Zambian farmers to get SMS climate advice

by Danstan Kaunda | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 9 July 2013 11:00 GMT

A man travels by boat in the flooded Zambezi vally in Zambia's Western Province in April 2013. Photo: CIF-World Bank

Image Caption and Rights Information

Aim is to reduce risks from droughts and floods, and help farmers plant the right crops

LUSAKA, Zambia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Farmers living in western Zambia’s Zambezi valley have struggled with high temperatures, recurring droughts and unexpected floods for over a decade now.

“The uneven weather pattern in the valley is making it very difficult for most of us to cultivate crops here,” said Fred Milambo, a 52-year-old rice farmer. “You cannot know what a single season will bring.”

That damaging uncertainty may start to change thanks to a new project supported by the multinational Climate Investment Funds (CIF). The $7.6 billion funds aim to help developing nations pilot low-carbon and climate-resilient development. The money is disbursed by the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, with 48 countries benefiting so far.

In Zambia, the CIF initiative will gather and disseminate climate data using specialised equipment in two pilot-project areas: the Zambezi sub-basin in Western Province and the Kafue sub-basin in Southern Province.

The system aims to reduce the negative impacts of climate and environmental hazards on agriculture. One key way it will do this is by getting reliable, real-time weather and climate information to farmers and their communities in local languages.

Sofia Bettencourt, CIF lead operations officer in Zambia, said a free mobile-phone text messaging (SMS) system is being developed using open-source software. Local people will be able to use this to send information about weather conditions, which will be monitored by a trained team in the area.

“This freeware will allow the ‘focal point’ team to geo-reference and map out the origin of the text messages, so they could quickly find out, for example, the extent of floods or emergency needs,” Bettencourt told Thomson Reuters Foundation.


The teams will also provide agricultural advice to farmers via SMS, such as which crop varieties they should plant in light of seasonal weather predictions. 

“The information will allow communities to make better decisions on how to manage their livelihood. It will help them plan better in advance for the forthcoming seasons - like planting earlier or later - depending on the forecast,” Bettencourt said.

In the longer term, the data collected will help farmers gain a better understanding of climate risks and adapt their crop-growing cycle to shifting rainfall patterns.

“As communities identify their adaption options, the teams will be able to deploy the specialised expertise needed to assist them,” Bettencourt added.

The local ‘focal point’ teams will be supported by climate information delivered through district and provincial channels, as required.

Another aim of the project is to strengthen national institutions charged with building resilience to climate change, as well as their ability to make policy and manage funding for related projects.

In addition, the information gathered at the local level will be used in other sectors, including economic development, natural resources, energy and health.


The Zambezi valley, which extends nearly 200 km from north to south and up to 40 km east to west, has experienced an increasingly harsh climate for more than 10 years, with floods and drought bringing hunger and ill-health to many of its inhabitants. Other parts of the country have also suffered from climate extremes.

In 2005-2006, drought left over 1 million Zambians without enough maize, their food staple, for nine months across 27 districts. Nearly 40 percent of those affected were subsistence farmers in the south, west and east of the country, according to the government.

A year later, flash floods displaced nearly half a million people in Zambia’s Southern and Western provinces.

Launching the CIF project in mid-June in Western Province, Kundhavi Kadiresan, the World Bank’s country director for Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, said that when people know what to expect, they can adjust more effectively to changes in the weather and climate.

“Although the shifting rains and droughts are something over which the people of Zambia have little control, they do have control over how this changing climate affects their livelihoods,” Kadiresan said.

Besides providing climate information and advice, the CIF project will give small grants to individuals and community groups for them to carry out climate change adaption activities, benefiting some 130,000 people in the Zambezi region.


The CIF programme will also fund work to deepen and widen the Zambezi valley’s network of canals, as a way of improving transport and irrigation for farm fields.

Kafula Chisanga, a government planner in Western Province, believes that renovating the canals will boost people’s livelihoods. Maximising water usage should increase crop yields and limit environmental degradation, he added.

“If the local farmers are provided with information and the canals are rehabilitated, it will be easy for the farmers here to irrigate the fields using those canals, as most depend on rain-fed agriculture, and in the drought season it is difficult for them,” Chisanga said.

The canal works will also make it easier for people to reach health centres and schools.

The six-year CIF programme will provide a grant of $31 million and a concessional loan of $5 million to the Zambian government.

Danstan Kaunda is a Zambian journalist. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.