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Environment

Mobile phones help build climate resilience for Senegal's farming communities

Farmers in Senegal have long used traditional techniques to predict rainfall. But with climate change, new methods are needed. Climatic information sent by text message is now helping to boost yields.

Yields in the fields of Sikilo, in Senegal's Kaffrine region, and in farming communities across the country are suffering due to unpredictable weather patterns.

Alioune Djaby, Sikilo's village chief, cultivates peanuts and small seeded-grasses or millet. Like many farmers across Senegal, he's waiting for the monsoon season to start. The weather here can be a real curse, he said.

However, thanks to new techniques put at his disposal to correctly interpret weather patterns, it's being transformed into a blessing.

"The weather is our bad luck. When cultivating, if you don't have the right information, then really you are farming blind," he told DW. "For me the most important factor for farmers is to have climate information."

Senegal's predominantly rain-fed agriculture is highly vulnerable to climate change, as production depends largely on the amount of rainfall. Knowing when it will rain is key to calculating the risks of planting and harvesting certain crops.

Rain doesn't come when it used to

Traditionally, Senegalese farmers have relied on environmental indicators to predict the weather, which consisted of knowledge passed down from one generation to the next.

For 33-year-old farmer Mariama Keita, when the towering baobab tree at the entrance of the village sprouted leaves, that meant the rain would come. But not any more.

Baobab trees in Senegal (Photo: KfW / Bernhard Schurian)

Sprouting of the baobab tree used to signal that the rain was coming - but not any more

"With our traditions, we would say that if the baobab has leaves, or if the birds are singing, then we would know that soon it will rain," Keita explained.

"That's how we worked - these were the signs and traditions our forefathers taught us," she said.

But things have changed - a lot, Keita said. "Before, we had a lot rain and there were a lot of trees."

"Now, there is little water - and so the farmers are forced to work with less water," she added.

Climate information via SMS

Despite rainfall becoming more rare and precious than ever, there is hope. Sikilo's farmers now have modern technology at their fingertips, which helps stand in for the natural signs that have been thrown off kilter by the changing climate.

In 2010, Sikilo became the first "climate-smart village" in Senegal. Villagers and scientists met ahead of the monsoon season to discuss the needs of farmers: to receive accurate information in a timely fashion to allow farmers to plan accordingly, to plant ahead of the rains, and to harvest before crops rot in the ground.

Today, they rely on climate information sent via text message from the National Agency of Civil Aviation and Meteorology (ANACIM) based some 250 kilometers (about 155 miles) away in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

The information is sent to contact people in each locality, like Keita and Djaby, who relay the information to their neighbors.

Pile of peanuts

The humble peanut is an important cash crop for many farmers in Senegal

Over the last 10 years, it's certain that less rainfall has been recorded in the Sahel region, said Ousmane Ndiay, a climate researcher at ANACIM.

"There are two things happening at the same time: The amount of rainfall is less and less, and the onset of the season is moving a little bit later and later," Ndiay told DW.

From the "good rain" in the 1950s - 800 millimeters (about 31 inches) on average - rainfall went down in the 1970s. "There was a period of drought throughout the Sahel, and the rainfall decreased to 500 millimeters. It's a huge decrease," he said.

Since 2000, annual rainfall is now back up, to 600 millimeters. This past May, weather reports brought the farmers some good news: the 2016 monsoon season is expected to be a wet one.

Important tool

According to Mariama Keita, the weather reports are 98 percent spot on. "The messages can arrive at any time except in the dry season. Usually a message reads: 'Forecast: there will be rain in the vicinity of Kaffrine in two hours,'" she said.

To reach as many people as possible, ANACIM has partnered with the community radio network to broadcast weather information in French, as well as in local languages.

Presenters were trained on how to correctly interpret the reports that are sent daily to the newsrooms. Rain gauges were also distributed to radio stations, to get more accurate readings from each area.

"We not only broadcast, but also gather climate information," saidTala Dieng, president of the community radio network for Senegal that includes 96 local radio stations.

Senegal, farm of Mariama Keita Emmanuelle Landais

Keita's test plot yielded 1.5 tons more groundnuts than her other plot in 2015

By following SMS weather forecasts instead of environmental indicators, Keita's test plot yielded 1.5 tons more groundnuts than her other plot in 2015.

Bigger harvests are vital to Senegal's food security: experts project that by 2050, the country could see groundnut crops fall from 5 to 25 percent.

Next to seeds and fertilizer, simple mobile phones have become another important tool in building climate resilience.

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