Twice a month, farmer James Muthoka gets on his bike and pedals nine kilometres to KARI Katumani, an agricultural research station.
Mr Muthoka owns six acres in an small, enclosed valley in Machakos, a dry, semi-arid region about one-and-a-half hours from Nairobi. The valley is filled from top to bottom with farms. The shamba (field) beside his house is four acres – and the other two acres are "very far away". The farm may be small, but the land is fertile, enabling Mr Muthoka, 53, and his wife Jennifer to raise five children, funding the oldest two through college.
But there is little water, for Machakos, like much of Kenya, is in the grip of drought (Word document) – last rainy season was dismal.
There is a dried river bed in Mr Muthoka's valley – it fills up only in the rainy seasons. And there is also a well nearby – but it is salty and the water is unusable. A pipe brings water into the valley all the way from Kilimanjaro. But this is strictly rationed – it is not for animals or irrigation. And besides, water is expensive by local standards – five Kenyan shillings (4p) for 20 litres.
Lack of water makes pre-planning ever more important for when the rains do come; hence the reason for Mr Muthoka’s regular trips to Katumani (which is named after a drought-resistant maize).
On the 12-acre site – it used to be bigger until squatters grabbed some of the land – Katumani, houses a so-called Agro-Met. This is a meteorological station run by the Kenyan Meteorological Department (KMD), which among other things supports the country's large agricultural sector with rain forecasting services.
For Mr Muthoka, the visits are a double hitter: he can seek advice from the research station on crops and the welfare of his small flock of chickens. When the rains come he has enough water to increase the flock’s size, enabling him to sell the pullets to neighbouring farmers. Also, he can glean advice from the Agro-Met's resident officers, Jackson Mwangani and Frederick Waiinaina, on when the Spring rains will come and - crucially – how much rain can be expected.
With this knowledge he knows when to prepare his crops and what crops to prepare. "I do a lot of work as if I am doing research," he says.
Another Machakos farmer, Samuel Mweu, 59 - also an Agro-Met "customer" - told me that he "may change my planning if I know that the rain is going to be less than normal". Last season on the advice of the Met station, Mr Mweu plumped for a drought-resistant variety of maize, the local staple crop. The outcome – three bags – was not exactly a huge haul, but as he points out – his neighbours "got nothing".
The Agro-Met at Katumani is one of 35 meteorological ground stations in Kenya. Last year it received its first computer, one of 180 Pentium IIIs for the KMD refurbished by Computer Aid International, the UK PC recycling charity, and funded by the UK Meteorological Office.