Cellular coverage gaps hobble climate resilience and preparedness of African farmers

The piece by Tawanda Karombo is published in The Beam #12. Order it to read more on the subject.


Climate change is creating rainfall pattern uncertainties for Moses Ngoni and other communal farmers in Zimbabwe as well as across sub-Saharan Africa. It has been one of hardest-hit areas on the continent by extreme weather conditions, such as prolonged droughts, cyclones, and flooding.

There has been little to no rain over the past two years in Zimbabwe, and this year the rainfall patterns have been equally unpredictable. In October, the Meteorological Services Department warned farmers not to plant their crop at the usual time, as the country received the first rain of the season a month early.

But Ngoni and other farmers did not receive this essential information, and they went ahead in a routine way and planted the staple maize cereal. This turned out to be a grave mistake. Not only was the crop ruined with the immense and unexpected amount of rain, but it was totally decimated by the heatwave that followed soon after.

“We are having to replant everything as the crop we planted from the first rains in October failed. It is frustrating but there is nothing we can do because the rain patterns have been erratic and uncertain, especially over the past three years,” Ngoni, from the arid Beitbridge district, said.

Climate change information is still difficult to access for many Zimbabweans and other African farmers and this has a bearing on food security – with more than 7 million Zimbabweans currently facing food insecurities according to UN data.

This is despite evolutionary strides in mobile coverage across the continent in the present period, for example, Zimbabwe’s mobile penetration rate currently stands at about 87%. Nonetheless, in the rural areas, where most communal farmers rely on agriculture, mobile coverage and connectivity are still sluggish and inadequate.

A new study has exposed that most African farmers are still uncovered by mobile coverage, let alone fast-speed mobile internet. This makes it difficult to disseminate information about climate change conditions which have a huge impact on yields and food security for the entire region.

A new study, The Global Divide in Data-driven Farming published this month in Nature Magazine shows that mobile and data “coverage gaps pose important obstacles for developing data-hungry nutrient advisories, climate services, and financial services that need mobile internet access” across Africa.

In Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Burundi, the subnational averages for mobile phone ownership amongst farming households range between 34% and 51%, says the study.



Researchers believe that SMS-based advisories and alerts, alongside interactive voice response services that can run on low-end handsets, even if jointly owned or shared between community members, would offer an important opportunity for addressing issues of productivity, market connectivity, financial transfers, credit access, input use and within-season management, across large areas of farming landscapes globally.

Climate change communications consultant, Peter Makwanya stresses that amid the high mobile connection rates, “not all farmers will benefit from agricultural and climate research which is designed to improve their knowledge of farming and make decisions based on improved” information dissemination in the climate change context.

“When connectivity and networking are available, issues of distance will not matter, but when there is no networking, then there could be limited information dissemination, including research innovations,” he said.

There are a number of mobile solutions helping to provide farmers with information in Nigeria and the EcoFarmer mobile program also exists in Zimbabwe, yet these are still limited by and in limited mobile and data coverage, especially in the remote and arid agricultural regions.

Information regarding the weather is crucial for farmers in these areas and failure to access it can have a significant negative impact. As environmental bottlenecks become more entrenched, farmers in arid areas who tend to be the hardest hit by drought conditions, are now slowly moving away from crop farming to areas of work such as livestock agriculture.

Gwinyai Chibaira, agri-livelihoods manager for Catholic Relief Services is overseeing the capacitation of farmers who intend to make the crucial switch to livestock farming in Beitbridge. Many of the beneficiaries of the program are women, who in this region are also the most affected by climate change owing to the social set-up of communities.

“This year we are having a project where we are doing boreholes and installing solar pumps at the gardening wells to lift the burden of looking for water for the women. Solarizing pumping systems ensures that these women spend less time in the gardens” he explained.

Under the schemes, farmers also receive capacitation and funding support to grow fodder for the feeding of livestock such as goats, cattle and sheep.

And to counter the climate change information gaps, the livestock farmers in this area work with agriculture extension workers but experts reiterate that for those working with crops, mobile phones, through enhanced and expanded network coverage, can be an effective and relatively simple solution.