Weather forecast for improved sesame farm management and yield loss reduction: Lessons learned from BENEFIT-SBN

Farmers in sesame production zone in Northwest Ethiopia have to deal with (increasingly) unpredictable weather conditions. And lack of weather forecast has been one of the major reasons for severe yield and post-harvest losses. Now, thanks to a pilot project, jointly run by National Metrological Agency (NMA), CommonSense and BENEFIT-SBN, they are able to reduce their risk of crop failure from heavy rainfalls or recurring dry spells by using accurate weather information via Short Message Service (SMS).

During the 2017 and 2018 cropping seasons, location-specific weather forecasting service was provided through weekly SMS messages informed more than 3,000 farmers and agriculture professionals about expected weather conditions. The farmers living area and production zones GPS coordinates were taken and the SMS was sent to registered farmers and professionals from 8338 number. It contained the next three days expectations in rainfall, temperature and wind, and was sent in local languages. ‘Training of trainers’ (ToT) training was organized to woreda and kebele agricultural experts and teachers (to incorporate in their daily lesson plan) on the meaning and interpretation of the forecast.

With the help of this weather information, sesame farmers and agricultural professionals were able to better plan their farm activities, to mitigate risks and increase resilience. They are making better decision regarding land preparation, planting, weeding, harvesting and related labour needs, and decide on post-harvest management activities to reduce yield losses. At the same time, weather forecasts were improved and fine-tuned, based on accuracy checking of forecasts and feedback from farmers.

Assessment conducted on delivery, understandability, accuracy and usefulness of the weather forecast SMS service pilot showed that such services can help develop sustainable and economically viable sesame value chain, improve sesame and rotation crops production and quality and reduce losses and risks. Field survey results confirmed that the weather forecast SMS service has significant effect on the performance of farmers’ farm activities, especially to avert risks related to weather conditions.

In addition to supporting farmers decision-making using weather information and agro-meteorology forecasts, the pilot institutional objectives were to evaluate the accuracy of the ECMWF model, to cross-fertilize the NMA and ECMWF models and to improve NMA services, both in terms of forecast reliability and reach to farmers. The weather forecasting service provided is based on the European Centre for Medium range Weather Forecast (ECMWF) model.

Key lessons learned and practical / institutional recommendations

1. It is important to deliver practical training and provide close follow-up to cascading training to agricultural professionals and farmers to ensure that the weather information in the SMS message is clearly understood. Even though the number has improved over the years, the assessment showed 13% of the sample farmers did not fully understand the text message properly.

2. Weather forecasts have to be in the local language. The date and period of the forecast, as well as the location for which it applies have to be clearly indicated.

3. To reach illiterate farmers (40% in the sesame zone), involvement of family members enrolled in education is important. Collaboration with schools and teachers providing and explaining weather information during lessons could improve the reach and understanding of weather forecast services.

4. Weather forecasting should start at the end of the dry season and continue until all crops are harvested and bagged, so that farmers benefit from weather information for all farming operations.

5. If possible, inclusion of seasonal forecasts can contribute to a better long term agricultural plan.

6. The provision of weather information has to be accompanied by the training on how to use it for farm management decisions. Weather forecast messages could be followed by messages indicating options for adapted farm management. This would require collaboration of the meteorological agency with agricultural research and extension. A call service that farmers could use for extra explanations would make the activity even more relevant. For example, using weather forecasts to protect cereals from rainfall damage by using plastic sheets for sesame stacking and drying. And for cereals, putting wood on top of sorghum and millet piles to protect them from the wind.

7. The only way for achieving sustainable results is through collaboration with institutions mandated for weather forecasting services, and ensuring continuous financing of weather forecast systems. Much attention has to be given to the testing of models with continuous feedback from the end users, and to modalities to reach out to (different categories) of farmers. Although a pilot may be largely based on project funding, modalities for sustainable funding are of fundamental importance. In the sesame zone, farmers, who have experienced the service, are ready to pay for the weather information. In the case of commercial commodities, like sesame, a levy system could also be an option. In addition, although the NMA was involved in the pilot and institutional objectives were clearly formulated, NMA recently decided that weather forecasts in Ethiopia should be based on the NMA model, even though the ECMWF model proved to be able to deliver precise, location-specific forecasts. This created an impasse, causing the interruption of services to farmers in the current season (2019).

Testimony

SBN weather forecast picMr. Gurshaw Yilma, a 33 year old sesame farmer who lives in Tegede woreda, North Gondar zone, Amhara region, has been using weather forecast text messages to plan his farm activities. Rainfall forecasts are most important to him. He said “The SMS message I received alerted me to do harvesting and threshing earlier as rain was expected. I usually have two permanent laborers who normally perform the threshing activity. This year, after I received the SMS that indicated a high chance of rain earlier than usual, I decided to hire six additional labours to finish the harvesting, stalked and threshing before the rain. I was able to reduce the risk of post-harvest losses (seed falling from the capsule) that could have happened because of unexpected heavy rain.”

In addition to this, following SMS message indicating very high chance of rain, Mr. Gurshaw covered his pile his harvested millet with a plastic sheets to prevent damage and his harvested forage that was left in the field to dry, to protect his animals from fungal disease.

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