Singing stormy weather

Weather startup makes waves in both African agriculture and commodity trading.

4 January 2017
An installation team measures the placement height of sensors.

Many of the most interesting innovations are borne out of necessity. This seems to be more true in Africa than elsewhere.

The story behind Kukua Weather Services is one that stands out from the rest. Co-founders Ollie Smeenk and Tom Vanneste were living in Tanzania and were out sailing when they wanted to see what the weather would be doing, something that is rather important when operating a wind-powered vessel. They couldn’t, however, find a reliable source of weather data. This experience proved to be the catalyst for the foundation of Kukua.

The root cause of the problem is that, outside of South Africa, there simply aren’t enough weather stations to provide accurate information. Compounding this problem is that the cost of deploying a full weather station that complies with the standards set by the World Meteorological Association is a costly exercise, and falls down the list of priorities for governments that are already cash-strapped.

A weather station installed in the vicinity of a telecom tower.The other issue is that many of the weather stations that do exist are not able to deliver data in real-time, making them useful as historical tools, but less useful when it comes to delivering real-time data that can be used to predict weather conditions.

The friends started to play with the idea of building a connected weather station that would be able to provide near real-time updates on the weather, but that would cost a fraction of a full weather station.

“Our production stations cost $500, compared with the $15 000 that a full weather station would cost,” says Smeeck. “While the depth of data we provide isn’t as comprehensive as that from a full station, the ability to deploy stations with a greater density more than makes up for it. The high density of the stations allows for the measurement of micro-climates and this is especially important when it comes to providing information to the agricultural community.”

The stations are compact and record a variety of data types, including wind speed, direction and gust, rainfall rate and totals, temperature, humidity, pressure and solar radiation. They collect data every minute and aggregate it into batches every five minutes. The collected data is then transmitted back at a pre-scheduled interval. This could be every 15, 30 or 60 minutes, depending on the power available to the station. Smeeck adds that the stations only use about 2MB of data per month, keeping the actual cost of running it relatively low.

Going continental
The initial pilot was in the south of Tanzania, but after that, the company made contact with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which partnered with them in a second pilot in the north of the country.

Our production stations cost 0, compared with the 000 that a full weather station would cost.

Ollie Smeenk, Kukua Weather Services

“The value of accurate weather data for the agricultural sector cannot be underestimated,” says Smeeck. “For African agriculture, being able to get data that is hyper-local allows farmers to make decisions based on scientific data rather than a best guess. This could include planting the right crops in the right place, based on the micro-climate of the region.”

After the success of the initial pilot in Tanzania, the IITA asked Kukua to run a similar programme in Nigeria, where the IITA has its headquarters.

After the initial pilots in Tanzania, they did run into some teething problems, recalls Smeeck. “The problem was that the solar panels that generated the power for the stations were being stolen because the stations were being left out in the open. So we partnered with the companies that run cellular base stations to place the stations inside the fence surrounding the base stations. That solved the problem.”

Another challenge they faced was that all the weather stations required a data connection, but given the patchy coverage across the continent, and that they were operating across multiple countries, signing up with a single provider was impossible. Even initial trials using standard SIM cards was not satisfactory as changes operators made to the network meant stations would stop reporting and require someone to make a trip to the location to update it.

To ensure that the stations remained connected, Kukua partnered with Eseye, which specialises in providing connectivity to IoT devices and for machine to machine applications. By handing off the connectivity to Eseye, the Kukua team was able to focus attention on developing the core product.

Smeeck says the business model is not one based around selling hardware; Kukua actually does not sell the weather stations. The company, which is based in The Netherlands, is monetising the data that these weather stations produce.

“Kukua is primarily a social enterprise. Our aim is to assist local communities by giving them information that they can use to plant crops at the right time, apply pesticides, insure their crops, apply fertiliser, harvest their crops or even switch crops to a more suitable one,” he says.

Taking the gap
However, because of the paucity of real-time weather data across the continent, the opportunity exists to sell the data to a number of other organisations that require accurate data for a number of reasons. He says this includes researchers and governments, and, more interestingly, insurance companies and commodity traders. Commodity traders in agricultural products are reliant on advance weather predictions in order to estimate what the future prices for commodities are likely to be. With better information available in real-time, and access to hyper-local weather information, traders can see when conditions are favourable to bumper yields (which would push prices down), or if a big storm was brewing, which could wipe out a crop.

“Initially, we are looking to deploy 500 units, with another 1 500 in the medium term, with the ultimate aim of building a network of 7 000 units across the continent,” he says. “This, however, depends on the company securing funding to drive its growth.”

Presently, it offers services to farmers in the communities that it operates in, as well as providing a portal with access to the data to other clients. “It’s important to deliver the data in a standard format and we don’t necessarily have to process any of the data that is collected, although we plan to offer value-added services later on.”

He adds that while the service will rely on the company’s own stations, it may be possible at a later date to integrate data from other sources, such as satellite imagery.

With the value of good data becoming ever more important in the modern world and a seemingly open field to play in, the company is in a prime position to not only do some good, but also build a sustainable business at the same time.

Kukua has weather stations in:
Ivory Coast 50
Ghana 50
Nigeria 90
Rwanda 50
Tanzania 100