Climate change often affects those who have done the least the cause it, and who are least equipped to deal with its consequences. With ever-shrinking cycles of drought in Africa causing crops to fail, many small-scale farmers across the continent are being left high and dry. But a number of new initiatives – all based around the simple SMS – may help them tackle the climate change challenge head on.
Ethiopia is currently facing the worst drought the country has seen in 50 years, while Somalia is experiencing the same kind of poor rains that caused the food shortages in 2011 that killed a quarter of a million people. These changes, which have caused crops to wilt and families to starve, are thought to have been caused in part by human-induced climate change. In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 95 per cent of farming is rain-fed, meaning the production of crops is almost entirely dependent on the weather, and millions of these farmers are not informed about the sheer size of the environmental changes that they are facing. And without access to information and resources, they’re unable to act affectively, unable to adjust their practices to be more resilient and sustainable in the long-term, unable to protect their livelihoods.
However, recently a number of initiatives have sprung up that empower vulnerable farmers to create agricultural solutions that are adapted to a changing climate. One of these is Ignitia, a social enterprise that delivers tropical weather forecasts to small-scale farmers in West Africa, via text message, and for a low fee. By giving farmers access to short- mid- or long-range reliable weather forecasts (their service is 84 per cent accurate, as compared to global forecasts such as those found on the BBC, at only 39 per cent accuracy in West Africa), they allow them to prepare themselves and their crops more effectively. The forecasts are tailor made and GPS-specific to each farmer’s individual location, and the SMS messages received cost the farmers the equivalent of just 0.04 USD a day. To date, Ignitia has reached more than 80,000 farmers and sent over 6 million weather forecasts.
Another initiative comes from Switzerland, from a company called Sarmap. They’ve managed to develop a digital data monitoring system that detects changes in land topography and climate, also using satellite technology. This data helps increase farmers’ productivity by supplying them with information before they start planting, allowing them to make informed decisions about what to plant and where. This gives a huge boost to the area’s natural resource management and increases farmers’ productivity, as well as giving confidence to insurance companies and credit institutions wishing to invest in agriculture.
And aside from these international projects, there’s opportunity for innovation closer to the ground too. With approximately two thirds of people in sub-Saharan Africa now using mobile phones, millions of small farmers are able to collect and disseminate climate-related data themselves and play an integral part in shedding light on general climate trends. In Uganda, for example, a programme developed by the non-profit Grameen Foundation involves small-scale farmers not just as consumers of climate-related information, but as crucial suppliers of it too. They employ a network of local community members – agricultural workers themselves – to give their fellow farmers information on weather, caring for their crops, and treating pests and diseases. This data is then collated and used to indentify and control the development of dangerous weather-sensitive outbreaks of crop disease.
Drought and desertification is one of the biggest threats currently facing humanity, but with the right tools, and sufficient information about the impact of climate change on their crops, farmers in the worst affected regions can be given a chance to adapt to the changing climate, improve the resilience of their crops and ultimately succeed in securing their futures.