An ethical weather service for Africa

Can the financial benefits of international research stay in the countries that need it most?

An African desert landscape, featuring grazing livestock and a person carrying a loaded basket.

How do you turn UK-funded scientific research into a commercial product for use in Africa, while ensuring the profits benefit that continent and not the UK?

This is the dilemma facing Professor Douglas Parker and his colleagues. They’ve developed a means of providing short-term predictions of extreme weather, which they call ‘now-casting’.

“It gives people advance warning of storms and heavy rain — something that’s currently not available in most of sub-Saharan Africa,” says Professor Parker.

“Having a few hours before the storm hits in which to act can be vital, for farmers, for markets, for those working in transport or fishing, particularly in countries where the infrastructure is more vulnerable to extreme weather. So, we feel this is a really important service to provide.”

The team have created a prototype mobile app — called FASTA — to provide this information and have set up the software so the service can be embedded into other apps.

FASTA demo image
Demonstration using FASTA’s software to plot rainfall rates over East Africa.

But Professor Parker and his colleagues don’t want to be just like the other private providers offering weather forecasts for Africa. They want to help build local infrastructure and capacity in the national meteorological agencies across the continent.

Profiting from public data

Weather forecasts are created using models that take observational data of what’s happening now — from land-based weather stations and from satellites — and crunch the data to predict what might happen in the future.

The observational data is publicly funded and usually freely available — some of the models are as well. Private companies take this data and create their own forecasts which they then offer free with advertising or sell to consumers.

While this system can result in services that benefit those consumers, it also has negative impacts, says Professor Parker:

“These private companies are mostly based in Europe or the USA and so the profits are going to those countries rather than to Africa.”

“But many national meteorological agencies in Africa are poorly funded and struggle to maintain the infrastructure that provides the observational data or the capacity to provide the forecasts.”

“It would be better for those countries that the profits to be made from forecasts remain in the country to support the infrastructure that accurate forecasting needs, that will improve the forecasts, which will create more income and so on.”

West Africa Flooding
Flooded homes during the rainy season in West Africa

One of the key issues with private providers is accuracy. While some forecasts are good, they are rarely evaluated and cross-checked with what the weather actually did. And this ties in with the need for a strong local infrastructure — forecasts based mainly on satellite data will be less accurate than those using good local observations.

Local partnerships

Professor Parker and his team are proposing a different way forward. They have written a constitution for their fledgling service to ensure that it is both ethical and sustainable.

The constitution has been approved by the FASTA governing body, which includes representatives from both African and UK institutions. Central to the constitution is the commitment to deliver the basic product free to the general public.

The constitution also makes a commitment not to undermine local capacity or compete with local agencies who are already supplying something similar. The aim is, where possible, to partner with the national meteorological agencies so the now-casting service can be put out under their badge.

Scorched tea in Mulanje
Scorched tea in Mulanje (October 2019). Africa’s cocoa and tea industries could benefit from now-casting insights whilst helping to support the economy. Credit: WeatherChasers.

To ensure the service is financially sustainable, the team plan to charge for more bespoke services for particular industry sectors, such as transportation and cocoa or tea cultivation. They are talking to private sector agencies and companies to find out what they need and how best they could provide it.

“Eventually, we’d hope to step back from delivery of the service so the national agency could do that themselves, and our role — as an advanced centre of research — would be to provide further research and development to improve the product,” explains Professor Parker.

“An important part of the service will be evaluation, to ensure accuracy, and that is always best led at a local level.”

The first country set to trial the FASTA app is Kenya, where the service will be tested over six months from November 2021, and the team is already in discussions with other meteorological agencies across the continent.