Independent Appeal: How the web can bring abundance to Africa

Computers and broadband have enabled Zambian weather forecasting to transform farmers' prospects, writes Basildon Peta

Friday 08 January 2010 01:00

On a continent plagued by droughts and floods, an unremarked revolution is under way in the arid Southern Province of Zambia where 58-year-old Munalula Mate has harnessed the internet to help forecast and prevent natural disasters. Once the bread-basket province of the nation, the region around the city of Livingstone has in recent years experienced a slump in its agricultural fortunes because of the floods and droughts that ravage the area at regular intervals. But thanks to Mr Mate's work, that trend is being swiftly reversed.

Mr Mate is a weather forecaster with a classical training from the UK's Met Office. For years he has compiled short- and long-term forecasts in the Livingstone area. But their usefulness has been constrained by two factors. First, the local data he has been able to gather has been severely limited. Second, even when he compiled the best predictions he could, they were out of date by the time they could be effectively distributed throughout the remote rural province.

But those obstacles were all put behind him once he had landed his first computer and internet connection. Disasters are now being avoided and farming output has risen in his area by an average of 10 per cent every year for the past five years.

Now Computer Aid International – one of the three charities for which Independent readers are donating money in this year's Christmas Appeal, which closes tomorrow – is working on expanding his pioneering work across the nine provinces of Zambia.

The scale of the change he has prompted is dramatic, says Ron Miyanda, of Zambia's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit. "His work has become central to our planning and it helps us put the requisite contingency measures in place."

During the major floods which hit the area last year, Mr Miyanda's department was able to evacuate villagers and their livestock from lowlands before the heavy deluge. Flooding was severe, and many lives were saved thanks to the forecasts that Mr Mate was able to provide.

"Early warning of the flooding of the Zambezi River during the rainy season saved many lives," says Stephen Campbell of Computer Aid International. "And aid workers for the World Food Programme in the Southern Province say that the speed with which the Department of Meteorology predicted the worst-affected areas during recent droughts helped them channel aid more quickly to those areas."

The quality of his forecasting consistently improved with the steady growth in bandwidth access in the towns in the vast Southern Province. "Most of our sub-stations are close to towns with access to the internet," says Mr Mate.

Computer Aid now plans to extend its assistance so that all five of the main provincial stations and 25 volunteer stations are equipped with PCs, as well as with better rainfall gauges, to improve the flow of data to Mr Mate's forecasting service.

It also hopes, if sufficient funding is available, to work with the Zambian government to extend the service to the rest of the country, which also falls victim to the vicissitudes of the weather. "At the moment none of the other eight provinces of Zambia have this capability – and they need it urgently," says Stephen Campbell. "We have a project plan, unfunded as yet, which will not just roll out equipment but also work with the UK Met Office to provide training." But it is not just disaster-avoidance logistics experts who have benefited from Munalula Mate's forecasting. The internet also enables him to minimise delays in getting forecasts out to farmers. At least 600 farmers and agricultural advisers receive his information directly, thanks to the internet. Many more tune in to broadcasts of Mr Mate's forecasts on the four community radio stations in the province.

The broadcasts provide crucial information to save livestock and crops from disaster, but they also help them with planning crop cycles. "Any farmer who does not know when to plant is in business to fail," says Mr Mate. "Nowadays people no longer plant at a set time like they did in the past." Forecasts help farmers capitalise on good rains and to avoid dry spells.

But they also provide important information which agricultural extension workers, who go out into the fields to advise farmers, can use to suggest changes in crops or seeds depending on whether good rains or droughts are forecast.

Maize is grown in abundance when steady rains are predicted in long-term forecasts. Drought-resistant crops like cotton and groundnuts, sunflower and sorghum become the norm when droughts are forecast.

Weather forecasting also helps farmers to maintain a healthy rotation of crops during planting seasons.

One of those responsible for disseminating Mr Mate's forecasts is Highlands Hamududu, of the non-governmental organisation Africa Now, which helps peasant farmers to market their produce. "He is able to extrapolate and analyse information from global forecasts to bring it to the district level," says Mr Hamududu. The information is vital in advising farmers on what crops to plant and when, he says.

Now Munalula Mate has his eye on a bigger challenge. He wants to use his improved network to input information about the reality of climate change to international campaigners fighting global warming.

"We all live in one world," he says, "and the dereliction of duty in fighting climate change by big powers will in the end affect all of us – regardless of whether you are in the developed or developing world".

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