Cartier Philanthropy - Reaching the last mile with SMS

Reaching the last mile with SMS

Ashoka Fellow Liisa Petrykowska explains why equipping small farmers in tropical zones with accurate weather forecasts can positively change their lives and how she founded Ignitia along the way.

We met Liisa Petrykowska on November 14th, at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, where she was attending a conference on Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services.

Liisa was just elected to the Ashoka Fellowship, becoming one of the social entrepreneurs receiving support from the partnership between Ashoka and the Cartier Charitable Foundation, through the programme Communities at the heart of natural ecosystem restoration.

Reliable forecasts for tropical regions

Liisa grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. She was a brilliant student and a passionate education activist. She studied theoretical physics and was later appointed as visiting scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she monitored climate change in different regions of the world.

Over the years she came to realise that reliable weather forecasts did not exist in tropical regions, leading to loss of crops, suppliers, time and money in countries where small farmers already struggle to survive. So she packed up, moved to Ghana and started her company, Ignitia.

“I chose Ghana as I was looking for a democratic and stable country in the tropical zone of West Africa, with an expanding economy and where women could work without too many constraints” she explains.

We’re 100% focused on small-scale farmers

Liisa’s scientific team came up with a new algorithm that predicts tropical weather with an accuracy rate that was previously unheard of for the region.

“The best conventional global weather forecast models produce predictions in tropical zones that have an accuracy rate of less than 39%. For three seasons we’ve measured daily the accuracy of our model in 33 cities in West Africa and we’re now at 84% accuracy. We have the capability to move from something that is more wrong than right, to something that farmers can trust and use to positively impact their farming practices and take informed decisions.”

Thanks to this algorithm Ignitia developed the first reliable weather forecasting model for tropical zones, which produces highly accurate weather predictions with regional and seasonal outlooks, monthly trends and rain predictions. The challenge for Ignitia was to make this information available and easily accessible to farmers.

“In Ghana, weather changes rapidly from one place to another. I used to tell Ghanaian farmers that it might rain on one side of their village but not on the other side. This is why it is so important they have access to localised weather forecasts. Mobile phones allow us to detect the GPS coordinates of the farmer, to know exactly where he or she is located and to send him daily the best forecast possible for his field.”

In Ghana, weather changes rapidly from one place to another. I used to tell Ghanaian farmers that it might rain on one side of their village but not on the other side. This is why it is so important they have access to localised weather forecasts.

Liisa Petrykowska, CEO of Ignitia and Ashoka Fellow

With a population of just over 24 million, Ghana has in fact over 25 million cellular lines in use and a penetration rate reaching 100%. Not everyone has a phone, but it’s not uncommon to see people juggling two or three phones and many more SIM cards at the same time.

Ignitia weather forecasts come five days a week by SMS early in the morning to let the farmer plan his day.

“We’ve really worked hard on the design of these 80-characters message. We needed to simplify an extremely complex content in a country where in some areas 90% of the farmers cannot read. It was really a challenge. For instance we realised that most of the farmers couldn’t understand the drawings or pictures of a cloud or the rain or the sun of the European forecasting standards. We therefore decided to combine key words and simple symbols, trying to be as clear and direct as possible. The SMS always come with the same structure and wording, making it possible for even illiterate farmers to recognise and understand the content.”

A lot more information of value to farmers could be delivered, such as evaporation from leaves and soil, humidity and so forth, but Ignitia currently focuses on forecasting precipitation conditions: rain has the greatest impact for farmers and is relevant to all of them. The mobile application thus arms small farmers with daily, area specific information, which allows them to make informed decisions about planting, harvesting or fertilising.

“We’re 100% focused on small-scale farmers”, says Liisa.

A recent study found that 92% of subscribers of Liisa’s app actually apply the information to everyday decisions on the farm. “That was one of our biggest worries: even if farmers get the information and understand it, will they use it? It turn out that they do. It normally takes them less than two weeks to verify that the information is reliable and that they can base their decision on it. We thought we would have to spend a much longer time to convince them to use our predictions.”

The cost to the farmer to subscribe to Ignitia weather forecasts is less than $0.04 per SMS.

“After months spent considering all the options we came to the conclusion that micropayment is the only way small farmers can manage to pay for service. The phone operator withdraws a micro-amount on a daily basis from the phone credit.”

Liisa’s programme is the first of its kind in the Sahel region and it could easily be replicable in other highly weather-dependent countries. “Now it’s about time for Ignitia to look at the next market. And Nigeria seems to be the right place.”