On weather forecasts and mobiles…

“We’re trying to get the seasonal forecasts to farmers in West Africa. In this case, most of the farmers are dryland. The kinds of decisions they need to make are ‘do I plant this week or wait for two or three weeks? There are X days before the rains are expected.’

“First, we’re working to help them improve their seasonal forecasts and, then, getting that information to the farmers.

“Part of the challenge of that isn’t the actual information but how it is communicated. How best to get across to farmers the level of certainty? What do different probabilities mean?

“Traditionally, West African farmers look at things like if the wind has changed direction. They see that as a sign that the rains are about to come. Striation in the clouds is another indicator they use.

“We’ve been doing a series of workshops to help get a better mutual understanding of what the information means, how it can be used, reliability, and so on.”

On the long-term implications and infrastructure…

“When you talk about infrastructure – say, the design of a dam or irrigation project -- you need to consider a timeframe of decades. At the moment, that’s where there are really big gaps in our modeling.

“A lot of climate change predictions for agriculture talk about 100 years in the future. That’s fine because we know there are certain trends.

“But what about 10 to 20 years? That’s somewhere between the large, long-scale trend and the natural variability that happens constantly with the El Nino and that kind of thing.

“That’s very problematic and is the biggest technical challenge at the moment. There’s a very big global program called CORDEX that’s trying to take this bull by the horns. Still, I think it will be about 10 more years before we can give farmers accurate decadal forecasts.”

Has there been such a good response to this sort of thing because of population jumps?

“There is huge market demand for anything that can help small-scale farmers. Think of the proportion of the workforce in developing countries that is still in agriculture. In India it’s about 50 percent even though that country is middle-income and highly technological. In Africa, the proportions are 75 percent, 90 percent working agriculture.

“So, there is a huge demand for anything that can help them.

“Perhaps the biggest difference between farmers in those countries and wealthier countries is the amount of capital available to individuals to implement new technologies and practices.

“That’s why there’s been such success with mobile phones – the actual cost per farmer is pretty cheap. As long as you reach a huge number of them, you can make something that is commercially viable. We’re not just dealing with international aid-financed pilot projects. They scale up to be commercially successful very quickly.

“The money transfer program in Kenya is now fully commercial. It began with a small development grant to the company Safaricom. Now, it’s massive and highly profitable.”

For more, see here, here, and here.