Volume 61(1) 2012

Reaching the Last Mile with Mobile Weather Alert
The user-interface platform in action

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Hundreds of thousands of lives, and livelihoods, are threatened and lost every year in Africa due to the impacts of climate variability and severe weather conditions. Some, if not most, of such losses could be avoided if populations had access to reliable and localised weather information in a timely manner.

Many essential economic activities could also be better planned, and food security improved, if people were well informed of seasonal climate predications and could take appropriate actions. Agriculture, for example, would vastly benefit if farmers had seasonal information on rainfall and temperatures to help them decide which seeds to plant – yields would improve and, with it, the livelihood of the entire community.

Significant technological advances and analytical breakthroughs in the prediction of global climate and severe weather have led to the development of reliable weather and climate information products and services. But few in the developing countries, where the information is often most needed, have access to high-quality weather and climate products. Where such information is available, it is uncertain that it reaches the end-users who need it most and whose livelihoods depend on it. And, if it does reach them, it is uncertain that the users are able to understand the information and make decisions based on it.

WMO, through its network of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services around the world, is working to improve this situation by bridging the “last mile.” With support from the Norwegian Government and the World Bank, the WMO Mobile Weather Alert project pilots the dissemination of weather and climate information directly to end-users in Uganda, taking advantage of the widespread availability of mobile phones.

Targeting farmers and fishermen

Over the past decade Africa has experienced an incredible boom in mobile phone use. According to International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Africa has had the fastest expanding mobile telephone market – growing at twice the rate of the global market – over the last five years. In sub-Saharan Africa, 9 out of 10 inhabitants with access to a telephone are using cellular telephony. In Uganda, 13 million people, about 38 per cent of the population, own a mobile phone. And there too the number is growing.

The WMO Mobile Weather Alert pilot projects launched in Uganda have two components, one targeting farmers, the other fishermen on Lake Victoria. Both emphasize the importance of continuous interactions between service providers and end-users. To be relevant, it is essential that service provider understand the real, on-the-ground, needs of end-users and are certain that those users understand the meteorological information that will be sent to them and can use it to make sound decisions.

Will it rain soon? That’s what we need to know!

In Kasese District, in the south-west of Uganda near the boarder of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rain usually starts falling in the period from late February to early March, converting dry, red soil into green vistas. Farmers plan their ploughing and sowing activities on this long-standing temporal pattern of precipitation. But this is changing.

Some time ago on a late-March day, when Bithibanji Adidas, a farmer in Kasese, looked up the sky, there was still no sign of rain. In the previous weeks, clouds had covered the sky several times but only a few drops had fallen. The local farmers were worried and kept turning to him for advice, but he had none.

measuring
 
© Clare Wise de Wet
 

Bithibanji is the “Community Knowledge Worker” of the Grameen Foundation, an organization that helps local microfinance institutions to become more effective and that provides innovative mobile phone-based solutions to the poor. He has a smart phone, given to him by the Grameen Foundation, on which he can access a range of valuable information regarding agriculture. On it, for example, he can see the buying prices for various agriculture products at the different marketplaces in the region, information he shares with the local farmers, which helps them to determine where to bring their crops to market. It also gives him access to other practical information, such as how to deal with damages diseases and harmful insects cause to crops. The Grameen team in Kampala works with various partners to keep the information he receives up-to-date.

So Bithibanji’s friends, fellow farmers, were used to coming to him whenever they needed more information than what they could observe themselves on which to base the decisions to be made on their farms. Bithibanji used his “magical” phone to answer their inquiries. In so doing, he acted as an information intermediary, responsible to help other farmers in his community with the mobile devise entrusted to him by the Grameen Foundation.

But the question he was asked most frequently, “When will it rain?”, remained unanswered. On that most important question, his magical phone was silent.

Launch of the farmers’ weather alert module

Some 90 per cent of Uganda’s rural population survives on subsistence farming, which is mostly rain fed, so it is not only Bithibanji and farmers in his community who long to know what weather and climate to expect for the next season. To increase their resilience to changing climatic conditions and improve their livelihoods, all Ugandan farmers need to access such information and use it in decision-making.

Thus, in February 2012, the Uganda Department of Meteorology launched the agricultural component of the Mobile Weather Alert pilot project in Kasese District in close collaboration with the Grameen Foundation and WMO. The project aims to enhance the end-to-end process in agro-meteorological services and to deliver agricultural advisories in conjunction with 10-day, monthly and seasonal forecasts more directly to farmers in Kasese District through Community Knowledge Workers.

The success of the project depends on effective two-way communication between the service provider and end-users. A training workshop, organized for the 21 Community Knowledge Workers in Kasese District at the launch of the project, offered an ideal opportunity for enhancing interaction between the two groups. During the workshop, a meteorologist from the Uganda Department of Meteorology offered an explanation of how to interpret weather and climate information and agricultural advice, and Community Knowledge Workers openly discussed what types of information products they would like to receive and what would be most helpful.

For the first time, Bithibanji spoke directly with a “weather man”. He was able to gain understanding of their work and of the different parameters measured at the weather station at the Kasese Airfield.

The farmers’ component of the Mobile Weather Alert project in Kasese District also duplicated an initiative that had already proven successful in West Africa: plastic rain gauges were distributed to the Community Knowledge Workers so that they too – like the meteorologist – could record daily precipitation and participate in data collection. The Community Knowledge Workers were instructed on how to use the gauges and how to send the information to the Uganda Department of Meteorology with their cell phones. The data they collected would improve the quality of the weather and climate information products that the Uganda Department of Meteorology would provide back to them.

So, when will it rain? The Kasese Community Knowledge Workers received the first seasonal forecast and agricultural advisory in the first week of March 2012. Now, Bithibanji can tell his fellow farmers when the rain is likely to start.

The Kasese pilot project will run until the end of 2012, when it is expected to roll out to a wider audience across Uganda.

Fishermen on Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria, the largest lake in African, is divided between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Some 200 000 fishermen depend on the Lake for their livelihood. The fishing is usually carried out in small, overloaded, wooden boats. Lake Victoria is also extensively used for transport and trade. But most of those accessing the Lake cannot swim, and life jackets are not readily available to them. As a result, sudden strong winds, which bring high waves that capsize the wooden boats, have been estimated to cause the death of some 5 000 fishermen every year on Lake Victoria.

woman checking cellphone
 
© Clare Wise de Wet
 

Thus up-to-date, accurate and easily accessible weather information is critical for the millions living from and along Lake Victoria. The use of mobile phones could improve the dissemination of storm warnings and prevent unnecessary loss of lives on the Lake. Fishermen would be able to make more informed decisions on when and where to fish if they received weather information and warnings on their cellular phones. Even if they were already out on the water when the information came in, they could use it to decide whether to stay on the Lake or seek shelter in safe havens. Weather information would help to save many lives and would enhance the livelihoods of the communities around the Lake, where many fishermen are the sole providers for large families.

The Uganda Department of Meteorology and WMO, together with Ericsson Communications, MTN Mobile and the National Lake Rescue Institute, piloted the Mobile Weather Alert service for fishermen in Kalangala District in south-western Uganda in May 2011. Since then, one thousand fishermen from various communities in the Ssese Islands have registered for the service.

During the pilot project, tailored local weather forecasts were sent to registered fishermen every day by SMS (short messaging service). The forecast were provided by the Uganda Department of Meteorology, which is also responsible for providing severe weather warnings over the islands’ part of Lake Victoria. The Uganda Department of Meteorology links to MTN Mobile through an application developed by Ericsson, which ensures forecasts are captured in an appropriate way and delivered through the SMS platform to the fishermen in the islands.

An important part of Mobile Weather Alert project was, again, the establishment an interchange between the pilot communities and service providers in order to collect feedback on the service. The National Lake Rescue Institute played a key role in this as they have a long history of interaction with the fishing communities. In addition to the continuous feedback on the usability of the service, two surveys were carried out in order to gain a better understanding of the acceptability and usefulness of the service amongst the communities as well as how the service could be improved in the future.

Fishermen highly valued the accurate and specific information delivered to their mobile phones. The service is in provided in the local language, Luganda, and messages are easy to understand. Abubakar Mutyaba, a fisherman from Bubeke Island commented, “The Mobile Weather Alert has enhanced our lives in many different ways. It has helped by informing us of the weather conditions on the lake and has reduced accidents.”

“The Mobile Weather Alert has done a very good job,” also noted Robert Ssebalamu, a fisherman and trader from Kalangala District. He explained, “Before we would go on the lake without knowing if the weather would change or not, but now it is just a matter of looking at my phone in the morning and I am informed on how the conditions are going to be during the day and I can decide whether to go onto the lake or not.”

The pilot project demonstrated the clear demand, and need, for these types of services in Uganda.

Mobile Weather Alert project in action
 
 
The February Mobile Weather Alert workshop facilitated communication between the service providers and end-users. The two groups gained an appreciation of each other’s work and information needs.

 

Improving the delivery of climate and weather services

Behind the Mobile Weather Alert project lies regional initiatives such as the long-standing Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum, which issues the consensus based seasonal climate outlook twice a year, and the Severe Weather Forecasting Project (SWFP) for Eastern Africa, which is aimed at strengthening the capacity of the National Meteorological Services in the region and improving the confidence of forecasters in respect to severe weather events.

The Mobile Weather Alert also aims to enhance the weather observation network of Uganda to support the provision of higher quality weather and climate information products. For the farmers’ part of the project, in addition to the one currently deployed at the Kasese Airfield, two new weather stations have been installed in Kasese District, which will be integrated into the national observation network.

Observations of the lake surface temperature are of particular importance in forecasting severe weather in the Lake Victoria region. Differences between the temperature of the lake surface and the surrounding land surface generate convective weather processes that produce thunderstorms, which bring heavy precipitation and strong winds. The UK Met Office is helping to install observations on the Lake and is supporting the forecast team in Uganda in order to improve severe weather forecasting.

While the lack of weather information is starkest in Africa, mobile telephone solutions are suitable for expansion to other regions. The services provided in the Mobile Weather Alert project are designed to be replicable and scalable to any community and can be adapted to fit other user needs that rely on weather in decision-making.

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