Acute food insecurity is on the rise. Nearly 750 million people globally were food-insecure in 2019, and at least 121 million people are estimated to have been pushed into similar levels of risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is expected to increase due to the impacts of climate change on global food systems and crop production. Smallholder farmers are increasingly facing cumulative impacts of droughts, floods, heatwaves and wildfires, as well as crop pests and diseases. Without adaptation, climate change could depress crop yields globally by 5-30% by 2050, and if dwindling supplies lead to price hikes, at least 50 million more people could face food insecurity.

Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services (DCAS) — such as mobile apps and radio — could play a key role in helping smallholder farmers adapt to and mitigate some of these impacts, enabling them to make informed decisions and adapt traditional practices to minimize losses.

One such solution comes from Malawi, where vulnerable communities are using weather forecasts and agricultural advice to inform decisions around livestock, nutrition and health. Information provided through radio programs and mobile messaging to communities helped farmers navigate rainfall variability and make better decisions on different livelihoods strategies. The content for the messaging is created by an inter-ministerial National Agriculture Content Development Committee, bringing together expertise from different national agencies.

By providing information to be integrated into agricultural decision-making, Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services are already aiming to help millions of small-scale agricultural producers better adapt to a more variable and changing climate. Digitally enabled services like bulletins and alerts from extension services can also help support agricultural producers who may not be digitally literate or may not yet have access to digital technologies.

A farmer answers her cell phone while holding freshly-picked chili peppers next to an aquaculture pond in Rajapur, Bangladesh.
A farmer answers her cell phone while holding freshly-picked chili peppers next to an aquaculture pond in Rajapur, Bangladesh. Photo by Jacquelyn Turner, IRI

But while current efforts to provide such services to farmers — the backbone of our global food system — are promising, they are insufficient. New Global Commission on Adaptation research suggests that increasing international commitments and investments is critical to scale up efforts, safeguard smallholder producers, and promote global food security.

300 Million Small-scale Producers Still Lack Access to Services

As of 2018, Africa had 33 million farms registered for agricultural climate services — around 13% of all Sub-Saharan African smallholders. By 2022, that number is expected to expand to 47 million registered farms.

Despite the rapid increase in registration for these critical services, an estimated 300 million small-scale agricultural producers globally still lack access.

The Global Commission on Adaptation paper, A Blueprint for Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services, finds that expanding the reach and quality of these digital services will require governments and the private sector to invest approximately $7 billion over the next decade. Given that approximately $1 billion has been invested in DCAS in the last five years, this means an exponential push in collective investment from both public and private sector actors is needed in the years to come.

This would help fill critical gaps. Though more people are signing up to receive advisories every year, farmers’ engagement with these tools is not as high as it could be because service provision is still fragmented, is unsustainable beyond traditional project cycles, and is not reaching the last mile — such as communities where access is difficult.

Return on Investment and Productivity Gains Among Benefits

Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services don’t just improve yields — they offer a range of benefits for smallholder producers, including reducing risk, raising incomes, increasing efficiency, and providing actionable information that promotes the agency of farmers as decisionmakers in the face of climate change.

WRI, along with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Food Programme and the Global Center on Adaptation, among others, have found that on average such services deliver a 1:24 return on investment, and smallholder producers may see average productivity gains of 30%. For African countries with many smallholder farms, these services can also boost the economy, increasing GDP where services are employed.

The following six core principles, developed by over 150 stakeholders as part of the working paper, will help guide investors looking to support effective implementation of such services — both in scale and in good practices — while highlighting case studies of successful implementation:

1. Ensure Data Quality and Assurance

Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services data should meet the needs of users, including accuracy and tailoring for specific uses. A lack of data quality or sufficient governance decreases the ability of DCAS to support farmers and erodes farmers’ trust and use of advisory services. For example, in Rwanda, the IRI Columbia’s Enhancing National Climate Services approach used interactive maps to model past and future high-quality climate data. Farmers are then trained to interpret map data to analyze and forecast climate conditions for themselves.

2. Promote Equity

Designers and implementers should ensure that these services address differentiated needs from different people within communities and do not reinforce existing inequalities, nor leave those most vulnerable behind. Livestock holders in Mongolia, for example, are using non-digital means such as SMS technology to receive and respond to weather information that helps herders prepare and reduce the risk of livestock losses from extreme winters. Because of limited internet coverage and ownership of smart phones, SMS technology was considered the most equitable and effective way to share information with herders living in remote rural areas.

3. Co-create with Stakeholders

Creating Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services should bring together the producers of weather and climate information and those who use the information to make decisions. Co-creation builds trust, aligns services to farmers’ real needs, and strengthens farmers’ capacities to use services. In Malawi, as mentioned above, the National Agriculture Content Development Committee incorporated planning and review days into its agriculture-related radio programs. Extension officers used farmer feedback, co-producing seasonal forecasts and tailoring farming advice.

4. Establish Accountability and Transparency

Services should be accountable, meaning that they can be evaluated according to roles and responsibilities as well as evaluation metrics. They should also be transparent, with information regarding service design, implementation and finance being openly accessible and understandable. In India, global development organization Digital Green has reached nearly 2 million small-scale, predominantly women farmers by continually testing, monitoring and evaluating the services it provides. Transparent monitoring and evaluation help drive demand, with local partners seeing clear evidence of positive results, as well as ways to correct and improve services.

A person using a mobile phone in India.
A person using a mobile phone in India. Mobile apps could play a key role in helping smallholder farmers adapt to and mitigate some climate change impacts, enabling them to make informed decisions and adapt traditional practices to minimize losses. Photo by Jacquelyn Turner/CCAFS

5. Build for Financial Sustainability

Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services are financially sustainable when they can generate sufficient value to continue operation without relying on donor funding. In several countries across Africa, messaging service Esoko provides farmers with climate-informed agricultural advisories along with a range of other services, including market intelligence, a farmer helpline, and access to finance and insurance. Financial sustainability is achieved through a farmer subscriber model and a multi-tiered revenue model, where data collected by Esoko (such as market price data) is provided to farmers and resold to business clients.

6. Design for Scale

Reaching “scale” for these services does not mean just increasing access. What’s more important is the scale of impact in terms of resilience built and risk mitigated. This will require innovative solutions, building on existing platforms and integration into national and sub-national policies and plans. To scale DCAS, it’s also important to fill knowledge gaps, including the lack of common definitions, clear guidelines and standards, and monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Doing so creates a deeper understanding of these services returns on investment, especially with respect to resilience benefits, such as avoiding losses.

Toward a More Food Secure and Resilient Future

As the world faces increasing climate change impacts, it is critical to scale up Digital Climate-informed Advisory Services efforts to help millions of small-scale producers adapt to a changing world. These services have the potential to bring about transformational change, but only if essential investments are made to leave no one behind.

We urge policy makers, investors, and agricultural information service providers, to join us in endorsing and applying the above principles to raise the ambition and impact of digital climate-informed advisory services. With these principles in place, we can take one step closer to a food secure and resilient future.