Innovation—particularly in information and communication technologies—occurs daily. Innovation in devices, applications, business models, and infrastructure delivery is critical to overcoming barriers in access and affordability to tools and information that smallholders need. This section identifies and discusses new or recent innovations in ICT that are or could be useful to agriculture and rural development.
ICT for Rural Disaster Preparedness
Natural disasters present some of the most significant threats to agricultural productivity and livelihoods, particularly for smallholder farmers. Though national weather and disaster prediction systems are becoming more advanced, they are worth little unless localized and disseminated to farmersin a timely, accessible manner. ICTs can be used to both predict natural disasters and, crucially, warn smallholders so that they may make preparations to mitigate losses during extreme weather events. These capabilities are more becoming more important as climate change results in less predictable, more frequent, and more severe disasters.
The ubiquity of mobile phones in rural regions has proven fertile ground for companies or agencies seeking to use applications to improve access to information and services. Mobile phones and features like SMS have also created the opportunity for stakeholders to receive extreme weather warnings that are accessible and targeted. The need for mobile alerts strengthened following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Many countries and organizations have developed tsunami alert systems with mobile phone components, which have been successful in alerting high-risk individuals like fishers during subsequent tsunamis. ICTs offer significant versatility; the same subscription-based system of sharing market information or integrating tsunami prediction into alerts can be adapted to predict droughts, provide localized weather forecasts, or alert farmers of impending climatic disasters.
Two innovative projects are attempting to use mobile phones and other ICTs to avert economic losses caused by natural disasters. The Bangladesh Friendship Education Society (BFES), funded by the Bangladeshi Government, is constructing a system of local, volunteer-driven Community Climate Care Centers (CCC), which will provide information on climate events to farmers, both through mobile alerts and through the Care Center facilities themselves (CCCs shown to the left, photo credit Amader Gram). These centers aim to connect rural farmers in the most vulnerable parts of Bangladesh to national and localized information on agriculture and weather, with a focus on coping with and adapting to climate change. They will be equipped with computers, Internet, and capacity for video conferencing systems, providing low-cost ICT-enabled services to villagers. The BFES is developing a network of national and international programs to ensure access to pertinent information on changing climatic conditions and recommended adaptations.
One key objective of these centers is to assist rural communities cope with natural disasters. Through collaboration with government programs like the Cyclone Preparedness Program, the centers will send natural disaster alerts to individuals and farmers in their communities through SMS (this information will be available at the physical centers as well). Another important focus of these centers is community engagement through local volunteers. These volunteers will be trained, equipped with cell phones, and charged with acting as intermediaries between the centers and assigned portions of the community. In the event of disasters, it will be their primary responsibility to communicate early warnings to those in the community who cannot receive mobile warnings. They will also assist in collecting data on their communities, which will become a resource in efforts to prepare disaster management plans. Community members will be able to bring questions on climate change and disaster preparedness to their local volunteer. If the volunteer cannot answer the question, he or she can refer to an appropriate specialist via the ICT available at the CCC.
In Kenya, where agriculture accounts for 75 percent of jobs, and 80 percent of the land is arid or semi-arid, droughts can be crippling (as seen with a major 2011 drought). Sophisticated drought monitoring systems exist on a macro level, but they do not provide localized warnings. The Kenyan Meteorological Department (KMD), in partnership with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC), has developed and is now piloting a more localized early warning system to mitigate negative effects from drought. The system utilizes a custom Android phone application that sends weather data gathered from local-level sensors in a wireless sensor network (WSN) to a central database. It also incorporates traditional knowledge about weather forecasting gathered from local communities via SMS. Farmers can request drought forecasts from a customized agent-based SMS facility that are then sent back to them in their local language at low cost. The forecasts are modeled from a combination of traditional knowledge, historical weather data collected by the WSN, and current local conditions. The system supports alerts for more extreme weather as well. Information on both weather conditions and forecasts is also accessible through a web portal.
This early warning system overcomes multiple barriers to communicating accurate and timely weather information to rural farmers. Previous forecasts were too broad to incorporate significant regional variation in conditions, and alerts were generally sent in English. Trust and engagement are also increased by looking to local knowledge as a key source of forecasting information. By localizing the information inputs and outputs, the KMD is making itself more relevant for the subsistence farmers who are highly susceptible to damage from serious weather events. The system is currently being field tested in two locations, with results and further expansion expected in the coming months (which will be posted later).
For more information on these projects and related technology:
Click here for more on wireless sensing networks (pdf).
Click here for more on traditional knowledge and weather forecasting.
Click here for more on ICT use in managing water/climate change (pdf).
Click here for more on drought indices in the Horn of Africa and globally (pdf).