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Space Technology to Battle Climate Change

The frosty midday weather hanging over highlands keeps farmers indoors waiting for the noon mist to clear. It should be sunlit this September, yet the sky is veiled by a thick blanket of fog.

Peter Mwihia, lean and wrinkled, says his entire coffee crop has lost all its berries, whose harvest would have fetched him income to buy food and pay school fees for his family.

Mwihia is among a growing number of farmers who are haplessly paying the price of climate change. The persistent cold caused his cash crop to be infected by coffee berry disease, whose virulence makes the raw berries to fall off, experts say.

“The chemicals for spraying to reduce the spread of this disease have become too expensive,” says Mwihia. “My only option now is to hope the maize and beans will not be affected by the changing weather.”

Luckily for him, the weather which can be as low as 10 degrees Celsius is suitable for farming other crops such as legumes and fresh produce. But in other neighboring counties, the sun sears the ground with determined scorn.

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Farmers there gave up on collecting a harvest a long time ago as they watched the crop wilt away in the farms.

“This is a weather situation known as micro climates,” explains Anthony Louis D’Agostino, a researcher with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Colombia University’s Earth Institute. “It is a peculiar weather feature that is not shared by adjacent locations.”

According to him, micro climates occur when there are certain shades of climatic features which are specific to a small location, and can be in the range of several kilometers.

But while the sneaky weather features are proving to be either suitable or costly to thousands of farmers like Mwihia, they are inspiring new thinking among agriculture researchers -including those passionate with index insurance for smallholder farmers.

In 2009, the Syngenta Foundation, collaborating with partners, introduced crop insurance, a process that compensates farmers in kind for losses incurred due to erratic weather.

By giving subsidies like fertilizer and seed for crops like maize, wheat beans and sorghum, the Foundation figured they could help climate hit farmers restart a fresh farming cycle.

The initiative has registered a successful streak, and this is why lately, crop insurance is also reaching out to coffee farmers. But there is a cloud in the silver lining.

Initially, the model used locally installed automated weather stations to gauge precipitation patterns in the farms.

Daily records would be used to establish if a particular region had experienced erratic weather, leading to crop failure.

Science as a Pillar for Economy

Space Technology to Battle Climate Change

“We used the weather records to develop index insurance for farmers based on the readings of that specific region as captured by the automated weather station,” explains David Muigai, a product developer with Syngenta.

However, Muigai is cynical about the remote data collection technology. According to him, the automated weather station collects and sends rainfall measurements every 15 minutes for that specific point.

“We are not able to have measurements of a wider range where there might be incidences of micro climates,” he says. “This makes it difficult to develop a compensation structure for farmers experiencing these climatic variations.”

Besides, he argues, the gadgets are expensive to install, do not store historic data, while birds disrupt data gathering when they build nests on the automated weather stations.

It is from this backdrop that insurers have teamed up with scientists, corporates and farmers to roll out satellite based weather sensing.

Scientists from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) say there are several ways in which satellite can measure weather, but for index based insurance, the Active Rainfall Climatology (ARC 2) application is the one in use for now.

According to IRI researcher Geoffrey Mc Carney, ARC 2 can be used to measure both the temperature and density of clouds, as a way of establishing the amount of rainfall falling on the ground on a daily basis.
While satellite sensing enables global coverage of precipitation estimation, automated weather stations restrict measurements to only those locations around a physical installation, explains Mc Carney.

“Satellite sensing doesn’t necessarily directly measure rainfall on the ground but it takes estimates from space,” he says. “They are also able to take measurements of places where the terrain is harsh to install automated weather stations.”

On an economical scale, the scientists argue, small holder farmers own small farms that measure a fraction of a pixel, which is the unit satellites use to map data.

Hence, in instances where there are micro climates, what happens in one corner of the pixel may not be the same reading at the other end, they say.

Such a technological advance is proving useful to index insurers, and according to Muigai, satellite sensing also provides historical data gathered more than 20 years ago.

Satellite sensing is well introduced in Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Indonesia as well as the Caribbean.

It is a partnership between Syngenta Foundation, IRI, UAP Insurance, and Safaricom Ltd. Farmers like Mwihia hope the initiative will free them from the shackles of climate change – at least for now.


This article was first published in 2008 and is currently republished for its importance.