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ICT-based weather forecasts empower Mzimba farmers

GRAB A TIP—The Baloyis listen to weather updates on radio

It is 9 O’clock on Wednesday of October 16, 2019, yet it is sweltering hot out there.

Langton Bwankhu Baloyi seeks shelter from the scorching heat under Mpapa tree in front of his house.

He cannot stand the sweltering heat. Barely two minutes after settling down on his wooden chair, has his mobile phone beeped to announce the coming of a new text message.

“Nyengo ya mvula yayandikira. Pokana kudzidzimutsidwa, onetsetsani kuti mwakonza munda wanu [Rainy season is fast- approaching. Prepare your farmland in readiness for the next growing season],” the message read.

Baloyi is among 2, 380 farmers who receive text messages on weather forecasts via their mobile phones in Elangeni Extension Planning Area (Epa) in Mzimba District.

With a little help from their mobile phones and apps, subsistence farmers such as Baloyi are changing the face of farming in Elangeni Epa.

Just like many other districts across the country, Mzimba is battling to eliminate hunger and poverty as the majority of its smallholder farmers are getting older and realising lower crop yields than before.

Realising the catastrophe that lay ahead of subsistence farmers such as Baloyi, National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (Nasfam) rolled out the Scaling-Up Climate-Resilient Solutions (CRS) for Smallholder Farmers in Malawi project to increase farmers’ usage of information, communication and technology (ICT)-based weather information services to build their resilience in bad years to help them survive and protect their assets.

The project, which is implemented in partnership with Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) of the Netherlands, has three climate resilient solutions that underpin this project.

These solutions include weather-based index insurance (WBI) awareness, Information Communication Technology (ICT)-enabled weather information services and drought-tolerant maize seed promotion.

WBI allows smallholder farmers to manage better climate risk, enabling investment and growth in the agricultural sector.

Thus, the association is working with the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS), which provides weather information to Nasfam for dissemination to smallholder farmers and stakeholders.

The weather data that is collected is triangulated with satellite weather data to minimise variances.

This entails that DCCMS enters into a service agreement contract with a third-party satellite data providers.

Elangeni Area Field Officer, Johnston Mughogho, says Nasfam realises that accurate weather information and forecasts enable farmers to make informed decisions, take advantage of favourable climate condition and adapt to change.

However, despite these benefits, access to regular and reliable weather information by smallholder farmers has been very limited – generally in developing countries and more specifically in Malawi.

“As such, farmers rely on historical weather patterns for decision-making but increasing unpredictability in weather systems has increased the risk for farmers. The most important decisions made by smallholder farmers are based on seasonal forecasts. Shorter real-time meteorological information and daily forecasts further help farmers to determine timing of various activities such as sowing, weeding and harvesting,” Mughogho says.

HANDY—Weather updates accessible on mobile phone

Furthermore, Nasfam organises seed fairs in the Epas to encourage farmers to take advantage of the enhanced rainfall to plant early-maturing crops; and most importantly, drought- tolerant varieties.

And through promotion of drought resistant seeds, Nasfam is working with seed companies and selected agro-dealers in ensuring seed availability to smallholder farmers at affordable prices, and sustain seed demand among them.

“All this is aimed at contributing towards enhancement of productivity and adaptation of agriculture under a changing climate,” Mughogho says.

Baloyi, who is also a lead farmer, says in the 2018/19 agricultural season, the weather forecast messages helped him plan well and this led to increased production of maize and soya beans—-the crops he usually grows for consumption and sale.

He says he is particularly excited that he no longer travels a long distance to access weather predictions from the nearest extension worker as everything comes in handy via his mobile phone and radio.

“In the last growing season, the messages helped me make the right choice on the type of seed to buy and plant on my farmland in line with the weather predictions. I realised 45 bags of maize in the 2018/19 agricultural season on a two-acre piece of land 35 bags up from the 10 harvested the previous year,” he says.

Surely such text messages on weather forecasts via mobile phone are proving handy to the farmers in view of climate change, which has made rainfall patterns unpredictable.

However, access to such information might be limited to the country’s six million-plus mobile phone subscribers out of the 18 million population 80 percent of which comprises small-scale farmers.

Malawi has low mobile phone penetration estimated at 42 percent as of 2017 research.

On the other hand even those who have mobile phone handsets, there are connectivity and power challenges to battle with.

“A low literacy rate of 64 percent also remains a barrier to accessing ICTs, and there is a significant digital divide along gender lines. Unreliable electricity and high cost of generator power strain ICT use. Less than 10 percent of the country has access to electricity, giving Malawi one of the lowest electrification rates in the world, according to the World Bank,” www.freedomhouse.org reports.

However, despite these challenges, there is no doubt that ICT has can play an important role in the growth of the agriculture sector, which is the mainstay of Malawi’s economy.

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