How Cuso International deconstructs data to influence climate action
Tatiana Sweeney says she didn’t understand the importance of discussing climate change until she saw its impacts up close. Originally from Kenya, she left her job in corporate communications when her family moved to Cameroon. She devoted her time to social impact and volunteered with Cuso International, a Canadian charity working globally to end poverty and inequality. Cuso International develops programs to build inclusive societies, improve economic opportunities and health outcomes, and increase access to education for women and girls.
In Cameroon, extreme temperatures and precipitation changes are affecting agricultural production. It was Tatiana’s job to work with the National Observatory on Climate Change to find a way to communicate to the public about the changing climate.
Soon enough, she came across a serious issue: Without widespread technological access, the information never reached those facing the brunt of climate impacts: the rural farmers.
“The majority of the time we are getting extreme high temperatures in some regions. Extremely hot during the day and rain in some areas,” Tatiana says. “On a national scale, rainfall is in decline based on the usual. The seasons for agriculture have changed.”
Without this information, farmers sometimes plant too early or too late, thereby reducing their annual yield. Tatiana was tasked with coming up with a communications strategy to get the climate information out. “We identified that they are not technology empowered,” She explains. “They don’t have access to television but they have access to radio. They have access to community radio stations that broadcast in their local language. We approached the radio stations to see how we can work together on a free basis without payment. We had to convince them why this project is important for their people. We managed to get 44 radio stations on board across the country.”
Soon, 44 out of the 50 radio stations they approached signed on to help. According to Tatiana, many of them didn’t know much about climate change so they required training. This is what Cuso International does. For the past 60 years, this CSI Member has focused on sustainable impact through long-term capacity building. “We gave them a broad idea of how they can use the information,” Tatiana explains. “We showed them how they can produce it in their own languages and which key information they need to put out.” Three times a month, the National Observatory publishes climate information detailing floods, higher temperatures or other conditions across the country. Tatiana, learning about climate change herself, would translate the scientific data into simple terms and then send the information out through a joint WhatsApp group. The National Observatory also produces a yearly agricultural calendar telling farmers when it’s best to plant, mulch, and harvest. Before long, the community radio stations developed their own structure and workflow, often asking the National Observatory where the information was if they hadn’t heard.
So, are the farmers listening? “We did a survey to radio stations to find how useful it was for the communities,” Tatiana recalls, smiling. “The majority of the responses said the calendar is useful. The farmers noticed in the past few years, their yield has been going down. They now know they’ve been planting at the wrong time because they are still using old knowledge about when they are supposed to plant. Their yield was very good this year in terms of agriculture. The next step is to go on the ground and speak to the farmers one to one.”
The people on the ground are mainly women. In fact, most rural farmers in Cameroon are women since men often move to the urban centres to find work. Tatiana says if you were to travel to the rural areas, you’d find entire communities made up of almost only women and children. It’s part of why there is little technological access. ”In Cameroon, it’s a patriarchal society,” Tatiana explains. “It’s the men who make all the decisions, the men who have possessed all the important things in life, including technology: the phones, whatsapp, and social media.” This inequity makes the work that much more important.
“I’ve been doing communications for over sixteen years. I’ve handled the communications for Coca Cola, Unilever and others. I never thought about communications for development,” Tatiana explains. “I was so ignorant about climate change. When people would discuss climate change, I would mentally switch off. I did not see the importance of discussing that topic. (…) But when I worked for the National Observatory, I started to understand how they produce data and analyze and interpret it and the importance of this info on this population. When you collect the feedback, you realize that what you thought was not important to anyone is actually a matter of life and death. Before it was you did your job and got paid without thinking of the impact of your work. Now I see the impact and it touches me more than anything.”
After returning to Kenya, Tatiana is pleased to say that the project continues on without her. And that’s the point. “What I love about Cuso is it’s about capacity-building,” Tatiana exclaims. “Volunteers will not be there forever but the projects that we start need to continue when the volunteers are not there. The only way to do it is through capacity-building. For me, this is very important. It made me think about how much the impact of something small like this project can bring to the community, country or world.”