SOSTHENE AHONGEZE, 52, always knew the time for planting and harvesting, and planned accordingly.
Having spent many decades as a smallholder farmer, the resident of Gasoro Cell in the rural Kigoma Sector, Nyanza District was familiar with the timing of the rains and how they naturally alternated with sunny spells to produce a favourable climate for crops.
So, for long, Ahongeze went about his farming activities without difficulties, after all land was fertile while weather was predictable with abundant and timely rains.
Traditionally, Ahongeze – just like other subsistence farmers – knew there were two farming seasons. One in September and another in February. Even months had been named according to weather patterns, he says.
December, for example, was named ukuboza (literary meaning rot or decay) because of heavy rains which used to decompose crops, mainly beans, that were still being harvested, he adds.
“We never had concerns of poor rains during the regular two farming seasons unlike nowadays when the weather has increasingly become unpredictable and unreliable,” Ahonteze says.
“We knew that September was time for planting and never had any fears that our crops might dry up due to insufficient rainfall. But these days, you just wait for the rains to come and you can never be sure that they will continue,” he adds.
Ahonteze started farming as a full-time occupation in 1978. He says unpredictable weather patterns have greatly affected their produce in recent years.
“Sometimes, there are too much rains or too much sunshine which destroy our crops,” he says.
Ezechias Nzabahimana, 34, another farmer, also says the changing weather patterns are affecting productivity and impacting on their living conditions.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has repeatedly warned that agriculture and food security across the globe are increasingly becoming vulnerable to climate change impacts.
“Higher temperatures reduce yields of desirable crops while encouraging weed and pest proliferation,” the organisation said in its 2009 Food Policy Report which focused on climate change impacts on agriculture and the cost of adaptation.
“The changing weather patterns remain the key challenge facing farmers,” Nzabahimana says.
“When rains become scarce, productivity also decreases. That has become a reality.”
Disasters resulting from changing weather patterns, including floods and drought, also damage crops, Nzabihimana says.
This has compelled farmers to adopt measures aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change.
These include marshland farming, small-scale irrigation, growing drought-resistant crops as well as use of fertilisers and high quality seeds, among others.
“We are trying to adapt to the changing weather though sometimes it is difficult,” says Ahonteze, who usually grows cassava, beans and a variety of vegetables.
Available figures indicate that at least 80 per cent of the Rwandan population thrive on agriculture, mainly subsistence farming. However, the sector which accounts for almost 33 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) remains highly dependent on weather.
Meteorologists have predicted harsh rains during the coming rainy seasons, something which has led to concerns over possible rain-induced disasters which might destroy crops, among others.
According to forecasts from the Rwanda Meteorology Agency, rains are expected to intensify between September and December.
Going by the predictions, floods and landslides might cause loss of lives and property in the country–something that has prompted authorities to advise the public to be more cautious.
Rwanda is already experiencing increasing intensities and frequencies of floods, drought, heavy rains, landslides and diseases associated with changing weather patterns.
But the country has stepped up efforts to adapt and mitigate the impacts through various interventions.
The strategies include an extensive reforestation programme, anti-erosion systems, early-warning system, development of alternative energy sources to limit the usage of fire woods and decongest forest areas, promotion of energy saving programmes and renewable energy, promotion of off-farm jobs, integrated management of water resources as well as campaigns to raise awareness about climate change among the public.
A 2013 report by the East African Civil Society Organisations Forum (EACSOF) commended Rwanda’s measures to respond to climate change threats in agriculture.
The report “Climate, Food, Trade: Where is the Policy Nexus?” concluded that “Rwanda has policies and strategies which were positively contributing to agricultural productivity, enhanced trade and addressed climate change.”
The study also found that climate change and its links to agriculture have been well portrayed in the country’s 2nd Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS2).
However, it also revealed a number of shortfalls that need to be addressed to continue building a climate-resilient population, according to Prudence Sebahizi, EACSOF national coordinator.
Sebahizi told The New Times that some existing policies are not being fully implemented while residents also still lack enough information about their roles in tackling the challenges associated with climate change, something which he says calls for extensive education campaigns.
“We need to have a critical mass of people who understand well this issue because it can affect every single part of our interventions and limit our production capacities,” Sebahizi says.