Managing Drought for Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa

Abdul, a rice and maize farmer, is struggling to adapt to environmental changes in Northern Ghana. 

Abdul, a rice and maize farmer, is struggling to adapt to environmental changes in Northern Ghana. 

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the land is changing. Growing seasons have shortened, reservoirs have emptied, and rainfall is increasingly erratic. The effects of drought and climate change are prominent across the landscape.

In Northern Ghana, Abdul is a rice and maize farmer struggling to adapt to these changes. His livelihood depends on making the right decisions for his farm: which crops to grow, when to plant, and which fertilizers and seeds to purchase. Abdul is not alone, in fact, 60-90% of the region’s laborers are farmers. These small scale farmers are responsible for feeding nearly the entire population, and they all rely on one increasingly limited resource: rain.

Rain-fed agriculture accounts for 96% of all cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa, and that isn’t likely to change. A recent study in northern Ghana showed that of the various adaptation strategies to climate change, only a very small number of people are choosing to intensify irrigation.

The reliance on rain translates into a crucial need for accurate weather forecasts. While you cannot change the weather, being able to predict and adapt to difficult weather conditions can be the difference between starvation and making a living for subsistence farmers, many of whom live on less than two dollars a day.

Bringing highly accurate weather forecasts to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa is no small feat. My startup, Ignitia, an Imagine H2O Water Data Cohort Company, is tackling this challenge head on. By providing timely, location-specific weather forecasts via SMS, our goal is to help farmers adapt to variable weather conditions, and make the best decisions they can for their family. With better forecasting, farmers can time their planting and fertilizer application to make the most of the rain when it arrives. Our proprietary forecasting model is calibrated specifically for the tropics, so our accuracy is twice that of global models.

Ignitia's forecasting models have 2x the accuracy of leading global models. 

Ignitia's forecasting models have 2x the accuracy of leading global models. 

Beyond daily rain forecasts, our farmers also get a seasonal outlook. Access to information can truly transform decision making. When we caught up with Abdul, he told us, “I received a seasonal outlook back in March, which told me the season was likely to be hotter and drier than usual. So I decided to buy drought resistant fertilizer rather than my usual. It costs me GHC20,000 (about $6,000) but without it I would not have had as good a yield as I did.”

Every stage of the farming cycle is dependent on the weather, so access to accurate forecasting is crucial to reducing risk and improving yields. We’re helping millions of small scale farmers like Abdul access this information, one text message at a time.

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Ignitia is a high-tech social enterprise and a cohort company of the 2016 Imagine H2O Water Data Challenge. Ignitia benefits small-scale farmers in West Africa by sending a daily forecast via SMS, provided in partnership with major telecommunication firms.