Farmers and herders in Uganda's cattle corridor are benefiting from timely information on climate and weather patterns delivered on their mobile phones, over the radio and even in churches, thanks to an initiative that has won the backing of religious and other trusted community leaders.
The Climate Change Adaptation and ICT (CHAI) Project, funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre, has been tested in three districts - Nakasongola, Soroti and Sembabule - with one additional district, Rakai, being used as a control area.
Uganda's Ministry of Water and Environment and its partners are now analysing the results with a view to expanding the service, once they have determined the most effective ways of sharing information.
Paddy Seddinda, who lives in the Wabinyoyi sub-county of Nakasongola district, has been receiving 10 day forecasts from the CHAI team, and says they are fairly accurate - the first time he has ever been able to get good weather information.
For instance, forecasts last month predicted rain for January 15 and 25. "The rain actually came on those days, though later in the evening - the forecast had said early afternoon," Seddinda said.
"This enables me to plan - like now in the dry period when we are drying sweet potatoes, then on the days l expect rain, l make sure people are around to quickly remove them so we don't lose them."
Uganda's farmers and livestock herders have long been plagued by a lack of credible weather information, due to the authorities' inability to localise forecasts and package them in appropriately without delays. Early warning systems for extreme weather have also been patchy.
The need for a new service has become more pressing, as farmers say weather patterns are less predictable.
"We used to know when to plant and what to plant, and expected a good harvest because we knew when the rainfall would begin and end," said 80-year-old Richard Sebugwao from Nakasongola district. "Nowadays rainfall comes and ends abnormally and we do not know when to plant and whether we will survive the year."
STRUGGLING FOR WATER
District water officer Joseph Arinaitwe said the water level in wells gets low during the dry season and some water sources dry up, "so you find everybody struggling for water". "If you are weak, you may not have the strength to fight for the water," he added.
Of around 1,000 weather stations in Uganda, only about 60 are fully functional, meaning the data collected and distributed does not accurately reflect local conditions.
"At times, rain comes when people are not prepared to plant," said Joseph Opus, the National Agricultural Advisory Services coordinator for Soroti district.
"Sometimes it rains when the land has been prepared, but the rains are short and hardly enough to germinate crops, and because of this, there is food insecurity as most people depend on farming."
The CHAI project was launched in mid-2012 in response to this situation, with the goal of helping communities adapt to climate-linked water challenges through the use of information and communications technology (ICT).
It also aims to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change by providing a two-way loop for information, pushing it down to communities which then feed evidence back to policy makers to help them make better decisions.
A pilot phase to work out how best to collect, package and deliver weather and climate information was carried out from July 2012 to January 2014 in Uganda's cattle corridor, which covers 84,000 square km, around 40 percent of the country's land area.
According to the CGIAR research network, the region is ideally suited to livestock production, but overgrazing aggravated by charcoal production has led to a breakdown of the natural pastureland.
IDENTIFYING INFORMATION NEEDS
During the CHAI test phase, the information needs of communities were identified. They included awareness of climate change and variability, rainwater harvesting techniques, localised climate information, drought and flood coping mechanisms, livestock and crop market information, and termite control measures.
The government, NGOs, local council leaders, communities and researchers then teamed up to deliver accurate and timely weather information using mobile phones, FM radios and community loud speakers. This has allowed farmers to manage water and other climate risks more effectively.
Pastoralists have also been able to access information about looming droughts so they can sell their animals or reduce their numbers in good time.
Herders also said they urgently needed construction and rehabilitation of tanks and dams, promotion of water harvesting, and mapping of migratory routes so they know which can no longer be used to land tensions.
The CHAI project has also linked farmers with others who have a resource they need, such as low-cost water harvesting techniques or drought-resistant seeds.
"The two-way system is now functional," said Patrick Kibaya of Uganda Chartered Healthnet (UCH), one of the organisations involved in implementing the project, in collaboration with FH1 360, a U.S. nonprofit development group.
A total of 75 rainfall observers and agricultural extension agents were trained in all of the four district's 25 counties. A data collection module allows them to enter weather data into mobile phones and transmit that data to the project server in Kampala.
Weather data is collected from sub-counties via mobile phones and sent to a server at the meteorological department. It is used to produce a 10-day forecast and a seasonal three-month forecast.
"These are packaged and sent to the different stakeholders through short text messages on mobile phones, email, radio and market loud speakers," said Kibaya.
Farm extension agents in rural areas can also enter market data on livestock and crops into mobile phones and transmit this to the server.
The application supports five languages: Ateso, English, Luganda, Rululi, and Runyankole. A data analysis module automatically aggregates livestock and crop prices for each market outlet on a weekly basis.
District officials can send feedback via email, while farmers and other community members send their views in via SMS or radio, by phoning in and messaging during talk shows.
SMS TRUST ISSUES
Community leaders also use public gatherings and meetings to talk about the information. Religious leaders pass on messages during church services.
The initiative has been welcomed by local leaders, but they stress that the project's success will depend on the credibility of the information people receive.
"I have no problem with information being disseminated using mobile phones, it is a good medium. But there is a big problem that some people have abused this channel, and this is discouraging," said George Michael Egunyu, chairman of Soroti district.
Many mobile phone users have received scam messages aimed at conning them into paying out money to receive prizes, among other tricks.
Another problem is that information from reputable organisations often arrives with a delay. All this has led people to mistrust SMS messages, Egunyu said.
For mobile-phone dissemination of weather information to be effective, the project must build strong confidence in the messages it sends out, Egunyu added.
That could be achieved by making sure local chiefs and religious leaders communicate the same information directly to their communities and congregations, giving it weight and authority.
Despite teething troubles like this, the fledgling service has attracted attention even beyond Uganda. The information and networking division of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), which has 19 member states, has expressed interest in learning more about the project's information system.
"COMESA has requested us to send them a concept note on how best we can collaborate. We are now working on that," UCH's Kibaya said.
Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.