Vegetation condition forecasting for early warning and preparedness action in Africa


The University of Sussex has developed a novel model to forecast the Vegetation Condition Index (VCI), which is often used to monitor drought conditions. This project helps to enhance the skills needed to expand the implementation of this tool in drought early warning systems, from 7 counties in Kenya to all of East Africa. This will be achieved by strengthening our collaboration with the Regional Centre for Mapping Resources for Development (RCMRD), and forming new ones, including with the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC).

This project builds on a number of previous internally (IDCF, SSRP) and externally (ForPAcAstroCast) funded work, which is proving to have a strong impact in the operational drought early warning system in Kenya.

Project description

Drought and food security remain significant challenges to development in many of the least developed countries. Evidence suggests that early action works. There has therefore been a major movement towards early warning based early action (EW-EA) across the world. Drought poses particular problems for EW-EA due to the complex nature of slow onset and spatially fragmented, cascading drought impacts. To mitigate drought before it develops into a food security crisis, there is a clear demand to develop forecasts of drought indicators that are closely linked to drought impacts and are decision-relevant. 

The University of Sussex has established a strong research partnership with national and regional drought risk management agencies in Kenya, a country that is currently facing a major drought. The AstroCast project developed robust models to forecast VCI at sub-county level with a lead time of up to 8 weeks. These forecasts were successfully piloted in seven counties during the short rains of 2020 (October-December) and eventually included in the monthly bulletins for these counties (through ForPAc and the internally-funded projects – Fig.1 )

A map showing an example of the developed Vegetation Condition Index (VCI) forecast toolFigure 1: Example of our VCI forecast in the monthly NDMA bulletin (Taita Taveta county, Kenya).

Timeline and funding


February 2022-July 2022


SSRP funding (£12,503)


This project seeks to strengthen the work with the RCMRD and scale out the VCI forecasts to all of Africa. There have been demands from RCMRD to provide these forecasts in Ethiopia, Somalia, Botswana and Malawi, and the EW-EA team of the ICPAC to include these forecasts in the Greater Horn of Africa. To improve the existing system and to scale out, the research aims to achieve the following: 

  • Further support and build capacity at RCMRD to implement, visualise, and develop performance tests using hindcasts of the AstroCast forecast code at subcounty level. Developing a clear framework with the colleagues at RCMRD will allow them to implement and share these forecasts beyond Kenya (Ethiopia, Somalia, Botswana, Malawi). Additional financial support through DISCUS will partially fund this task. 
  • Work closely with ICPAC to identify ways and frameworks to implement these forecasts into their various drought early warning initiatives (e.g. Food and Nutrition Security Working Group, Drought Portal), following the succesful update and application of the code at the University of Sussex (ForPAc, SSRP, IDCF) to all of Africa at the second administrative unit. 
  • Continue the research in enhancing the forecast code by analysing the performance of the code at pixel-level and the impact of spatial scale on uncertainty.   

Expected impacts and outcomes

Kenya’s key sustainable development policy is the Ending Drought Emergencies (EDE) policy which seeks to develop sustainable and resilient livelihoods in the arid and semi-arid regions. The NDMA-coordinated Drought EWS is a central pillar of the EDE policy. By enhancing the drought EWS and the resulting drought management interventions by national and county level agencies the project will contribute to the objectives of the EDE policy. RCMRD’s Rangelands Decision Support Tool also provides key information to rangeland managers and pastoralist communities. This research project therefore aims to support resilient livelihoods in the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya.  

Additionally, evidence shows that acting early, before the onset of drought results has clear net economic benefits. Droughts remain the major environmental hazard for the whole continent of Africa whereby Kenya has experienced major droughts and food security crises in 2016-17 and 2018-19 and is currently facing difficult circumstances. According to the NDMA the team's forecasts have already proved very useful in this ongoing drought.  By enhancing the drought EWS, the foundations for actions to actually mitigate the effects of drought are laid, thereby reducing both economic losses, in terms of agricultural production, human health and livelihoods as well as the costs of late interventions to respond to the impacts of drought. 

By strengthening the capacity of the RCMRD to maintain and further develop the forecast code, the intention is that the whole system will eventually be led by local researchers and institutions without the reliance on support from 'Global North' institutions.  Moreover, both the Physics and Geography departments have provided REF 2021 impact case studies which draw substantially on the existing research and engagement to date in Kenya through the Astrocast, ForPAc and previous IDCF/SSRP projects. This current project will advance the science, cement and strengthen our partnerships and influence the operational drought EWS in Kenya and other African countries 

The team

Where we worked