Kenyan farmers trust tradition over tech to predict the weather

NickOttensNickOttens Community ManagerAmsterdam, NetherlandsPosts: 899 admin
edited February 2019 in Challenges
From Reuters:
Scientists expect extreme weather to become more frequent and intense as the planet warms.

Accurate forecasts “would be of great use to me”, [farmer Mary] Mbaka told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In fact, the up-to-date weather information she needs is readily available from the Kenya Meteorological Department.

But about a third of the country’s farmers do not use the national weather service to help them plan and protect their crops.

Some find the weather information too difficult to understand. Others simply don't believe the forecasts are more reliable than the methods they use, and have used for generations.

The damage is undeniable:
Research by the meteorological department and local non-profits shows farmers who use weather information can increase their crop yields by between 50 and 70 percent.

This goes to a larger question: We can develop better technology, but what if farmers won't use it?


  • NickOttensNickOttens Community Manager Amsterdam, NetherlandsPosts: 899 admin
    @StanleyWood and @madagnino, I wonder, with your experience, what your thoughts on this topic are. Is this a problem in other parts of the world as well? How do we solve it?
  • timsilmantimsilman Los Angeles, CAPosts: 58 XPRIZE
    To @NickOttens' question, I wonder if this is a typical problem or something with roots specific to farming? I ask because it would seem on face to be the former: the developing world is littered with well-meaning technological innovations that are not implemented or adopted at scale because they were not developed with local use in mind and/or did not involve beneficiaries in the development/design process.

    I guess the root question is what kinds of changes would need to be implemented to deliver these insights in a way that would allow farmers to utilize the information? Is it a hardware problem? A communication / visual problem? etc.
  • CarolineCaroline Los Angeles, CaliforniaPosts: 47 XPRIZE
    edited March 2019

    You raise a good point. I don't think this problem is unique to farming. Many innovations fail to achieve their well intentioned effects simply because they don't include the target group that they are intended for.

    This is a big problem with many development programs and projects being designed in a non-participatory approach.

    Could that be a needed breakthrough?
  • timsilmantimsilman Los Angeles, CAPosts: 58 XPRIZE
    @Caroline possibly, although if that is something that scholars/practitioners are trying to address now, would it qualify as a transformative breakthrough? if it's something that people already recognize as a needed innovation? I could see the argument either way.
  • CarolineCaroline Los Angeles, CaliforniaPosts: 47 XPRIZE
    edited March 2019
    I believe we would know the answer to that question about what qualifies if we study if/why current approaches are not working. Are there gaps that current solutions inadequately address or do not address at all? If so, is a breakthrough needed to address these gaps? The XPRIZE Foundation usually attempts to either create a new market or disrupt existing ones to bring about needed transformations.
  • NickOttensNickOttens Community Manager Amsterdam, NetherlandsPosts: 899 admin
    @PaulineB, you may have thoughts on this issue as well.
  • lsroadeslsroades Posts: 2 ✭✭
    Farmers, especially small farmers, are extremely pragmatic and they accept risks that would not be acceptable in a normal business. If they don't embrace new technology and information, it may well be that they know the risks of tradition; the unknown benefit of new technology is another unknown.

    Based on observing three generations of small farmers, I am confident that farmers are the greatest consumers of weather information--and they combine tradition (the number of bands on wooly worms), astrological (the sign of the moon), tradition (color of the morning sun), and even science (weather reports). Introducing new means of anticipating weather patterns has to incorporate all of those elements for the message to be meaningful in the local context.
  • PaulineBPaulineB Posts: 7 ✭✭
    Africans have utilized smart phones to check out market prices, weather reports, and use them for banking, etc. I see no reason that apps couldn't be developed to get more farm-related weather forecasts but I do not think that rises to the level or meets the standards of the XPRIZE. They need to know more than a drought is coming; they need to know how to prevent it or how to cope with it.
  • NickOttensNickOttens Community Manager Amsterdam, NetherlandsPosts: 899 admin
    That's a good point. Building a weather app for farmers sounds like a great idea, but I'd almost be surprised if something like it doesn't exist already. That's not something XPRIZE needs to do.

    Taking a step back, and building on what @lsroades is saying, I think the issue is how comfortable farmers are with adopting new technology.

    I'm not an expert by far, but I did grow up in farm country in the Netherlands where farmers are extremely innovative and willing to adopt new technology. By contrast, in France, farming is much more old-fashioned and productivity is consequently lower. The Dutch blame French reliance on EU farm subsidies, but Dutch farmers receive subsidies as well. I don't know if this is a regulatory issue or a cultural one. It may that because Dutch farmers have historically had to cope with many restrictions (limited land being the most important one), they've learned to be more innovative?

    That's the context I know, I'm not sure how this translates to other countries.
  • otomololuotomololu Posts: 3
    I think the problem lies in the nature of the awareness about the need for technological innovation in the face of climatic change, especially among African farmers. In most part of Africa, the use of technology is still very low. As such, harnessing latest development to cope with the consequences of climatic change would remain slow. This explains why famine and brought often came with it's devastating consequences.
  • timsilmantimsilman Los Angeles, CAPosts: 58 XPRIZE
    interesting @otomololu and @lsroades, i think you're both saying something similar, but in different ways. what i hear is that the barriers to adoption for new technology is driven by how it integrates with local uses of technology or other information streams.

    @lsroades your solution is an interesting one - you highlight that the issue is that this technology doesn't effectively integrate with the existing sources of data that farmers rely on.

    @otomololu you highlight an important point about the overall use of technology in these regions; if technological adoption is low, then the integration that @lsroades is talking about is more important - farmers are less likely to rely on technology as a primary source when it is not a huge part of their lives overall.

    so potentially this points to a multi-pronged approach for encouraging adoption, although the former is more actionable than the latter seemingly.
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