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Turning Weather into Opportunity: Using Weather-of-Things Data to Create Pathways from Poverty to Prosperity

July 30, 2019

Weather can drive people into poverty. Access to better weather information can lift people out.

TL:DR The impact of weather can devastate economies and lives, and is a key contributor to poverty in many countries. But while weather is a wild card, forecasts no longer need to be. With hyper accurate forecasts, possible due to technological advances and a new approach to weather forecasting, the most weather-dependent economies can improve safety and make better operational and business decisions that will lift people and economies out of poverty.

Often when we hear about the weather, it’s bad news. Whether it’s images of homes wrecked by a storm, crops withering in fields from lack of rain, or families wading through flooded streets to find shelter, the almost-daily impacts of weather are very real. In recent weeks, with Monsoon season now upon us, we hear about the more than 100 lives lost, thousands displaced, and 6M+ affected by flooding and landslides in the border region of India and Nepal; And months after Cyclone Idai and Kenneth hit, we are still learning of the catastrophic consequences being suffered in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe; of the children orphaned or separated from their parents, the millions of acres of crops destroyed, and the thousands of families that have lost their homes, businesses, schools, friends and loved ones.  

With increasing temperatures of about 1.5°C, and as much as 4°C by the end of the century, floods, landslides, mudflows, droughts, high winds, and avalanches will continue to destroy livelihoods and create extreme risk to those who are most vulnerable. There is no doubt that bad weather is one of the major driving forces behind poverty. 

Turning Weather into Opportunity

But let’s challenge ourselves for a moment to take a fresh look at these statistics, focusing not on the negative outcomes of climate challenge but on the positive outcomes of opportunity that could come from delivering high-impact solutions.

What if rather than focusing on the rising death toll, we ask how many lives could we save? How many properties could we protect? How many farmers could we empower? Instead of focusing on food shortages caused by flooding and drought, could we focus on the productivity gains that farmers could achieve with more information? With a better understanding of weather risk, how many more farmers could be protected? How many more crops would be less at risk from disease? Famines prevented? Yields increased? If we move beyond poverty and shift our focus to creating prosperity, what could we be capable of? How many lives might we save and improve? 

Climacell as a Vehicle for Impact

This is the bold thinking that convinced me to join Climacell.co – a global weather technology company dedicated to building a unique weather engine that creates hyper accurate, specific and global forecasts – on a minute-by-minute, street-by-street level – that will improve billions of lives. The thesis: if we can provide reliable and accurate weather forecasts worldwide, people can use them; If we can understand the weather and accurately predict and disseminate weather data, we can turn weather into an asset for others, not a burden; an opportunity not a challenge. We can empower farmers, protect cities, and save lives.

So What is Broken?

What’s wrong with the current weather data system? It’s not economical, not sustainable and not equitable. Due to the massive investment required for traditional meteorological infrastructure, 5 billion people around the world still do not have access to early warning for floods and other extreme weather events, and cannot trust the forecast for basic yet critical personal and business decisions in their day-to-day lives. 

Today’s weather forecasts are sub optimal even in developed countries (chance of rain, in the afternoon, in Boston, doesn’t provide actionable information to businesses or individuals). That’s because forecasts, even in nice-looking apps, are based on repackaged governmental sources that rely on infrastructure that is both extremely expensive (satellites) and limited in scope (radars, weather stations). This problem is much more acute in emerging economies, where even this level of inaccurate forecasting is unavailable.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, there are only 1,100 active weather stations across the 54 countries in Africa and, due to inadequate government funding, maintenance costs and limited resources, the number of weather stations on the continent has halved over the last 30 years. Many that still stand are not effective, with 54% of the continent’s surface weather stations and 71% of its upper-air weather stations (where sensors are released into the atmosphere through balloons) unable to capture accurate data. In fact, it is not uncommon for a low-income country with a population of millions to have hundreds of weather stations with only tens in use due to aging technology and unsustainable maintenance costs.  To fix this today? According to the World Meteorological Organization, an additional 4000 to 5000 basic meteorological observations are needed across the continent. And the World Bank estimates that about USD$1 billion is needed to modernise Africa’s meteorological services and a minimum of USD$400 million to USD$500 million per year to cover the costs of staff, operations and maintenance.

This unreliable, uneconomical and unsustainable archaic weather system is fuelling poverty. A 25-year survey of households in Andhra Pradesh, India, found that the net change in poverty was very low and weather was partially to blame. While 14% of households were able to escape poverty, 12% of households became impoverished; Of those who fell into poverty, 44% cited weather events as a cause. Another study in East Africa found that the cost of a drought to households increases from $0 to $50 per household if support is delayed by four months after harvest and to $1,300 if support is delayed by six months or more due to the impact on children and distress sales of livestock and other property.

Fewer than 11K weather stations globally, very few in LatAm, Africa and Asia. Source: Integrated Surface Dataset, NOAA

ClimaCell’s Weather-of-Things Approach

The current model is broken. But think of the opportunity if it was fixed. This is the opportunity ClimaCell is dedicated to pursuing and is what drives our team every day. Using a new approach called “Weather of Things,” we are leapfrogging over traditional infrastructure and leveraging data from widely spread modern infrastructure – from satellite signals, to cell tower transmissions and mobile devices – and translating it into valuable weather observations that feed cutting-edge forecasting models. The result: forecasts that are hyper accurate, specific, and most importantly – global and equitable. We can reach 5 billion people who are currently underserved. The challenge we are addressing? Unpredictable weather that destroys livelihoods; The opportunity we are embracing? The opportunity that will come from an accurate and reliable understanding of the weather delivered globally to empower daily decision-making, boost profits and improve livelihoods for all. 

For the 2 billion people who depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, one of the major sources of random risk in their life is the weather. With knowledge of how long and how intense the droughts will be and when and where floods will hit, farmers can decide when to plant and harvest, they can optimize irrigation and fertilization, they can enhance soil structure to improve water filtration in times of flooding. If farmers can predict the timing of rain, freezing rain or snow with accuracy, they can adjust their work plan and planting schedule. With more accurate data, they can boost their productivity and profits, and create pathways to prosperity while preventing loss of life and property in the event of a disaster.

Traditional vs. Virtual Sensors in Mumbai, India. Source: ClimaCell

An Inclusive Kind of Capitalism Around Societal Change

Now it’s important to note that a focus on opportunity is not meant to undermine the challenges ahead or to belittle the importance of understanding and quantifying the challenges we face. But to recognize that in order to help and deliver solutions that matter, the attention and focus must be on opportunity. Coming from MIT where I have spent the last several years working closely with high-impact entrepreneurs at the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, I am no stranger to this bold approach. I have witnessed many entrepreneurial leaders build sustainable, scalable and economical solutions that disrupt traditional infrastructure and provide high quality services to low income areas. Whether Sanergy turning waste into value to provide non-sewered sanitation solutions that serve all urban residents and are 4 times cheaper than sewers; or MAX.ng which is using AI and modern transport to challenge existing mobility norms in urban centers across Africa and in turn providing safe and affordable transportation options to the Nigerian economy and reducing the daily commute time by 70%; Each change maker has flipped challenge into opportunity and delivered market-based solutions that are delivering opportunities that reduce poverty, drive prosperity and improve lives; Each representing an inclusive kind of capitalism around societal change. 

Three years in, ClimaCell has raised over $70M and has a globally-empowered team of 100+ across 5 regions, including Boston, Tel Aviv, Boulder, Toronto and, most recently, London. We have proven models, data partnerships, a committed team and world class customers across industries, from aviation to transportation, construction, energy and new on-demand players.

But we are far from done. We understand that weather data is not just for the privileged. We have an economically-viable solution and a scalable model that will reach billions of people. Poverty is a complex issue but one thing is clear, that prosperity can be a pathway out of poverty. And better weather is critical for global prosperity. Weather can drive people into poverty but understanding and delivering weather solutions can lift people out. 

So, let’s re-imagine and see how far we can go. Let’s focus on images of crops flourishing in a field and families celebrating harvest in Rwanda. They knew rain was coming and were able to change their planting schedule accordingly, saving their crops and increasing their yields; or a home by the beach in the urban center of Lagos surrounded by skyscrapers and booming business. They avoided the flooding this year because accurate and reliable weather data had allowed for flood-gates to be controlled appropriately. Or an airport in India that suffered far less delays because of a massive reduction in weather uncertainty, increasing business and tourism in the area. This is our mission and I feel blessed to be part of it. We welcome you to join us along this journey.