How the Web Can Bring Abundance to Africa

By Peta, Basildon | The Independent (London, England), January 8, 2010 | Go to article overview
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How the Web Can Bring Abundance to Africa


Peta, Basildon, The Independent (London, England)


Computers and broadband have enabled Zambian weather forecasting to transform farmers' prospects, writes Basildon Peta

On a continent plagued by droughts and floods, an unremarked revolution is under way in the arid Southern Province of Zambia where 58-year-old Munalula Mate has harnessed the internet to help forecast and prevent natural disasters. Once the bread-basket province of the nation, the region around the city of Livingstone has in recent years experienced a slump in its agricultural fortunes because of the floods and droughts that ravage the area at regular intervals. But thanks to Mr Mate's work, that trend is being swiftly reversed.

Mr Mate is a weather forecaster with a classical training from the UK's Met Office. For years he has compiled short- and long-term forecasts in the Livingstone area. But their usefulness has been constrained by two factors. First, the local data he has been able to gather has been severely limited. Second, even when he compiled the best predictions he could, they were out of date by the time they could be effectively distributed throughout the remote rural province.

But those obstacles were all put behind him once he had landed his first computer and internet connection. Disasters are now being avoided and farming output has risen in his area by an average of 10 per cent every year for the past five years.

Now Computer Aid International - one of the three charities for which Independent readers are donating money in this year's Christmas Appeal, which closes tomorrow - is working on expanding his pioneering work across the nine provinces of Zambia.

The scale of the change he has prompted is dramatic, says Ron Miyanda, of Zambia's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit. "His work has become central to our planning and it helps us put the requisite contingency measures in place."

During the major floods which hit the area last year, Mr Miyanda's department was able to evacuate villagers and their livestock from lowlands before the heavy deluge. Flooding was severe, and many lives were saved thanks to the forecasts that Mr Mate was able to provide.

"Early warning of the flooding of the Zambezi River during the rainy season saved many lives," says Stephen Campbell of Computer Aid International. "And aid workers for the World Food Programme in the Southern Province say that the speed with which the Department of Meteorology predicted the worst-affected areas during recent droughts helped them channel aid more quickly to those areas."

The quality of his forecasting consistently improved with the steady growth in bandwidth access in the towns in the vast Southern Province. "Most of our sub-stations are close to towns with access to the internet," says Mr Mate.

Computer Aid now plans to extend its assistance so that all five of the main provincial stations and 25 volunteer stations are equipped with PCs, as well as with better rainfall gauges, to improve the flow of data to Mr Mate's forecasting service.

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