Digital Innovation for Climate-Resilient Agriculture
Life on the 475-meter smallholder farms across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) has always been challenging. With little access to improved inputs, formal markets or finance, smallholder agriculture yields fall far short of their potential. This affects individual livelihoods and impacts local food security. The impacts of climate change on rain-fed agriculture, which accounts for over 95% of the farmed land in sub-Saharan Africa, are increasingly felt through gradual shifts in local climates, increased incidence of crop pests and disease and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. These impacts are providing additional challenges to an already vulnerable sector.
Digital technologies are strengthening traditional responses to these challenges and enabling new ones. They are both key enablers of emerging climate resilience solutions, such as weather index insurance and precision agriculture, and catalysts for existing services, such as agriculture-advisory, early warnings and agricultural credit.
The role of digital services in enabling smallholder responses to climate changes
Digital climate resilience services enable smallholders to better manage the impacts of climate change through the provision of vital information or financial services. Weather and climate services allow farmers to make better decisions based on forecast weather and climatic conditions, ranging from several hours to several years in advance. Data-driven agriculture services draw on remote sensing, weather and farm-level data to monitor agricultural activity and enable evidence-based decision-making. Agricultural digital financial services enable access to improved, climate-adapted technologies and provide a safety net against income loss due to unusually adverse weather conditions. Satellite-based remote sensing, Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled sensors and open data repositories mean that more data than ever is available on our atmosphere and natural resources. Advances in computing and artificial intelligence are providing increasingly efficient methods for extracting value and developing services from this data that can support smallholder farmers. These services can be delivered through mobile phones that currently cover 90% of the population in most LMICs.
The weather data gap in LMICs
Remote sensing data from satellites is becoming increasingly comprehensive as public and private space agencies operate larger numbers of satellites carrying more sophisticated instruments. This data, ranging from atmospheric observations to vegetation density maps, is the cornerstone for innovation in most modern weather and agricultural services. Despite this game-changing nature of satellite data, its value is greatly enhanced when complemented with ground-level observations. Ground-level data, which is used to refine satellite-based models and can unlock further service innovation, remains scarce.
Among the key data gaps that remain for digital climate resilience services are the location of farmers, which is crucial to providing site-specific services, and weather observations, which are key to improving the accuracy and resolution of weather forecasts. This gap in weather observations is particularly salient in tropical climates where weather events are highly localized and short lived, meaning they escape satellite observation and the coarse weather station networks typical to LMICs. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it is estimated that there is one weather station per 26,000 square kilometers — eight times lower than the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) minimum recommended level.
Observing rainfall using mobile networks: the role of commercial microwave links (CML) to address the data gap
Ericsson and the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) are addressing the weather observations gap using data from existing mobile communications networks under the Ericsson Weather Data (EWD) initiative. Mobile networks use microwave signals to transmit data between mobile towers. As microwave signals are scattered during rainfall, received signals are reduced, and these reductions in signal strength can be converted into rainfall intensities. Since mobile networks cover over 90% of the population in most LMICs, this data can be transformative to the types and quality of climate services offered in these markets.
A GSMA AgriTech report covers weather and climate services, data-driven agriculture services and agriculture digital financial services as they directly impact farmers’ ability to overcome the challenges presented by climate change. It outlines how CML rainfall data can be used to enable or improve digital climate resilience services, and identifies opportunities for revenue-generating partnerships between mobile operators and organizations, such as weather forecasters, agriculture intelligence providers or insurers.