Rainfed agriculture accounts for 95% of all food production in Africa, meaning that any changes in rainfall patterns affect food security for millions on the continent.

To help farmers to improve their yields, Iska, a service that delivers hyperlocal weather forecasts via mobile phones, is helping them determine when to plant, add fertilizer, and harvest their crops at the optimum time.

Iska was created by Sweden-based Ignitia, and it came second at the first Agricultural Innovation Investment Summit run by USAID held in Washington, DC in June.

The service was piloted in six countries - Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal - with farmers receiving localized weather forecasts specific to their GPS locations that they can use to plan their crop management activities. Indications are that yields are improving as farmers use this data, which consists of short- and long-term weather forecasts, to plan their crop management activities.

“Using the forecasts more than doubled my yield last year.” - Enoch Addo

Ignitia now wants to expand into other West Africa countries using a $2.5 million grant from the Securing Water for Food challenge funded by the governments of the United States, Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

Lizzie Merrill, project manager at Ignitia, says that Iska's weather forecasting model has more than double the accuracy of existing models.

“Iska is one of the first forecasting system to produce highly accurate weather predictions for the tropics,” says Merrill.

Iska sends a 2-day weather forecast message to farmers' phones daily, along with a monthly weather outlook forecast sent once a month, and a six-month seasonal outlook sent twice a season.

“Traditional global weather models have only been able to predict weather in the tropics with 39% accuracy – not good enough for a population of three billion people, up to 80 per cent of whom are small-scale farmers", Merrill.”

Ignitia says Iska has a weather prediction accuracy rate of 84 per cent.

For these farmers, especially those in the dry climates of Sub-Saharan Africa, she says, the slightest change in weather could result in significant losses.

The service is riding on increasing adoption of mobile phones in Africa, particularly by women, who are often tasked with working the fields and planning for the harvest.

“Our direct-to-mobile strategy is useful in lowering barriers to technology adoption for women,” Merrill notes.

Constance Ankomah, a subscriber from Ghana, says that even barriers such as illiteracy cannot prevent them from using the innovation, adding that some of her friends who cannot read the message let their children or people from the village to read it for them.

“Using the forecasts more than doubled my yield last year", Enoch Addo, a cocoa farmer from Ghana, adds. "I normally collect 10-15 bags of cocoa, but last year, because I was able to spray fertiliser and pesticide at the right times, I was able to collect more than 30 bags of cocoa.”

Over the course of a season, Addo could save up to 3,300 Ghana cedis (about US$830).

Addo is just one of 80,000 users who have subscribed to Iska since it went live six months ago.

Weather predictions in the tropics needs good financial and intellectual investment, Peter Okoth, a consultant agronomist and soil scientist at the Kenya-based Newscape Agro Systems Ltd, adds. This way, the errors that have previously resulted from inaccurate forecasts can be reduced and hopefully eliminated, since this tool provides reasonable weather forecasts for sub-tropical Africa.

Okoth adds that the innovation should be replicated in many dry areas of the African continent.

“Policies that can support such investments shall bring a big change on how farming is conducted and managed on the African continent,” Okoth says. "African governments could benefit from increased incomes to farmers resulting from such investments."

Published by Scidev.net Sub-Sahara Africa Desk

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