National 19.8.2016 11:02 am

Tool to forecast drought wins top honours

Photo: Supplied

Photo: Supplied

The tool is specifically designed to help small-scale farmers, as it is believed that an early warning system could help communities prepare to face seasons of drought.

With many of the country’s provinces battling drought-like conditions, and droughts being the number one disaster in Africa, it seems fitting that a drought-forecasting tool would land a South African researcher top honours at the Women in Science Awards, held on August 11.

According to the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World website, the Women in Science Awards recognise and reward excellence by women scientists and researchers, and the theme for this year’s awards was “women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development”. This is also the theme for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

The award-winning drought-forecasting tool was developed by Muthoni Masinde, who is currently lecturing at the Central University of Technology in the Free State, for her PHD degree at the University of Cape Town.

The summary of Masinde’s paper – An Effective Drought Early Warning System for Sub-Saharan Africa: Integrating Modern and Indigenous Approaches published in SAICSIT ’14 Proceedings – posted on the ACM Digital Library website, states that drought is described as the number one disaster in Africa. The summary states that a drought early warning system could help communities to be prepared in the face of drought and to minimise the effects of drought conditions.

“Existing systems tend to ignore the ‘at risk’ community and are faced with a number of implementation challenges; their utilisation is very low. This paper describes an effective drought early warning system that integrates indigenous and scientific drought forecasting approaches,” the summary reads.

The system was developed using both Information Technology as well as Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence.

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In an interview this morning with eNCA‘s Dan Moyane on Morning Live Today, Masinde described how small-scale farmers were suffering due to climate change, as, for example, it was no longer necessarily true that if the farmers planted their crops in the second week of May, they could expect rains in the next two weeks and thereafter harvest their crops. She said she wanted to use her two degrees in computer science combined with local knowledge to help small-scale farmers to find a tool to guide them when to plant.

The tool allows researchers to send messages to the famers’ cellphones to tell them what the weather patterns are, and, Masinde said that using both the indigenous knowledge (which included collecting information on sky patterns, movements and insects) combined with data from the SA Weather Service, they found the tool was 96% accurate.

She said the tool had been piloted in Kenya in 2011 and 2012 and has been used in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Mozambique and some sections of Lesotho. She also said there were some exciting developments with the tool that would be announced later this year.

On winning the award, Masinde exclaimed to Moyane: “It’s very exciting. I’m on top of the world.”

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