A new rainfall app is helping farmers in Indonesia’s Sumbawa Island navigate climate change. A collaboration between Bandung Institute of TechnologyUSAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and an international development nonprofit called World Neighbors is giving farmers important data on maximizing their crops.

Continue reading below
Our Featured Videos
A farmer showing his good rice harvest, based on the Rainfall Predictions.

In the past, the farmers in Dompu Regency have relied on natural signs and astronomical calculations to determine the best planting times. But climate change is throwing off generations of traditional knowledge as weather — especially rainfall — has become less predictable. Misjudging the best planting time can lead to financial ruin. The new rainfall app, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, aims to help farmers determine the best time to plant.

Related: Climate change is wreaking havoc on Italy’s olive harvests

In Indonesia, a regency is an administrative division within a province. Dompu Regency contains many small family farms, with corn being the major crop. The land is sloping, and the farmers use dryland farming techniques, which means cultivating crops without irrigation in places that usually get less than 20 inches of annual rainfall. Every drop is precious.

Inhabitat talked to Edd Wright, World Neighbors’ regional director for Southeast Asia, about the development and uptake of the new rainfall app. Wright manages the Indonesian programs focusing on climate change adaptation and sustainable agriculture.

A Dompu farmer and family testing the app.

Inhabitat: Tell us a little bit about the individuals behind the development of this app.

Wright: Dr. Armi Susandi, MT. (born 4 September 1969) is an Indonesian scientist and lecturer. He is an expert on weather and climate who teaches at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). Armi Susandi also serves as Chair II of the National Council on Climate Change, a state institution established based on a presidential decree with the task of coordinating policies and efforts to deal with climate change. His idea to create a climate change disaster early warning technology emerged in 2002, while studying at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado, United States. Armi Susandi then earned his doctorate in climate change from the University of Hamburg, Germany in 2004.

Since then, he has created several technologies regarding early warning of climate change disasters, such as Forest Fire Management System, Flood Early Warning and Early Action System, Dynamic Management and Information Services for Fisheries, Smart Agriculture Information System, Smart Information System for Search And Rescue, amongst others.

Inhabitat: How widespread are smartphones in Dompu Regency? Do most farmers have one, or access to somebody else’s?

Wright: According to Indonesia Baiksmartphone ownership in Nusa Tenggara (the province where the regency of Dompu is) reaches 45%. Based on observations, young farmers in Dompu have smartphones, while older farmers usually do not. Farmers who do not have smartphones, they will access weather information via smartphones from the agriculture extension workers, other farmers, their children or other family members.

A rice field managed based on the Rainfall Predictions

Inhabitat: What was farmers’ initial reaction to the app, and how has that changed over time?

Wright: For farmers who have never applied rainfall prediction (PCH), at first they doubted PCH. Many farmers have not dared to adopt PCH because they are worried that if the prediction is wrong, in the end, the farmers themselves will suffer losses. However, after a process of sharing experiences with farmers who have implemented PCH, some of these farmers finally carried out a trial planting. When this trial turned out to be good, more and more farmers followed began to trust the tools.

For farmers who have used the analogue version of PCH (printed maps), there is no difficulty for them in implementing the digital version of PCH (app). There are only technical issues such as availability of smartphones and poor signal quality.

Inhabitat: Do you have any specific stories about how farmers altered their behavior because of info gleaned from the app?

Wright: Haji Safrudin, a farmer from Karamabura Village, Dompu Regency, used to use natural signs, namely the appearance of the peak of the tamarind tree to determine when the planting season arrives. “In the past we used tamarind trees as an indicator of the arrival of the rainy season,” he said. “If the shoots of the leaves appear, it is a sign that the rainy season will soon come. To predict the planting season is over, we observe the kapok tree. If the kapok starts to dry, then that is a sign not to plant again.”

Since the intervention of World Neighbors, Safrudin now always checks his smartphone to see the rain prediction before planting. Sometimes he even deliberately did it in front of other farmers, so they could see for themselves. Safrudin and his friends now no longer see the peaks of tamarind trees to start planting. But the planting time is done by looking at the PCH application on their smartphones.

Lalu Kurniadi (Extension Worker) Training Farmers in the Rainfall Predictions.

Inhabitat: Can you describe a typical training session — where are they held, how many people attend, who are the presenters, what transpires?

Wright: Local government and community buy-in begins during the initial building of the tools, a process that relies on data collection on historical rainfall patterns, past hydrometeorological disasters, annual yields from multiple sources, including the Agriculture Agency and individual village governments. Based on previous experience, by the time the tools have been created and are ready for dissemination, the Agriculture Field Extension Agency will be fully on-board.

Regency-level workshops involving all related government agencies are then held. These workshops introduce the tools to regency level authorities and are followed with a full training program that includes a training of trainers (ToT) targeting extension workers and local NGO partners, carried out by Bandung Institute of Technology and World Neighbors. This training covers climate change and its impact on agriculture; the importance of weather predictions in the context of climate change; understanding the modelling results; features of the climate-smart agriculture digital tools; strategies for sharing the data with farmers and community organizing; and preparation of follow-up plans.

When extension workers are fully conversant in the tools, World Neighbors staff accompany them to socialize the new knowledge and skills to farmer groups. This happens in three stages. The first stage is to create a dialogue with village leaders on how their traditional knowledge and local wisdom is used in determining the start of the wet season and planting times; discussion on its suitability with the current real conditions they experience, and to then introduce them to new methods of rainfall prediction. Through this dialogue, the strengths of local wisdom and the new technologies are combined and accepted, rather than being viewed as in competition.

Once there is acceptance from these leaders, the second phase is to share the tools with the farmer groups. These training sessions cover climate change, its impact on agriculture, the importance of learning new technologies as a complement to local wisdom; and sharing the monthly rainfall prediction modeling results for the next 12 months.

By the end of the training, agreements are made with the farmers who decide to commit to applying the recommendations from the modelling tools. After this initial training, the third stage is to assist these farmers in their application; continue to convince those who are still hesitant; and monitor the planting times and types of plants planted; record crop yields and compare results between adopters and non-adopters.

A rice field not managed based on the Rainfall Predictions

Inhabitat: Do you plan to expand this app program to other parts of Indonesia, or for other countries in which you work?

Wright: Currently this app program is implemented in five regencies of Indonesia – Dompu, Central Lombok, East Lombok, West Lombok and Nagekeo. If funding allows, we plan to extend it to another four regencies in eastern Indonesia.

+ Edd Wright, World Neighbors

Images via World Neighbors