually the dry season on February 14, 2024. He lives in a flood zone in Kitale, Kenya, along with his wife Rose and nine of their children, including a 4-month-old.(Emily Whitney)

In Kenya, agriculture employs more than 75 percent of the workforce, but in Kitale, the “breadbasket of Kenya,” an even greater percentage of people rely on casual employment from the agricultural sector.

Because of flooding on their small plot of land, Elkana and Rose can no longer plant corn, a staple crop that could feed their family. They’ve started planting eucalyptus to help drain the excess water. Previously, when too much rain would come, even their home would flood.

Rose Nekesa walks to collect water from a local well on February 17, 2024.(Emily Whitney)

It used to be that December through February was the dry season. Rain would come in March, and farmers would plant corn accordingly. But these days, rain cycles are more and more unpredictable. Because of this, large-scale farmers have lower yields and are cutting employees, driving more people into poverty.

In Kenya, the majority of people in extreme poverty live in rural areas. The number of those living on less than $2.15 USD a day in rural regions is about 10.6 million, while 1.7 million people in extreme poverty live in urban areas.

In Athi River, a neighborhood 30 kilometers from Nairobi, many agricultural plots have been destroyed by recent flooding.(Kang-Chun Cheng)

When floods do come, many families’ latrines overflow and sickness can spread through the neighborhood to those who don’t have money to go to the hospital. Locals share that cases of malaria are also increasing because mosquitos thrive in wet climates and those who cannot afford a mosquito net, a necessity in rural Kenya, are placed at further risk.

Pastor Stephen Churu says, “That’s when you find children dying. And that’s common for now and is really happening. Now [people] are asking, ‘Why don’t they find another means of disposing whatever they’re disposing that will not cause global warming?’ That is their great prayer that something can be done about it.”

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With less crops being produced in Kitale, the cost of living and the price of food in all of Kenya has increased. Even neighboring countries depend on Kenya’s agricultural yield, making the lack of food an international crisis. 

Leah Adionyi sits in her home in the rural outskirts of Kitale on February 14, 2024. She and her husband Francis Osoro have six children, and because their family’s home is not on high ground, they are at further risk when their crops are flooded.(Emily Whitney)
Metrine Mulongo’s niece Naomi Nasimiyu sits with her son, David, 1, in Kitale on February 17, 2024. Affording school fees was a challenge for Naomi’s family, but when she became pregnant, it was the final straw keeping her from attending traditional school. She’s now at a trade school where she is learning skills in tailoring and permaculture that she hopes will help her family withstand the effects of climate change.(Emily Whitney)
In Kyumi, Machakos County, 55 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, day laborers working to harvest sand from the banks of the swollen Athi River, the second-longest in Kenya, exacerbating bank erosion. Most locals here rely on small-scale agriculture, which was hit hard by massive devastation from the recent floods.(Kang-Chun Cheng)
Bernadette Wanjala, an employee at a trade school in Kitale, helps manage the school’s permaculture farm, on February 16, 2024.(Emily Whitney)
Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Keboo works in a permaculture field in rural Kitale on February 13, 2024.(Emily Whitney)

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Emily Whitney

Emily Whitney is a photojournalist.

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