Mobile app for rain forecasts raising farmers’ yields

measures a drought resistant sorghum plant
Copyright: Sven Torfinn / Panos

Speed read

  • Predicting weather in the tropics is a challenge
  • A mobile phone-based innovation could predict rain by 84 per cent accuracy
  • It is helping smallholders sow and harvest crops at optimum time

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[NAIROBI] A mobile phone-based innovation that can predict rain is helping farmers in six Sub-Saharan Africa countries sow, fertilise and harvest crops at the optimum time.

The innovation is being used in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal to improve crop yields and optimise food production through information and communication technology (ICT) weather forecasting model that produces Global Positioning System (GPS)-specific forecasts.

The mobile weather forecast innovation created by Sweden-based Ignitia was placed second at the United States Agency for International Development and partners’ first Agricultural Innovation Investment Summit, which was held in Washington DC in the United States last month (1-2 June), winning US$5,000 prize.

“Using the forecasts more than doubled my yield last year.”

Enoch Addo

Ignitia now wants to expand into other West Africa countries using a $2.5 million grant from the Securing Water for Food challenge funded by the governments of the United States, Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

Lizzie Merrill, project manager at Ignitia, says it’s the ICT weather forecasting model that has more than twice the accuracy of existing models.

 “It is one of the first forecasting system to produce highly accurate weather predictions for the tropics,” Says Merril.

“Traditional global weather models have only been able to predict weather in the tropics with 39 per cent accuracy – not good enough for a population of three billion people, up to 80 per cent of whom are small-scale farmers.”

Ignitia says its innovation has a weather prediction accuracy rate of 84 per cent.

For these farmers, especially those in the dry climates of Sub-Saharan Africa, she says, the slightest change in weather could result in significant losses.

This innovation is of great significance to Sub-Saharan Africa women who are often more disadvantaged than their male counterparts, according to Merrill. “In this way, our direct-to-mobile strategy is useful in lowering barriers to technology adoption for women,” Merrill notes.

Constance Ankomah, a subscriber from Ghana, says even barriers such as illiteracy cannot prevent them from using the innovation, adding that some of her friends who cannot read the message let their children or people from the village to read it for them.

Enoch Addo, a cocoa farmer from Ghana, tells SciDev.Net: “Using the forecasts more than doubled my yield last year. I normally collect 10-15 bags of cocoa, but last year, because I was able to spray fertiliser and pesticide at the right times, I was able to collect more than 30 bags of cocoa.”

Over the course of a season, Addo could save up to 3,300 Ghanaian cedis (about US$$830).

Addo is just one of 80,000 users who have subscribed to the service since it went live six months ago according to Ignitia.

Peter Okoth, a consultant agronomist and soil scientist at the Kenya-based Newscape Agro Systems Ltd, tells SciDev.Net that weather predictions in the tropics has not had good financial and intellectual investment, and are  prone to errors.

“The efforts by Ignitia are worth commending since this tool provides reasonable weather forecasts for the sub-tropical Africa,” he says.

Okoth adds that the innovation should be replicated in many dry areas of the African continent.

 “Policies that can support such investments shall bring a big change on how farming is conducted and managed on the African continent,” Okoth says, noting that African governments could benefit from increased incomes to farmers resulting from such investments.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.