Meet the next generation of Africa’s climate forecasters

Written by Amanda Grossi and Francesco Fiondella

This story is adapted from one originally published by Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA).

New state-of-the-art forecasting systems developed at IRI are enabling regional and national meteorological agencies to generate timely and decision-relevant climate information for their agricultural sectors.

East Africa is experiencing some of the worst drought conditions in decades, while on the other side of the continent, Nigeria, Cameroon and other West African countries have faced devastating floods that have displaced more than a million people. The demand for accurate and actionable forecasting to protect life and property has never before been more urgent.

Forecasters from 10 national meteorological services in East and Southern Africa (left) and seven national meteorologist services in West Africa (right) were trained alongside their regional climate centers to produce best-available seasonal forecasts for their countries.

Recognizing this, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and its partners recently organized two regional-scale trainings on the use of a state-of-the art seasonal forecasting system known as “NextGen”, which has already been adopted by more than a dozen countries in Central and South America.

The trainings–one in Zanzibar, Tanzania and one in Lomé, Togo–were part of a key push of the Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) project to make climate-information services and climate-smart agriculture more accessible to millions of smallholder farmers across Africa. They brought together staff from the national meteorological services of 17 countries as well as those working in two regional climate centers: East Africa’s IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC), and West Africa’s Regional Center for Training and Application in Agrometeorology and Operational Hydrology (Agrhymet).

As a result, both ICPAC and Agrhymet have begun using NextGen-based forecasting in their operations. This is a significant development because the climate forecasts produced by these regional centers are incorporated by the national meteorological services into their own forecasting processes. Such an outcome directly aligns with AICCRA’s goal of giving farmers access to tailored advisory services based on high-quality climate information so that they anticipate climate-related events and take preventative action to safeguard their livelihoods and communities.

A longstanding need for objective climate forecasts for decision makers

The “NextGen” forecasting system, based on more than 25 years of IRI research, helps countries quickly generate high-resolution, location-specific forecasts that can be easily communicated to agricultural decision makers and planners (NextGen factsheet). Much of the agriculture in East and West Africa is still rainfed, meaning farmers rarely have access to irrigation during times of low or no rain. And this makes reliable and understandable weather and climate forecasts critical to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the rainy season for food, income, and the well-being of their families.

“The seasonal forecast is used for individuals, municipalities, and even the government as a whole, especially for managing risk. Will there be flooding? Will we get enough rains for agriculture? What will we do [to manage this risk]?”

Francisca Martey, Deputy Director of the Ghana Meteorological Agency and one of the trainees at the event in Lomé, Togo.

When time is of the essence

By late 2022, devastating floods in Nigeria affected more than 90% of the country’s districts and displaced more than 1.4 million people.

“NextGen allows you to assemble the forecast very quickly and easily, and also assess its skill easily. With that, we can produce better forecasts,” said Nigeria Meteorological Agency’s Bello Ahmed, who attended the Lomé training. “It’s so important to have good information and early warning so that we can act before [extreme flooding] comes.”

The time-savings aspect of NextGen has another benefit for forecasters such as Ahmed. They have more time to focus on research and other activities that are critical for improving Nigeria’s forecasting capabilities in the long-run.

Communication is key

The two AICCRA trainings emphasized the relevance of forecasts to decision making, and the importance of various communication channels, approaches, and formats for ensuring this.

In doing so, the training organizers underscored the role that national meteorological services can have in supporting and tailoring the use of forecasts—not just its generation—and even helped changed the mindset of some meteorological service staff toward this end.

Participants learned about a new way of communicating and visualizing forecasts with NextGen. Historically, seasonal forecasts show the likelihood of a location receiving “above-normal” or “below-normal” rainfall amounts. But these categories are generally too vague to inform any meaningful agricultural planning. NextGen forecasts give the option of showing the probability of ‘exceeding’ or ‘not exceeding’ a certain amount of rainfall. This format is a game-changer for those in the agricultural space.

By communicating the forecast in this way, people can make decisions about what crop varieties to use for the coming season, based on their water requirements, for example. Decisions like this can make the difference between food security and insecurity.

Carrying it forward: Peer-to-peer learning and south-south collaboration

One of the goals of the training events was to create a strong network within the African meteorological community to help advance the generation of high-quality climate information and services.

Conducting each training as a region-wide event allowed for peer-to-peer exchanges that build a community of practice that will hopefully sustain, cultivate, and even expand on the capacities and relationships established in Lomé and Zanzibar.

“I appreciate that IRI and AICCRA have tried to create a community around seasonal forecasting that will allow us to do so much. The community that has been created around this tool will really allow it to flourish. I would not be surprised to see a lot of people around this table leading [new trainings] on this continent. I really see it as ours now.”

Bello Ahmed

“The regional approach to training is best because when you bring people with different levels of understanding, it’s a great opportunity to exchange and learn,” said ICPAC’s Eunice Koech. “If you have someone at a lower level, he or she can interact with someone above them without feeling shy. It’s a free environment and the best way for people to learn.”

There’s an additional dimension to the trainings’ success: they’ve fostered the kind of local ownership and intracontinental collaboration necessary to carry forward efforts to improve seasonal forecasting within and beyond the countries targeted in the trainings.

These exchanges are now continuing through the formation of a ‘South-South’ community of practice supported by digital resources and channels for communication both within and between East and West Africa.