Dodoma — At a remote agricultural research centre in drought-prone central Tanzania, farmers have learned how to use real-time weather information delivered to their mobile handsets to work out more suitable planting dates, boosting their yields.
The FarmSMS initiative, led by the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), aims to help farmers working on the sun-baked soils around Hombolo town, 48km north of the capital city, Dodoma, to reduce their risk of crop failure amid recurring dry spells.
Farmers in this area have long relied on traditional weather forecasting methods to decide when to plant their maize crops. But since 2007 they have incurred big losses as drought spoiled their harvests.
That is now changing thanks to the pilot project run by the TMA since 2010, in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
Participant Debronia Kitundu said his maize yields have improved remarkably. "I found the weather information very useful," he said. "Under the same conditions, I have been able to raise my crop harvests because I followed the advice given by researchers throughout the season."
The 48-year-old farmer told Thomson Reuters Foundation he has enjoyed better yields ever since he began following expert forecasts and tips, especially on planting dates, compared with when he relied on indigenous moon-sighting weather predictions.
"I could hardly manage five bags of maize per hectare before, but... with guidance from researchers, I was able to get between 15 and 20 bags of maize per hectare last season," he said.
Farmers in Hombolo, which lies on Tanzania's great central plateau, have repeatedly been discouraged by local extension officers from growing maize due to drought, and advised to switch to hardier crops such as finger millet and sorghum.
But even though the farmers can't do anything about sparse rainfall, the TMA/WMO pilot project has provided accurate weather information and additional help from agricultural experts, giving them a better chance of avoiding poor yields.
The aim of the project was to evaluate the advantages of weather information for agriculture. It ran in three phases from 2010 through 2013, involving about 20 peasant farmers on eight plots located in western and central Tanzania. Funding is now being sought to roll out the service on a larger scale.
The findings from the sites in Hombolo and Tumbi, in the Tabora region of western Tanzania, show that farmers who acted on scientific information from weather experts reaped bigger harvests than those who relied on traditional weather forecasts.
"Crop yields for experimental farmers in Hombolo and Tumbi increased by about 50 percent and 125 percent respectively, indicating that the use of meteorological information and advice in farming activities had significant impacts on their final crop yields," says an unpublished research paper on the project.
The study also indicated it was important to plant earlier than normal to avoid plants being in their most vulnerable, reproductive state around February when the longest dry spells are occurring.
TMA Director General Agnes Kijazi said farmers who follow weather forecasts from the agency are better able to foresee and reduce climate-related risks.
"Farmers should cooperate with extension officers to make best use of information provided, especially when it comes to the proper time for planting and manure application," she said.
The TMA's principal meteorologist, Augustine Kanemba, explained that farmers on the project's experimental plots had been furnished with information, including the start of the season and expected rainfall distribution, using short message services (SMS) sent to their mobile phones via a web-based platform.
They were also advised to listen to the radio or watch television for regular weather updates. And they were given guidance on how to prepare their land, choose seeds, weed and apply chemicals like fertilisers.
"Other inputs such as seeds and chemicals were provided by the project equally to all farmers, depending on their decisions made prior to the start of the rainy season," Kanemba said.
The study compared their yields with those of other farmers who were not given weather information or agro-meteorological advice.
Nzumbi Pascal, a Tumbi ward agriculture extension officer, said that despite poor rainfall during two consecutive seasons in 2011/12 and 2012/13, farmers who acted on weather information and related advice enjoyed better harvests than those who stuck to normal methods.
Pascal said farmers on the experimental plots had made decisions about what varieties to plant and when based on seasonal forecasts, monthly and decadal updates, and the accumulated amount of rainfall for sowing.
The information was provided both through emails sent to nearby agro-meteorological offices, and by customised text messages sent direct to farmers' mobile phones.
The results of the project could be useful in quantifying the benefits of meteorological information and services to national social and economic development.
Agriculture is the leading sector in Tanzania's economy, providing livelihoods and employment to over 80 percent of the population. It accounts for over half of both gross domestic product and export earnings, and is a key pillar in the country's development strategy, Vision 2025.
In the past decade, most parts of the country have become vulnerable to extreme weather and climate events such as drought and floods. The TMA says meteorological early warnings are increasingly important because agricultural production is largely rain-fed, and rain patterns are shifting.
Experts warn that the effects of climate change are likely to be severe for sensitive economic sectors, including agriculture, water resources, ecosystems and health.
"Poor countries such as Tanzania will be most negatively affected by climate change because of their limited adaptation and coping capabilities," said Pius Yanda of the Institute of Resources Assessment at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.