Ignitia provides highly accurate weather forecasts to small scale farmers in West Africa. The innovation lies firstly in our forecast accuracy, which 2x as accurate as global models for tropical areas, and secondly, in the text-lite SMS format we send the forecasts in. Small scale farmers need rain forecasts to better manage water resources and farming activites (95% of agriculture in Africa is rain-fed). For just $0.04/SMS, a farmer can double yields and increase his income by as much as 80%.
Our forecasting model is unique, and 2x as accurate as the next best forecast. Moreover, we use satellite data and a highly-automated model, allowing us to scale quickly. By providing reliable forecasts through an easily accessible channel (and capitalizing on the extensive, and growing, mobile infrastructure in the region), we're able to provide better info to more farmers than anyone else in the market. When farmers can access and rely on our forecasts, they can better manage their water use. All other weather information comes from public meteorological agencies and private meteorological companies on forecasting services in West Africa, none of whom have developed an atmospheric model with a numerical weather prediction that is focused on tropical weather in West Africa. Furthermore, scientists capable of producing an atmospheric model similar to that of Ignitia are limited in number and are typically employed within academia and research institutions. The difficulty in attracting expertise to create a similar atmospheric model provides a technological barrier to entry, allowing Ignitia to scale its business with limited competition. Because of this, the other Agricultural Extension ICT services, which aim to deliver farmers information and advice, including weather forecasts, by mobile phone, often use the global model forecasts to source their weather information. These forecasts suffer from an accuracy below 50%. Due to the lack of ground monitoring stations, even National Agencies which use global models, are unable to improve the accuracy of forecasts. So while these other initiatives successfully use mobile technology to provide farmers valuable information on best practices and market prices, the lack of reliable forecasts has diminished their capacity to harness the power of climate information that will allow farmers to improve their water management/farming practices by planning around the rain/climate change. For example, we’ve had farmers purchase drought-resistant seeds when the seasonal outlook said it would be drier, an expensive decision, but one that will ensure the crops survive at all; if the daily forecast calls for heavy rain farmers will delay applying fertilizers or spraying pesticides so that it is not washed away; notifications of heavy rain also help reduce the loss of harvest if crops need to be dried. These decisions increase yields and resilience, which ultimately leads to an increase in profits and a better livelihood. Our own farmers have reported doubled yields in cocoa, and up to $3300 ($330/acre) in savings per annum on expensive inputs that were optimized around rainfall. With more accurate rain forecasts, farmers are able to reduce risk, increase yields, and adapt more succesfully to a rapdily changing climate.
We launched our commercial product in Ghana in September of 2014 and around 15,000 farmers subscribed during the last 6 weeks of the rainy season. The service re-launched for the 2015 season in May, and 100,000 farmers have now subscribed to receive daily forecasts. More impressively, our dropout rate is less than 3%, validating the need, usefulness, and viability of our service. This year we are exanding our services to Mali, Senegal, and Nigeria and expect to reach at least 300,000 farmers.
How does your innovation work?
Our innovation is two part. Firstly, Ignitia has developed a preliminary, unique weather forecasting model that is developed specifically for West Africa. While weather prediction for mid-latitude regions such as Europe and the US has made great progress over the past century, the Tropics remains a key challenge. Typical forecasting models don’t accurately account for the physical processes that determine weather in the tropics and current weather service providers lack the expertise or a tropical atmospheric model to provide effective weather intelligence to companies, organizations, and individuals operating in West Africa. Our forecasts are created through a proprietary weather model that uses algorithms that are calibrated to the tropics, resulting in forecasts that are 84% accurate (compared with the 39% accuracy of global weather models). Secondly, we then transform this high-tech product into a low-tech solution in order to reach the last-mile for our BoP customers. Delivered in partnership with a telecommunication operator, a 2-day rain forecast is sent daily by SMS. The farmer is charged for the service in micro installments from her preloaded mobile credit ($0.04/text). Partnering with mobile network provider taps into existing infrastrucutre, eliminates the need to create a unique payment method, and reduces the prohibitive savings requirements necessary for a large one-time purchase. Messages contain a written forecast for each 24-hour period. For simplicity of use, these describe three parameters: likelihood, timing, and intensity of rain. We also send seasonal and monthly forecasts for long term planning. All forecasts are specific to the subscriber’s location by an automated application that fetches the coordinates of subscribers. No training is needed to subscribe and use the service, which works with simplest handsets.
What Evidence do you have that your Innovation works?
Ignitia’s forecasts have shown an 84% accuracy rate over 3 rainy seasons 2013 – 2015, compared with global model forecasts (seen on BBC, CNN etc) that only reach 39% in West Africa. Every forecast issued is part of Ignitia’s database for individual subscriber forecast performance, which is used to identify geographical biases and overall performance, so accuracy measurements will continue to update.The forecast improves farmers’ everyday decision making and helps them time actions with suitable weather. An independent study of 3,000 smallholders in Mali by Columbia University has shown that, by using weather information, farmers’ incomes increased by up to 80%, compared with a control group in same villages.Our current M&E efforts are already showing that we are having a profound impact on behavioral change in our customers, indicating both trust in our forecasts and a huge potential for positive social impact. One of our first clients conducted a study on 100 randomly located farmers after the 2013 season, key findings were as follows (Masara N’Arziki, 2014):
• 100% of the users understood the messages
• 92% of the farmers found the service useful in their farming practices.
• 93% of the farmers used iska to take decisions on application of inputs.
The conclusion was that the farmers understand the positive effects of iska weather forecasts when linking it to both activity planning and optimization of their input effectiveness.
Another survey (Majeed, 2014) was conducted on 600 farmers by GIZ in 2014, and their key findings were very similar. In addition, the following results were indicated for the Northern Region:
• 90% of the farmers in the Northern Region said that the forecasts aided them in taking the right decision regarding sowing and planting.
• 90% also indicated that iska aided in taking the right decision regarding application of pesticides.
• 88% found that iska aided in taking the right decision regarding fertilizer input.
• 73% noted that the forecasts helped in taking the right decisions on harvesting.
• 95% of the farmers were willing to pay if GIZ would not pay for them using the service.
Additionally, anecdotal evidence of the usefulness of Ignitia was reported, showing the importance of having access to accurate weather information and reassuring Ignitia that the service we provide makes a difference. Our churn rate is less than 3%. If it was not truly useful, no one would pay for it, given the small margins of a smallholder farmer.
Currently there are 100,000 farmers in West Africa who are using our product, most of whom are small-scale farmers, and many of whom survive on less than $2/day. A large percentage of these smallholders are women, responsible for key components of household production such as weeding, harvesting and processing. Our farmers farm maize, cocoa, soya, rice, and other staple crops of the region and use our forecasts throughout the entire farming cycle - from planning to planting to fertilizer timing to harvest. They need weather forecasts to reduce risk, mitigate extreme weather, and optimize farming decisions.
What is your strategy for expanding use of your innovation?
Our forecasts are made for the tropics, a region with nearly 3 billion people, where on average 80% of the working age population is engaged in agriculture - or around 1.5 billion people who can benefit from our service (and 12 million farmers in Ghana, our primary country, alone). With the mobile industry expanding, we can tap into the technological infrastructure that is already in place, and can reach the “last mile” without boots on the ground. Our information product is 97% automated, which makes scaling rather simple. We have a supercomputer for the processing capacity, and a meteorologist for the final review for corrections to known biases, before forecasts are sent to small-scale farmers. Scalability is the key here; the same system is used to create one hundred or one million forecasts without any significant changes in operational capacity. This will help to keep the service a low-cost and generally available to anyone. For organization and overhead we require a management team to help coordinate activities, market our service, and manage sales and partnerships, but most of our activities can be done digitally and remotely resulting in a very small ecological footprint. This also allows us to enter new markets quickly. Lastly, the business model of Ignitia is structured in such a way that profit and social impact are mutually reinforcing. The more forecasts we sell, the greater the agricultural and environmental benefits. Keeping the service low cost for our BOP customers ensures greater adoption, which in turn will revolutionize food systems on a wider scale.
In order to ensure we can scale smoothly, we have secured an LOI with a Mobile Network Operator to expand into 6 countries in West Africa, and are on track to begin our services in Mali and Senegal. We are growing our team quickly, and will make several key hires in the upcoming year. We are also in the middle of a funding round, that we are hoping to close so that we can focus on getting our forecasts out there and expanding into the rest of West Africa.
We aim to reach 1.2 million farmers in 7 countries in West Africa by the end of 2019. We will scale our operations in Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, and launch operations in Ivory Coast and Niger. Our main goal is to create and provide weather forecast that farmers find useful, and which help them improve their farming practices. We have conducted our own M&E on thousands of our farmers and found that 96% understood the content of the messages, 94% thought the messages were useful, 98% said the forecasts were useful, and 95% found that the forecasts helped them increase their yield. Moving forward we hope to both increase these numbers where possible, and enact an RCT study to measure these impacts concretely. With nearly all who use our forecasts benefitting, and the average family size across West Africa at 5.4 people, we can hope to improve the water management practices, and thus livelihood of 6.48 million people across the region.