Professor Muthoni Masinde and Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi during their interviews with CNN.

International Women’s Day Feature Hones in on Drought Early Warning Systems

feature filmed by CNN on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus in celebration of International Women’s Day focused on a drought prediction tool developed by Professor Muthoni Masinde from the Central University of Technology.

Masinde is collaborating with researchers at UKZN who are working on establishing early warning systems for smallholder farmers who are vulnerable to climate change.

In the video, Masinde spoke about the innovative Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence (ITIKI) app, web portal and SMS service she developed as a drought prediction tool. A computer scientist, she has focused on integrating scientific information with indigenous knowledge to address drought, which remains a major challenge in Africa.

Masinde aimed to provide smallholder farmers, who lack a suitable drought-forecasting tool and mainly rely on their indigenous knowledge for critical cropping decisions, with an accessible drought forecasting service that incorporates knowledge they identify with to accurately predict drought. She has achieved 98% accuracy in the system, which is used in three African countries by thousands of farmers.

Among other organisations, UKZN has partnered with Masinde in this application, which makes scientific knowledge meaningful and useful to farmers without requiring interpretation by researchers. This partnership falls under the umbrella of the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP), which is managed by uMgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) with support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), in partnership with the Department of Environmental Affairs.

The URP is increasing the resilience of vulnerable communities through interventions such as early warning systems, climate-smart agriculture and climate proofing settlements, and increasing climate resilience and adaptive capacity by combining traditional and scientific knowledge in an integrated approach to adaptation. Its interventions have included the development of early warning and ward-based disaster response systems within UMDM, particularly in the Swayimane community near Wartburg. These include the establishment of a lightning warning system at the local high school, where trials on climate-smart agriculture are also underway.

The feature was filmed at UKZN and in Swayimane, where indigenous knowledge is being combined with technology to provide small-scale farmers with information in their own language, particularly when it comes to early warnings about phenomena like drought.

Speaking on the development of ITIKI, URP Components Director and Honorary Research Associate at UKZN Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi said, ‘This demonstrates that these two knowledge systems can coexist successfully, and shows the value of community-based early warning and providing context to information in people’s own language in a way that they can understand.’

Mabhaudhi indicated that there are plans to scale up early warning work with ITIKI to a national pilot for South Africa and the region, with researchers and developers hoping that as it grows, it does so with the farmers it serves.

Words and photographs: Christine Cuénod