For decades, farmers have taken advantage of computerized weather forecasting models to inform their field management decisions. Today, the changing climate is causing farmers to adjust their historical farming practices and crop calendars, making weather forecasts more valuable than ever as the weather becomes less predictable. Millions of dollars are now being invested to ensure that farmers will benefit from the most accurate data available to inform their on-farm decision-making. aWhere is on the forefront of this burgeoning technology, providing its globally complete weather data to inform farmers of upcoming conditions, worldwide.
Implementing, Testing, Evaluating
Despite the ubiquity of easily-accessible weather information in some parts of the world, in other areas, millions of farmers who rely on suitable weather for their livelihood continue to have inadequate access to a forecast of any kind. They certainly don’t have access to the kind of timely, targeted, and field-specific early warnings about extreme weather that are needed to effectively cope with climate change. In survey after survey, smallholder farmers in the developing world say that unusual weather is one of the top risks to yields; these farmers want tools to mitigate the negative impact of weather related anomalies.
Actors in the global development community have begun to respond to the need for highly accessible and farming targeted weather forecasts with initiatives designed to provide some kind of early warning system (EWS) for farmers. Numerous projects in Africa are looking to provide warnings about drought, flooding and other extreme weather threats, while the Netherlands’ Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) program is piloting initiatives across the world that incorporate significant EWS components. MUIIS, a G4AW project in Uganda, has partnered with aWhere to provide weather data and other services to smallholder farmers of maize, soybeans and sesame.
Notably, private industry has been driving the implementation of EWS systems as well. Farmer services like Esoko in Ghana and iShamba in Kenya, both of which utilize aWhere’s weather data, approach delivery of an EWS as a business, developing customer relationships and innovating ways of bridging the technological and cultural divides that sometimes plague such initiatives. The potential of private industry to provide EWS services is recognized by some public sector players, who openly state that projects should focus on partnerships with private sector actors, who will have incentives to build self-sustaining systems that deliver long-term value.
Challenges & Opportunities
Most, if not all, of these initiatives have been in operation for only a few years and the implementers are still in the process of evaluation. Through involvement in projects like G4AW’s MUIIS Uganda, and the Grameen Foundation’s FarmerLink Early Warning System, aWhere has experience with some of the challenges and opportunities EWS projects present. These include a handful of common, critical challenges, such as:
- Be realistic about the target user’s capacity: Some EWS projects focus on direct delivery of information via SMS to the farmer’s own phone, while others construct dashboards or other systems of information dissemination that local farmer organizations or extension agents can use to communicate with farmers. Similarly, some projects look to begin charging fees for services immediately upon rollout, while others adopt subsidised, “freemium”, or other models for ensuring long-term sustainability. What kind of product a project chooses to build must be informed by an honest assessment of the farmers being served.
- Building trust is key: Many farmer communities have little cash on hand to spend on an EWS, or may be culturally resistant to trying new services until trusted intermediaries have vouched for it. Trust in a weather forecast is particularly difficult to foster - no forecast model is 100% accurate. Many smallholder farmers have experience only with forecasts that have very low temporal or geographic resolution, and understandably view them as only minimally helpful at best. EWS projects must plan for how to earn the trust not only of a farmer but of his or her neighbors and community organizations.
- Technical rollout should be flexible by default: Integration of data providers with ground partners takes time to perform, and it is usually difficult to know in advance what technical arrangement will work best for the target users. In addition, generating advanced agronomic value from data - such as field-specific varietal recommendations or an alert of a pest outbreak - usually takes careful sourcing of data and expertise about the region and crops in question. In many cases, the needed data and expertise may not exist, and must be generated as part of the project.
These challenges are common not only to many development projects, but also to new businesses in general. Incorporating greater private sector involvement is designed to help mitigate the risks involved in such projects, as private sector partners can help keep project business models viable and expectations realistic. At the same time, interaction with governmental and nonprofit partners has substantially boosted awareness among private sector actors of the opportunities available to serve smallholder markets.
aWhere believes that farmers in the developing world deserve equal access to climate data, and will continue to engage in projects that serve these communities. As EWS projects continue to evolve and grow, partnerships like these have great potential to ensure that farmers all over the world get the information they need.
 Projects in which aWhere has been involved have typically run baseline surveys of the target farmer communities. While not yet publically available, the results show high impact of variable weather on smallholders as well as desire for information solutions.
 https://wle.cgiar.org/thrive/2014/03/10/new-sms-service-connects-farmers-weather-and-water-information; http://reliefweb.int/report/malawi/scaling-use-modernized-climate-information-and-early-warning-systems-malawi; http://www.cabi.org/projects/project/32860