If you’re over the age of 30, there’s a good chance you remember the UK’s ‘Great Storm’ of 1987. Unlike the US, whose East Coast is currently gripped by a remarkable blizzard, us Brits are not used to such catastrophic weather events. And so the hurricane of 1987, and the devastation it brought with it, sticks long in the mind.
The event has spent longer gestating in the memory bank than it otherwise would because of the extraordinary way in which the extratropical cyclone – which saw winds of more than 120 miles per hour and 22 people killed in England and France – crept up on us. The Met Office reports broadcast by the BBC were so very much out of kilter with what actually happened, and Michael Fish’s “false alarm” promise is now celebrated as a classic gaffe.
Fortunately, inaccurate weather reports are something of a rarity and the fantastic work of forecasters is something we take for granted, certainly in the developed world.
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What would life be like if you had little idea of what the weather would be from week to week? Worse still, what would life be like if you were a farmer - whose family depended on the productivity of your land - if you had no clue as to what the weather had in store for the next few days?
Well, that’s the situation many hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers living and working small pockets of land in the Tropics around the equator face. Most forecasts are based on the observing patterns triggered by differences in pressure and temperature, creating low pressure systems and fronts. In the Tropics, these weather conditions just don’t exist, making forecasting virtually impossible.
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It is a problem that is being solved by Liisa Petrykowska, a scientist who has spent the last three years living and working with farmers in West Africa to help them better understand how much wind, sun or rain is coming their way in the week ahead.
Born and raised in Stockholm, Liisa’s Masters degree in meteorology and physics led her to the US where she worked on climate change research at the University of Washington as part of a NASA research project.
It was while monitoring climates in different parts of the world that she discovered that the formula for calculating weather patterns and forecast for the Tropics was extremely unreliable. Her idea for Ignitia was born and she set to work with a team of scientists to develop a complicated set of proprietary algorithms to “crack the code,” as she puts it and give farmers in places like Ghana much more accurate forecasts. In fact, the company’s technology gives on average 84 per cent accuracy in West Africa, compared to 39 per cent from a number of different competitors.
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But it’s not just the forecasts that Liisa has been working on. She has also made it her business to ensure that the information can be delivered to remote farmers working out in the field. So, farmers are able to sign up to a text message-based system, known as Iska, to access their forecasts. “The system is built to be intuitive and illiterate farmers can make use of it from day one,” says Liisa. For four cents per text message which works out about $4-$6 per season – about 1-2 per cent of overall input costs – farmers get a daily two-day forecast, as well as a monthly and six-monthly outlook and heavy-rain warnings.
What does this mean for the farmers? Well, studies of the farmer communities that Ignitia has so far been working with have shown farm income levels boosted by up to 80 per cent. With more accurate data, farmers can best understand when to sow their seeds or apply their fertiliser – something that was done largely by guesswork in the past. “I’m meeting farmers every day and their stories are amazing,” says Liisa. “Some say that we’ve helped them get their planting day right and some say that we have saved their whole yield because they knew when to apply their fertiliser, which is by far the most expensive thing they will do.”
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What’s next for Ignitia? Well, the team will move into Mali and Senegal this year, but West Africa is just the start for a technology that can deployed with similar results in all parts of the Tropics – from Indonesia and Colombia, to Kenya and Peru.
The challenge is reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of farmers that could benefit, something Ignitia has so far done well by teaming up with local telecoms companies. But the business will need more partnership support in scaling things up further this year. Watch this space.
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