Cloudy, clear and a chance of thunderstorms

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Chris Smith and Gillian Evans are a husband and wife team volunteering in Uganda with Grameen Foundation through Bankers without Borders.  Chris is Strategy Manager, responsible for strategy, business planning and GF’s relationship with MTN.  Gillian is an Education Specialist responsible for developing and applying training best practices in the field and helping build the training center of excellence in Uganda.  Chris and Gillian live in Kampala with their two children and will complete a one year volunteer term on July 31, 2012.  You can read about their experience as a family living and working for Grameen Foundation in Uganda on their blog at

It doesn't matter where you live, people love to talk about the weather.  You may think that citizens of a country like Uganda that comfortably straddles the equator and who are generally unfamiliar with terms like 'zero visibility' and 'whiteout conditions' would not be fussed whether it is 25 or 28 degrees Celsius on any given day of the year.  However, as we've found out there is an unmet need for accurate and advanced forecasting of daily and seasonal weather and extreme weather alerts.

It's taken me the better part of 10 months to figure out that when you wake up, look out the window and see sunny, crystal clear blue skies that this is a sure sign it will rain the rest of the day.  If it starts off raining then it's most likely going to be a beautiful day.  I used to leave the house in the morning and ask Omara (a highly accurate weather forecaster) what the weather will be like today.  He would scan the clear blue horizon, think for a moment and forecast rain. And he was almost always right.  No amount of searching the skies or wind direction would give me any indicator other than the obvious lack of clouds.

Every day the independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, runs a 4 day weather forecast feature on page 2.  In an attempt to understand the secret to Omara's uncanny forecasting ability I used to try to match the Monitor's forecast to what would actually happen on a given day.  There is no correlation, I might as well be using a Magic 8 Ball.  I now believe the Monitor editor knows this and attempts to cover all weather eventualities by having no (or at least an indecipherable) relationship between the weather graphic and the text description of the weather that day.  Here's a pretty typical example:

 Why does "Today" have a thunderstorm graphic and a text description of partly cloudy and clear yet Friday is the only graphic that looks like cloudy and no rain and says "Thunderstorms in the day, clear at night" but then that exact same text description is used with the thunderstorm graphic for Saturday?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa, I don't understand!

Grameen Foundation is helping to sort this problem in Uganda by providing timely, accurate and detailed weather forecasts to farmers across the country through our network of 800 Community Knowledge Workers.  This is not so that Ugandans will know whether or not to put on their jackets in the morning (which is more of a life-or-death thing for Canadians in February) but to help with agricultural decisions like planting or harvesting, and to take precautions on extreme weather events like floods or lightning strikes affecting fishermen on Lake Victoria.

We are currently doing this in two ways, first by aggregating weather forecasts from a variety of sources including Phil Parker (Toto Agriculture) and the Uganda Department of Meteorology (UDOM) to provide daily, 5 day and seasonal forecasts.  We also have our CKWs in Kasese running a pilot program where we've equipped them with rain gauges to gather readings for UDOM to give early warning of possible floods.

Here are examples of daily and seasonal weather forecasts that our CKWs access on their IDEOS smart phones when meeting with farmers to provide advice:

Farmers with any kind of mobile phones can also access the same weather information and all of our agricultural content by calling into our Farmer Call Center or via USSD on *178#.

Secondly, we are working with our partners MTN, Ericsson, World Meteorological Organization, UDOM, National Lake Rescue Institute and the Kalangala fishing community to provide a localized weather-alert service to fishing villages on Lake Victoria to save lives and livelihoods.  The weather information enables fisherman and traders to make better decisions about when to go out onto Lake Victoria.  The daily weather forecasts and warnings are delivered in local languages to 1000 fisherman from Kalangala.  Lake Victoria supports Africa's largest inland fishery and produces more than 800,000 tons of fish annually, currently worth about USD 600,000,000, and estimates indicate that as many as 5,000 members of the fishing community die in boating accidents on the lake each year due to bad weather conditions.

These services are one more example of how Grameen Foundation’s AppLab Uganda is delivering unique, high quality, timely information to rural Ugandans to save lives and improve livelihoods.  Now Omara has some competition!


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