Indian farmers can navigate weather-related risks by getting early warnings from automated weather stations, set up through a partnership between USAID India and Skymet Weather Services.
The USAID India and Skymet collaboration helps thousands of farmers, including in Punakala village of Gaya district in Bihar, navigate weather-related problems. Photograph courtesy Skymet Weather Services
Farmers and agricultural workers in India face daunting challenges—too much rain or not enough, damaging winds and destructive cyclones, extreme heat and sustained dryness. These and other weather-related risks destroy harvests and threaten lives.
Fortunately, an innovative collaboration between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) India and Noida-based Skymet Weather Services has come up with solutions to help thousands of farmers navigate weather-related problems. Through the Partnership in Climate Services for Resilient Agriculture in India (PCSRA) initiative, close to 700 automated weather stations have been installed around the country, each using a combination of cameras and sensors to constantly gather valuable, real-time data about weather and crop conditions.
Via Skymet’s proprietary SkyMitra mobile phone app and other communication technologies, local farmers are able to access the results, receive early warnings of weather-related risks, and make well-informed decisions for both their farms and families. The Android-based SkyMitra app offers features like extreme weather alerts, live weather data of the nearest automated weather station, disease alerts and a forum to share experiences and ask questions to agriculture experts. The app’s content is available in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Oriya, Telugu and Kannada. Skymet has also developed an online data monitoring tool, named SkyGreen, to monitor the data of farmers registered under the program. This app activates climate services on the mobiles of farmers within 72 hours of enrollment.
“This public-private partnership used a suite of Indian and U.S. digital technology and expertise to enhance the resilience and adaptive capacity of farmers in India, by making climate information, risk mitigation tools and advisory services available to them,” says Mustapha El Hamzaoui, director for the Food Security Office of USAID India.
PCSRA, which was completed in July 2020, has positively impacted close to over 85,000 Indian farmers in 31 districts across nine states, says Jatin Singh, founder and managing director of Skymet, who led the partnership since its inception. One of his key goals through PCSRA was to “provide information at crop level, so that no one sleeps hungry at night.”
Singh recalls a recent story that illustrates PCSRA’s power to improve lives. Before cyclone Amphan hit India in May 2020, the owner of a small family farm, who had enrolled with the partnership, received text messages and an automated voice call from Skymet’s systems warning of intense winds and weather in the coming days. Armed with this knowledge, he hired extra workers to harvest his crops before the storm arrived, effectively saving his family’s livelihood from destruction.
This story is one of many. “The fact that over 85,000 farmers have been a part of the USAID-Skymet project is a great success,” says Simrat Labana, a USAID project management specialist focusing on agriculture. Labana also notes that nearly 60 percent of PCSRA’s participants were from small and medium-sized farms—agricultural operations that are considered the “most underserved and vulnerable to climate change.”
However, the partnership had to overcome some challenges to gain traction among India’s most vulnerable agricultural workers. “At the time of the commencement of the project, it was difficult to enroll farmers as they were very skeptical,” says Labana. “They were not familiar with Skymet as an entity and, therefore, the field team had to visit several times to give an overview of the project and build trust.”
The program also had to make special efforts to engage with women, who made up about nine percent of the program’s overall enrollment. “Women’s enrollment was a challenge due to the existing sociocultural norms,” says Labana. “The project team worked very hard to encourage women’s participation in project meetings, to give voice and visibility to women farmers.”
The program continued to thrive even amid COVID-19, says Singh. Given infection risks and lockdowns, Skymet responded by further automating its distribution of vital crop and weather alerts using artificial intelligence. It also made sure that registered farmers receive the information they need via the SkyMitra app, WhatsApp, SMS and other mobile platforms.
“Skymet’s weather forecasters and agriculture experts ensured uninterrupted transmission of time-sensitive and location-specific climate information,” says Labana. “This is the advantage of digital technologies. It is location-agnostic and enables transmission of critical information at scale.”
Moving forward, Singh hopes to continue using artificial intelligence technologies to keep farmers informed with just the click of a button. According to him, the sensors and cameras currently used for monitoring crops will continue to feed information to Skymet’s supercomputers. These supercomputers will then analyze the data and make key information instantly available to enrolled farmers via an automated chatbot.
For the partners who made PCSRA into a lifeline for farmers, this was only the beginning. “It was a privilege to be associated with USAID in such initiatives intended to benefit such large groups of people and diversified geographies,” says Skymet Vice President Rekha Mishra, who highlights the partnership’s abilities to improve not just the lives of individuals, but the systems that support them as well. “For Skymet, it is a matter of pride to be a core contributor.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.