2010 CIAT/Neil Palmer
2010 CIAT/Neil Palmer

How climate data is transforming agriculture decisions in Africa

AgData Hubs currently being established by the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, Zambia and Senegal will be jointly owned by the government’s meteorological and agricultural departments.

The hubs integrate data from multiple sources to help farmers make informed decisions about which crops or varieties to plant in a given location and when to sow them.

A tested digital innovation

Farming in the semi-arid tropics, which are home to some 2.5 billion people, has always been challenging. It has been made even more difficult in recent years by rising temperatures, changing patterns in rainfall and more frequent droughts.

Now more than ever, farmers require accurate real-time climate information to help them plan their agricultural activities.

This is the aim of the Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research in Africa (AICCRA) programme, launched in six African countries in 2021 with support from the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank. A significant component involves the development of AgData hubs.

“We are establishing a system that blends agricultural and climate data in a way which will provide valuable information not just to farmers, but a wide range of public and private sector organisations,” says Ram Kiran Dhulipala, a scientist specialising in digital agriculture and innovation at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Before moving to Kenya in 2022, Dhulipala worked on a similar initiative in India. This is acting as a template for AICCRA’s AgData hubs in Africa. A unique collaboration of agencies made it possible to access meteorological data and agro-advisory information, which was integrated into a mobile phone app, Megdhoot.

The app, which has been downloaded by over 300,000 farmers, provides weather information and forecasts generated by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), as well as climate-related agro-advisories.  

The AgData hubs currently being established by ILRI in Kenya, Zambia and Senegal will be jointly owned by the government’s meteorological and agricultural departments.

The hubs will integrate data from multiple sources at various spatial and temporal resolutions and use dashboards to help users make informed farming decisions, for example about which crops or varieties to plant in a given location and when to sow them.

Partnerships are key to success

For Kenya, most of the work on the AgData hub has been carried out in conjunction with the Kenya Agricultural Observatory Platform (KAOP), which was established in 2017 by the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO).

In Senegal, the AgData hub is incorporated into the Multidisciplinary Working Group (GTP) hosted by the national meteorological service, Agence Nationale de l'Aviation Civile et de la Météorologie (ANACIM).

In Zambia, the AgData hub is being integrated into the government’s Zambia Integrated Agriculture Management Information System (ZIAMIS), which is hosted by SmartZambia Institute, the e-Government division under office of the president.

The creation of the AgData hubs has been enthusiastically endorsed by the national partners. “This project offers a model that is reliable and sustainable, and if successfully implemented, we will have an alternative source of data for KAOP," says KALRO Director General, Dr Eliud Kireger.

The data will improve KAOP user experience and increase the accuracy of weather forecasts. This will make it better value for farmers visiting the platform for agro-weather advisories.

In Zambia, the AgData hub could help to boost farmers’ productivity and incomes. “The AgData hub will be an important resource not only for the meteorological department but for the agriculture sector and for researchers, who will now have a better understanding of the ways in which the climate is impacting agricultural productivity," says Edson Nkonde, Director of the Zambia Meteorological Department (ZMD).

He believes the hub will help to improve the advice provided to farmers so they become more resilient to climate change.

Getting users the information they need

Key users of the AgData hubs in Africa will be public and private sector extension agents. They will be able to click onto a map and drill down to a weather station most relevant to their location, where they will find specific information about past weather conditions, current conditions and future forecasts. The ultimate aim is to provide enough analytics to create location-specific agro-advisories for crops and livestock.

Feedback from farmers using the Megdhoot app in India has mostly been positive, but many farmers wanted the advice to be more site-specific. At present, the advisories cover relatively large areas, often of varied topography. Once the AgData hubs have been fully launched in Africa, it will be important to fine-tune the information so that it becomes more relevant at the local level.

The information and advice provided by the new AgData hubs could be disseminated in a variety of ways. “We see this as a mothership, pulling together a wide range of data that can feed into existing information channels,” says Dhulipala. For example, radio stations looking for content could draw on the information provided by the hubs and package it in whatever way they consider suitable for their audience. Organisations like Mercy Corps and iCow, which already serve large networks of farmers, will also be able to use the data. The private sector could bundle agro-advisories with their main products, such as seeds and financial services.  

Options for long-term sustainability of the hubs

Experience in India and elsewhere suggests that farmers rarely pay for data.

If the AgData hubs are to be sustainable, rather than supported by governments or donors, then funding must be found.

Among the groups which might make a contribution are banks and financial institutions which provide services to farmers.

Currently, if a bank is providing loans to farmers in a remote area it will often have little or no understanding of the level of risk posed by the climate.

However, if it uses the information provided by the AgData hubs, it will be in a much better position to evaluate risk and price its products accordingly.

This would apply equally to insurance companies working with agricultural industries.

There is an emerging body of evidence that suggests that climate information services which are location and context specific could significantly enhance the ability of smallholder farmers to cope with climate change.

Within the next few years, the AgData hubs being established with support from AICCRA could have a transformative influence and help farmers to become not only more resilient but more productive.

The hubs will also help politicians and policymakers improve their decision-making and provide a rich source of information for farmers’ organisations, development agencies and NGOs.