Mobile tech provides weather forecasts for small farmers in West Africa

Mobile technology is being used in the form of SMS texts to provide critical weather forecasts for small farmers in West Africa – helping farmers better plan and manage their crops. This initiative by Ignitia, a high-tech social enterprise, is part of the global Business Call to Action (that encourages companies to fight poverty through inclusive business models) – with a commitment to deliver reliable, targeted, low-cost tropical weather forecasts via text messages to 1.2 million small-scale farmers in West Africa by the end of 2017. 

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Small-scale farmers in the tropics have limited access to reliable weather forecasts, which seriously constrains their ability to plan farming activities. To fill this gap, Ignitia created a forecasting model that creates reliable, GPS-specific weather forecasts. Two-day, monthly and seasonal forecasts are sent to customers via SMS. Launched in Ghana in 2014, iska™ has proven to be 84 percent accurate compared with global forecasts, such as those found on the BBC or CNN, which only achieve 39 percent accuracy in West Africa.  

“With iska™, smallholder farmers receive the vital information they need to mitigate risk and create resilience. In doing so, farmers are able to increase yields and improve their livelihoods, year after year,” said Liisa Petrykowska, Ignitia’s Chief Executive Officer. “We are pleased to have our inclusive business recognized by the Business Call Action and look forward to working with the BCtA and our fellow members.”

More than 2.8 billion people – 40 percent of the world’s population – live in the tropics, where the majority derive their livelihoods from small-scale farming. The yields of small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are the lowest in the world, causing food insecurity, continued poverty and stagnant economic growth. It is estimated that between 20 percent and 80 percent of annual yields are lost due to weather. By comparison, losses due to pests, diseases and weeds affect only 15 percent of yields (Gommes et al, 2011). A study of smallholder maize farmers in Mali found that by using meteorological data alone, farmers could increase their incomes by up to 80 percent (Hellmuth et al, 2007).

Each iska™ forecast is tailor made for a specific farmer’s location by an automated application that fetches the most common GPS coordinate for each subscriber. Farmers are then sent unique forecasts by SMS in text-lite format, which can be received by any basic mobile phone. The farmers are charged the equivalent of US$0.04 per day for the service; they can pay in micro-installments from pre-paid mobile credit. Over an entire season, this typically adds up to less than 2 percent of a farmer’s total expenditure on inputs. iska™ is delivered in partnership with MTN in Ghana, and with other telecommunications partners across West Africa, and is easy for the farmer to opt in or out.

Changes in weather patterns, coupled with the increased frequency and intensity of severe weather are resulting in fewer growing days rendering traditional farming methodologies increasingly less reliable. Iska’s™ accurate short- mid- and long-range forecasting messaging, therefore, offers farmers a crucial climate change adaptation mechanism.

To date, Ignitia has reached more than 80,000 farmers and sent over 6 million weather forecasts. The company plans to expand its service to 20 countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America.

“Ignitia’s inclusive business is an excellent example of leveraging low-cost, easily accessible technologies to reduce poverty and hunger, and deliver on the 2030 Development Agenda,” said Sahba Sobhani, BCtA’s Acting Project Manager. “We are pleased to welcome the company as a BCtA member and look forward to supporting its growth in the months and years ahead.”

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