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Transmitting satellite information to farmers’ mobile phones

December 15, 2017

Access to timely and precise weather information is critical for smallholder farmers to make informed decisions and improve their resilience to the impacts of climate change, such as droughts, high temperatures, floods and a rise in pests and diseases. This was a key message at the recent review of an on-going project to scale up climate smart agricultural solutions to smallholder farmers in three countries in southern Arica region.

Through the project, CTA is working with national partners to promote a bundle of climate solutions, using a multi-layered approach to mitigate the impacts of climate change under its two-year southern Africa flagship project. The approach not only involves ICT-enabled weather information services, but also the use of stress-tolerant seeds, innovative index-based insurance (in which payouts are issued according to a weather index) and providing livelihood options for farmers through the introduction of livestock farming alongside crop cultivation. The Promoting Climate-Resilient Agri-food Solutions in Southern Africa regional project will benefit 140,000 farmers in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with the potential to expand this reach to 200,000 farmers within 3 years.

Public-private partnership

In Zimbabwe, the project supports a partnership between the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) and Econet Wireless, a telecommunications services provider. Under the partnership, a bundle of services is provided to farmers via their mobile phones as part of the EcoFarmer package, which includes micro insurance to cover farmers’ inputs and crops against damage due to poor weather, as well as localised, daily satellite-based weather information and farming tips. The EcoFarmer combo costs US$1 a month and, in addition to the services already mentioned, it is an integrated package that also includes funeral insurance cover, ZFU membership, input discounts – including for drought tolerant seed varieties – and market information.

“When we started, the combo ordinarily included weather index insurance, but then it also had agronomic tips for those farming crops and livestock,” says Prince Kuipa, senior ZFU economist. He explains that, “With the current project we added real-time weather information for farmers, as well as the promotion of drought tolerant maize varieties and livestock diversification.”

Changing mindsets

The promotion of the EcoFarmer combo in Zimbabwe has been carried out at the district level through trained agents, who explain the benefits of purchasing the product to farmers. The training of agriculture extension workers under the government Agricultural Extension Department (Agritex) has also been pivotal to rolling out the EcoFarmer combo as they help farmers to interpret the SMS messages received under the bundle service.

“Farmers now think differently when they see or hold a mobile phone,” Kuipa said. “While a mobile phone is a communication tool, it has become a knowledge sharing tool for the farmers, where they receive weather information and agronomic tips.”

Expanding networks

CTA senior programme coordinator and leader of the project, Dr. Oluyede Ajayi says the power of ICTs must be harnessed to promote climate smart agriculture on the back of the growing use of mobile telephones in Africa. According to the mobile industry association, GSMA 2017 Report, 1.1 million jobs were directly supported by the mobile ecosystem in 2017 globally, and this figure is expected to rise to 1.3 million by 2020.

“There are new opportunities to promote climate-smart solutions to farmers with satellite data and remote sensing offering better quality and more accurate rainfall estimates. In addition to new investment in automated weather stations, there are also new opportunities as a result of multiple mobile networks, the growing rate of internet connectivity and the availability of cheaper cellphones,” said Ajayi.

Scaling up the work of the ZFU-Econet partnership is the next step, as Kuipa states, “This is a launch pad. We will use the lessons learnt from this project to scale it out to other districts in the country.”

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Photo credit: CIF Action