What began as a research problem for John Selker and Nick van de Giesen six years ago has evolved into a bold plan to cover Africa in weather stations.
The two university professors — one from the United States, the other from the Netherlands — were studying Africa’s climate in 2009 when they realized that data on changes of atmospheric water was very hard to come by.
After weeks of searching, Prof. Selker and Prof. van de Giesen decided to build their own network of stations and gather the data themselves.
“That’s how TAHMO started,” says Zachary Dunn, East Africa field director for the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory, also known as TAHMO.
The non-profit organization, which has an office in Nairobi, has installed three automatic weather stations in western Kenya, near Homa Bay and Migori, and 27 others across Africa.
Its goal is to set up 500 to 600 such units throughout the country, about one for every thousand square kilometres — and more than exist on the continent.
“What they do is measure all standard weather parameters — wind speed and direction, solar radiation, barometric pressure, precipitation (rainfall), temperature and relative humidity,” Dunn says.
Wealth of information
This data is critical to Africa’s prosperity, as crop productivity and food security pivot on the weather. The numbers could also help create early warning systems for floods and droughts, which not only benefits smallholder farmers but also the companies that insure or do business with them.
“As we install more weather stations, we expand the coverage insurance companies have,” he explains. “It’s a complicated value chain, but basically the result is that weather insurance is more available and less expensive.”
Understanding climate data can also help eliminate diseases like malaria and cholera, and improve the efficiency of economic sectors such as transport and tourism. Reliable stations will also provide insights into climate change.
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), there are less than 200 automatic weather stations in Africa that meet their observation requirements and more than 70 per cent of countries on the continent have “poor or obsolete” infrastructure for measuring atmospheric water changes.
At a disaster risk reduction (DRR) conference in Turkey in February, WMO Africa director Joseph Mukabana said: “Only Botswana, Egypt and South Africa can be said to have modern, top-of-the-range equipment than can be relied on to effectively capture the right data and help in DRR.”
TAHMO plans to change that for Kenya with automatic stations local weathermen describe as “robust, easy to install and maintain, yet cost effective”.
“Weather data is an invaluable input in policy and strategy for sustainable development,” says David Mburu, senior assistant director of research and development at the Kenya Meteorological Service (KMS).
He says Kenya’s 140 or so automatic and manual stations are “inadequate”. At least 1,000 stations are needed to monitor the country’s climate properly, he reckons, but installation of such a system has historically proven difficult.
“This is an expensive undertaking and in the 1990s, the network deteriorated due to bad economic conditions,” he explains. “Later, technology changed so rapidly we could not cope. There was also resistance (to new installations) because of the belief that automatic systems would replace workers.”
Good for business
In April 2014, TAHMO struck a deal with KMS allowing the non-profit to set up stations in Kenya provided their data is available to the Government free of charge. In exchange, TAHMO can sell the data to private or public for-profit entities including hydro, telecoms, construction and aviation companies.
The data will likely be distributed to subscribers for less than Sh10,000 per month, per station and available free of charge to non-profit organizations.
A typical automatic station costs between Sh460,000 and Sh920,000. Each of TAHMO’s sensing units or “microenvironment monitors” costs roughly Sh138,000 — significantly less, but not as low as the Sh45,000 Prof van de Giesen had once hoped was possible. The solar-powered stations have no moving parts and are cellphone-enabled, uploading data over available mobile networks.
Acre Africa, an insurance surveyor with headquarters in Nairobi, says the market for index-based weather insurance is “young but rapidly developing”, which makes TAHMO’s project particularly timely. More than 230,000 East African farmers are insured through a range of Acre Africa’s products, all of which have been developed within the last six years.
“Certain weather conditions can impact supply chains, which can affect commerce and retail operations if stocks are not received in time,” says Rahab Karanja Kariuki, head of sales and marketing. “TAHMO’s innovations are a step towards improved and localized data at reduced costs.”
TAHMO is currently funded through the Global Resilience Partnership and Securing Water for Food Program, which are supported by USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Government of the Netherlands.
It is working with Human Networks International (HNI) to make its technology accessible for individuals. The global development organization runs a mobile phone search engine service called 3-2-1 that operates without an Internet connection, and could be used to spread TAHMO’s weather data.
“It asks you what you want to hear about… they have around eight topics,” says Dunn. “If you’re a farmer, you could choose ‘Agriculture,’ and select ‘Forecast,’ and find out if you need to plant.”
Getting Africa covered
TAHMO eventually aspires to set up a network of 20,000 stations across sub-Saharan Africa, but is focusing on rural Kenya for now. It hopes to install about 35 stations in Kenya by the end of the year and 200 by the end of 2017, when it hopes to be financially self-sustaining.
“The major barrier to entry in this market is the national meteorological agencies,” Dunn says. “Weather data is a public good, so you have to work with them. There are companies selling weather stations, but as far as I know we are the only ones trying to setup and maintain a continent-wide network.”
So far, each of its monitors have been installed in local schools — Lela Primary School in Migori, St. Elizabeth Koyoo Mixed Day School in Homa Bay and Homa Bay High School — as part of its international School-2-School programme.
“The purpose of this is to pair schools where we install stations in Africa with schools in the United States and Europe,” says Dunn. Partnering schools work together to raise funds to acquire the units and fencing materials necessary to protect them, then collaborate on weather-related lessons.
TAHMO is currently developing a set of lessons on weather sensing that will be implemented between sister schools in participating countries: the US, the Netherlands, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
“We see it as a way to empower the next generation of students to be informed about weather, climate, remote sensing and computer science,” Dunn explains.