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Using weather data to support smallholder agriculture in Africa

Evert-jan Quak

Providing added value services for smallholders using open weather data in developing countries is challenging. Therefore, on 21 and 22 November 2017 practitioners, policy-makers and academics gathered in The Hague, the Netherlands, to explore in two workshops the practical and strategic challenges they face to work with open weather data and how to address them.

The two workshops were part of GODAN Action (Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition), a three-year project funded by DFID that seeks to enable data users, producers and intermediaries to engage effectively and practically with open data in a developing context, and maximise the potential for impact by building the capacity of stakeholders. Open and accessible climate and weather data was chosen as GODAN Action’s first thematic topic to become a catalyst for business development and capacity development with the aim to put research into practice and achieve impact. 

An important outcome of the workshops is the acknowledgement that providing weather data based support to farmers goes beyond being familiar and being able to work with weather data. It requires a broader view on standards, entrepreneurship, partnerships and ways to combine all kinds of data. The two workshops enabled a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges of open weather data for smallholder farmers and gave stakeholders knowledge and insights to establish improvements in the open weather data value chain. 

Challenges

During the two workshops, many challenges for the further development of open weather data and its infrastructure were mentioned by the participants. For example, one challenge is to ensure that data remains accessible and services that are built around open weather data are affordable for end-users, like smallholder farmers and farmer organisations. However, weather data is often regarded as a strategical and commercial asset, as data means control and meteorological departments are under pressure to earn money themselves. 

Even with complete freedom to innovate with open weather data, people will face limitations because of bureaucracy and regulations. For example, who regulates the introduction of innovative weather services? Other constraints to make weather data more accessible to farmers, farmer unions and extension workers is that the context is rather technical. It requires significant knowledge and capacity to collect and analyse the data. High investments in capacity development are needed to add value to translate data into timely, localised, readable and useable information. In the development context, though, capacity and skills are still lacking behind. 

Value chain approach 

The participants agree during the workshops that the open weather data value chain, which includes data providers, intermediaries that translate weather data into services, and the consumers, must be demand-driven and as short as possible to reduce costs and make services cheaper. A farmer centred approach is necessary to create impact with open data as there is no one-way direction of providing weather services to farmers, as service providers should integrate into their products local structures, local languages and indigenous knowledge. Rural communities can also play a vital role in weather data collection and maintaining remote weather stations with citizen observatories. Hence, co-creation in the value chain could increase much needed levels of trust with local stakeholders. 

Four areas of interest were identified on which open weather data can have immediate impact for farmer services: weather forecasting, weather alerts, index-based insurances and improved farming monitoring tools. Enablers for impact for these areas of interest that were mentioned during the workshops are capacity building (tailor-made for all stakeholders in the value chain), financing (of resources and aggregation as costs come down with larger farmer groups), infrastructure (as more weather stations need to be equipped, maintained, and more technical support is needed for data collection and analysing), communication channels (to connect supply with demand), and policy (as governments can increase incentives for investment and collaboration).

Business opportunities

Fortunately, there are several opportunities for the further development of open weather data to achieve impact. Better satellite data and data from drones help to improve weather data collection. Also, integration of weather data with geo-data becomes easier through ICT solutions. It was also mentioned that there are increasingly better entrepreneurial opportunities in Africa, like support for business innovation that increases creativity. Young entrepreneurs are more likely to work in agriculture by making use of ICTs. Finally, pilots with crowdsourcing show the opportunity of citizen science, although there are still challenges to check data quality and how this implicates with standards. 

The key issue for sustainability are solid business models, beyond project funding and subsidies. It is not an option to provide localised services for free and expecting them to continue in the long term. When funding stops, projects stop and in-worked teams break-up. It is the bundling, packaging and selling that is the way forward to create business models; less focus on stand-alone weather information services. Another solution could be for farmers to pay just a small subscription fee after they can choose between a premium and freemium service, where premium is paid for highly specialised services. Adding advertisements to services is what some entrepreneurs do as well. 

Partnership and collaboration 

Co-creation in the open weather data value chain requires collaboration with many stakeholders. In such way they create trade-offs between initiatives and stakeholders on which competition can be channelled. Governments should drive this process to create the best environment in which multi-stakeholder partnerships can thrive. Currently, government actors are not moving quickly enough to do this. Therefore, it is key to motivate private sector and farmer organisations and cooperation to become the main drivers that work together with national meteorological services. This is only possible with a clear business case or if new markets can be reached. To become attractive for business it is important to focus on: reliability, affordability, branding and marketing. 

More is needed to guarantee verifiable, quality weather data. That is why the introduction of standards is important: it creates reliable markets, quality checks for data and guidance to improve specific tasks and skills. It seems for now that for observational data, one of the issues is that different stations work with different standards and produce data that are not easily and straightforward to merge. It would be a step in the right direction if some collaborative work was done to improve on this. The GODAN Action map of standards and the work on weather data standards of ODI can be a first start.

Action agenda 

One of the key results of the workshops is the start of a Community of Practice that will map partnerships and leverage existing networks with the aim to improve the open weather value chain and provide management advice to smallholders. It will share knowledge on the use of crowd-sourcing, citizen observatories, inclusive business models and cost-effective structures. The community will not be financially driven, but solution driven to motivate stakeholders to participate. The assurance was given to look for practical ways to make the value chain more demand-driven, for example with knowledge platforms where farmers and farmer organisations can engage and share with other stakeholders their issues with weather data, feed-back mechanisms and needs. Hackathons will be used to engage with young entrepreneurs to look for innovative solutions and make use of open weather data. Furthermore, participants promised to clarify and communicate better about the benefits of open weather data for agriculture. 

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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.