Ghana: Sending weather forecasts by SMS

| October 15, 2018

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Near the equator, weather patterns change rapidly and are difficult to predict. Powerful storms can form in a matter of hours with little warning. And climate change is making matters worse. In some cases, it’s altering rainfall patterns and reducing the number of growing days available to farmers.

As a result, predicting weather is increasingly ineffective and inaccurate. This makes life difficult for small-scale farmers like Ernestina Esuo, who lives in the Ejura/Sekyedumase District of Ghana’s Ashanti Region. With her husband, she grows maize, yams, cashews, and other crops. It’s important for Mrs. Esuo to know when it will rain, so she can decide when to plant seeds and apply pesticides.

Ignitia is a Swedish weather forecasting company that may have a solution. The company says it has developed the world’s first tropical weather forecasting model, with an accuracy of 84%—much higher than the 39% accuracy of global tropical prediction models. Ignitia currently sends daily, 48-hour weather forecasts by SMS to more than 400,000 paying small-scale farmers across Ghana, Nigeria, and Mali.

Mrs. Esuo is one of these subscribers, and says the daily weather forecasts have benefited her greatly. She explains: “I do spraying, so whenever I check the message it helps me know the right time to do my spraying. It also helps me do whatever I have to do on time before it rains, be it washing in the morning, or any other activity…. It has helped me to the extent that I even tell other people what the weather for the day will be.”

Ignitia uses data from a combination of satellites, World Meteorological Organization standard observations, lightning detections, and global models. The company makes predictions after running this data through algorithms and models on supercomputers. Ignitia’s prediction model took several years to develop before it was ready for commercial application.

Andreas Vallgreen is Ignitia’s chief science officer and helped design the system. He says: “The basic equations—they fail at the equator. For example, if you go to an online weather provider, you will see Accra is supposed to rain every day for the next ten days…. We have four categories in our forecasts: dry, likely dry, rain likely, and high chance, and [each of] those represent a certain rainfall chance. Based on our model, if we say it’s a 60% chance [of rain], it actually rains 60% of the time. The categories we provide do what they are supposed to do, which is represent reality.”

Ignitia’s SMS weather forecasts are localized to each subscriber’s area, and texts are available in English, French, and local languages, including Twi and Ewe in Ghana. Not all subscribers are literate, so the texts are standardized and farmers only need to recognize a small set of keywords.

Farmers often share the SMS messages amongst themselves, which means that illiterate farmers have access to the information. According to the company, each farmer shares the weather forecast with an average of seven other people.

Ignitia operates as a social enterprise. Billing is done on a seasonal basis, so receiving forecasts throughout the rainy season costs farmers about $6 US. Several NGOs and other organizations have formed partnerships with Ignitia to provide forecasts to their beneficiaries. Independent surveys suggest that the majority of farmers find the fee affordable and receiving Ignitia’s forecasts worthwhile.

Agyeman Eric is a farmer in the Kasapin District of Ghana’s Brong-Ahafo Region. Mr. Eric says he finds the messages beneficial. He grows okra, eggplants, and peppers, and says the messages helped him earn additional income. He says, “My father and I were going to plant one day, but the forecast said it would rain. So we did not plant, but instead planted the following day.”