A plan to improve weather data in Afrika

Farmers across Africa need weather data and climate projections to put food on people’s plates. But often the data does not exist or is inaccessible. The same goes for scientists trying to model how the climate is changing, and how diseases spread, for the planet’s second-largest continent.

Only 10 out of Africa’s 54 countries offer adequate meteorological services, the World Bank estimates, with fewer than 300 of its weather stations meeting the World Meteorological Organisation’s observation standards.

The Bank estimates it would take $1 billion to modernise key meteorological infrastructure.

An investment of that scale is prohibitive in countries where funds for basic services are often missing. But there may be a way around it: the Trans-African HydroMeteorological Observatory
(TAHMO) hopes to expand the continent’s weather-watching capacity for a fraction of the cost.

The not-for-profit organisation has an ambitious plan to deploy weather stations at every 30km. This would translate into 20,000 individual stations supplying weather data to information-thirsty scientists, companies, and governments. It estimates it can do this for $50 million, with an additional $12 million a year for maintenance.

It is thrilling to be in a position to transform the culture of African climate observations and the capacity for scientific discovery.John Selker

So far, about 500 weather stations — white cylinders about the length of a forearm and a shoe box-sized data logger — have been mounted on poles around the continent.

“It is thrilling to be in a position to transform the culture of African climate observations and the capacity for scientific discovery,” says John Selker, TAHMO co-director and a professor of hydrology at Oregon State University in the United States. Climate data is simply scarce, he says; and where it exists, scientists often have pay for it and jump through bureaucratic hurdles to get it.

Selker and colleague Nick van de Giesen from Delft University in the Netherlands established the observatory in 2010. The idea was seeded in 2005, when the two were performing an experiment in Ghana and needed rainfall data. “I asked where we could get [the data] from and [our colleague] laughed, and said there was no way we could get that data from anyone,” Selker recalls.

He had been working on electronic measurement methods and knew it was possible to develop sensors that could generate the data.

The continent’s climate is one of the world’s most understudied, according to the Future Climate for Africa report. And the authors of a World Bank report say the paucity of data from synoptic weather stations “inevitably results in poorer-quality numerical guidance and forecasts in those regions”. Calibration of the sensors used in surface observations is very important, they explain, but in practice few are calibrated to internationally accepted standards.

100 MB/year

TAHMO is trying to fill this gap with its network of weather stations. The non-profit teamed up with US-German company Meter Group to develop a weather station that measures rainfall, temperature, solar radiation, pressure, and wind speed, among other variables. The stations have no moving parts, meaning they are less likely to break and require maintenance.

Each station produces about 100MB of weather data a year, transmitted via a sim card in the data logger to a central database.

This data is available for free for scientists and local meteorological facilities, but companies wanting to access it need to pay. Selker says that, so far, TAHMO has signed memorandums of understanding with 18 African countries and received their permission to operate the network within their jurisdiction.

“It has been a massive challenge to convince African countries to make their data freely available,” he says.

Countries are suspicious of doing this because of ideas of national sovereignty and commercial value, according to Selker. “Their weather agencies have been under the impression that they can make a lot of money out of their data, even though no one has.”

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes its data freely available, and this is one of the main reasons why US climate and weather patterns are better understood than those on the African continent, according to Selker. “You can’t do science on proprietary data — it doesn’t help the building of scientific understanding.”

However, there is a reason African countries’ meteorological agencies charge for their data: many survive through selling it to make up for a continent-wide lack of investment in weather infrastructure, says Mark New, director of the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

TAHMO funds its operations, and the free provision to scientists and local facilities, by selling its data to companies. Technology company IBM is its biggest client: it channels the data into its subsidiary, The Weather Company, to use in its weather modelling. TAHMO also sells data to seed producers, insurers, farming companies, and consulting firms.

Intermediaries, whether they are businesses or non-profits, need weather data before they can develop the data-based services that farmers need.
Selker estimates the value of the data to the African economy at about US$100 billion a year, through industries such as insurance. “If we could insure those crops, farmers could take bigger risks,” he says. “As long as governments keep those data secured, that economic opportunity is missed.”

Ben Schaap, research lead at the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, says there are pros and cons to keeping weather data secure. If it is free, companies can more easily use it to innovate and create services; if the data is protected, the data provider can more easily create a business model around it — but this could make using the data less economically viable for other businesses.

The public-private partnership model under which TAHMO operates is a departure from the open-access national data provision services such as NASA, or the bite-sized donor-funded projects that aim to boost climate data capacity. Selker says the African landscape is littered with the detritus of donor-funded projects that survived for the duration of the project and then fell into disrepair when the funding dried up.

“Those other projects were just that -- projects,” adds Selker. “Instead, we’re an enterprise.”

However, for TAHMO’s data to benefit small-scale, poor farmers, businesses would need to know what they need and find it worthwhile to develop services for them, says Schaap.

According to Julio Araujo, research coordinator for Future Climate For Africa, there’s ongoing debate on the best model for delivering climate services, and TAHMO is one to watch. “Selling services to African countries… is an improvement over the status quo,” he says.

Data hunger

Scientists welcome the idea of free and easily accessible data, especially for areas where conflict and poor governance mean it simply does not exist, according to New.

John Kioli, chairman of Kenya’s climate change working group, welcomed the possibility of free on-the-ground data. “We need data for research and also forecasting. It is important to have reliable data and, if possible, data that is coming from Africa.”

Scientists have already started publishing articles using TAHMO data, says Selker. To access it, they simply need to apply and declare research use. “We’re sending data to scientists in the United Kingdom, US, Europe, and Africa. We’re seeing that hunger and demand for African climate data in the African science community too,” he says.

They could help answer scientific questions over how the African climate as a whole is changing, but also tackle uncertainties around how this change plays out on a city level.

“There are many possibilities,” says Marieke de Groen, TAHMO’s regional coordinator for southern Africa, who oversees eight stations in Johannesburg. She says weather data is essential to get a better understanding of water needs and water flows, which have implications for storm water management and how groundwater is recharged.

For a large city like Johannesburg, where it may be raining in one part while the sun shines in another, the effects of extreme weather events will not be uniform across the city, explains De Groen. “You have to get a picture of the distribution. Satellite and radar data help, but this is from the ground up.”


Cover image credit: Lightning reflected in Lagos Lagoon during a storm at night. Copyright: Panos

This article was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. For nearly 60 years the Bellagio Center has supported individuals working to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people globally through its conference and residency programs, and has served as a catalyst for transformative ideas, initiatives, and collaborations.

Once a year, the Bellagio Center hosts a special thematic residency bringing together a cohort of scholars, practitioners, and artists whose work connects to a common theme. In 2018, the residency will take place from November 5-30, and will be centered on the theme Science for Development. Applications for practitioner residencies are now open and applications for academic writing residencies open March 1. To register your interest, please email: [email protected] with “Science for Development” as the subject line.

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