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Helping farmers make real decisions

Hanna Camp

ICT Update spoke to Hanna Camp, client engagement manager at aWhere, to discover in more detail what the company’s role is in the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service (MUIIS).

aWhere is a small company that has been in the business of providing agricultural intelligence for almost 20 years. The company focuses mainly on weather and agronomic data. ‘We use 3D modelling on top of satellite and ground station data to create a global grid surface,’ says Hanna Camp, client engagement manager at aWhere. ‘The grid is approximately 9 km by 9 km and covers all of the areas that we refer to as agricultural earth. So we’ll have some modelled weather for any place where someone is growing something.’ These datasets reach back at least 10 and sometimes 20 years into the past. ‘We want to be sure that farmers all over the globe have access to a forecast and truly historical record of their farm, not just the closest ground stations but a real location-specific record and a forecast for their farms so that they can start to make real decisions based on the weather,’ Camp says.

The impetus for that, of course, is climate change. Weather has become much more volatile and unpredictable recently. This has made it more difficult for farmers to make decisions, especially when they do not have access to any real weather information for their farms. That is where a company like aWhere can make a difference. It can use its database to get a high-resolution look at food and food growth all over the world. ‘For example, if we think that cocoa is going to be facing serious challenges in the next couple of years in West Africa because the conditions are becoming more hostile to the trees, then we look at where conditions might be getting better. What we can do to partner with people who want to start growing new types of food in places where they maybe weren’t able to grow it before? What kind of tools do they need, and what sort of historical analysis might they need to convince them?’

Converting data into 150 useful characters

aWhere uses a multipronged approach. It partners with both private companies and NGOs. Indeed, the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service (MUIIS) project fell very much in the sphere of the projects that the company likes to take on: farmer-specific projects that try to get high-resolution information down to the farmers. Another appealing aspect of the project was the idea of creating a business model that would sustain itself after the project is done. ‘Too often, a project’s funding dries up and then it no longer sustains itself,’ Camp says.

Like eLEAF, aWhere’s role in MUIIS is to package the satellite data so that it is useful for farmers on the ground. The satellite data is processed on aWhere’s server every day. In the case of forecasts, they are updated every four to six hours. The data is immediately available on aWhere’s application programming interface (API). ‘That’s the primary tool that we use to communicate with the ground,’ Camp says. ‘We work with Ensibuuko, our main ground partner, who run the ground systems. They also have some developers on the ground who we work with to connect to the API so that they can automatically update their data for all of the subscribed farmers as frequently as they like.’

The data is filtered out by farmer location and then aggregated into a seven-day recent history, for example. ‘We check whether the rainfall has been above or below a set amount. If it has been below a set amount, that triggers a pre-set message. And if it’s been above a certain amount that may trigger a different message.’ The system also checks for a different set of risk thresholds, not just precipitation but also temperature, for example. If it has been unusually humid, for example, that would be a risk factor for diseases. When there are multiple risks, the system sends priority messages. ‘What it really amounts to is that people have taken the data from our system and translated it into a very simple 150-character text alerting the farmer of the risk and telling him a very simple action he might be able to take,’ Camp says.

Farmer feedback

MUIIS is a three-year project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Netherlands Space Office and its Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) programme. One of the things that makes this project stand out is that it is designed to be a sustainable venture that continues after the initial three years are over. ‘G4AW has been incredibly ambitious and supportive,’ Camp says. ‘This long time period that we were given to develop this product has been really important. Some of the other projects we work on tend to be very short-going. While you can develop a product in that time period, you really don’t get the chance to deploy it in the field, test everything out and get the farmers’ feedback.’ Feedback is an important aspect of the product development cycle. It gives the partners in MUIIS the opportunity to sit back and assess what works and what does not work. And ultimately improve the service. 

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.