April 28, 2016

Guest Commentary – Gro Intelligence: Deciphering a Drought with Data

By Sara Menker, Founder and CEO, Gro Intelligence
When Ethiopia’s belg rains, which run from March through May, failed last year, many areas, especially in central and eastern Ethiopia received less than 50 percent of typical rainfall.
Still, Ethiopians remained cautiously optimistic that the June through September kiremt rains could still come in strong. These rains are generally more critical anyhow, accounting for 50-80 percent of annual precipitation in Ethiopia’s major agricultural areas.
But unfortunately, the kiremt rains failed, too, pushing Ethiopia into its current predicament: 10.2 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance,  and production of key staple crops (teff, wheat, corn, and sorghum) down nearly 20 percent compared to last year.
Evaluating the Whole Picture
Projecting a drought’s impact on an entire country, especially one as big as Ethiopia, requires nuanced knowledge about its agricultural systems, including which regions grow what crops, their growing seasons, and how they respond to changes in weather.
Sorghum, for example, is hardy and relatively drought-tolerant; maize and wheat require more water and stability; while teff lands somewhere in the middle. 

Crop Calendars of Ethiopia’s Major Cereal Crops: These calendars, generated on Gro Intelligence’s Clews platform, denote the three primary farming phases (planting, growth, and harvest) for each crop as well as Ethiopia’s two rainy seasons.

Because farmers wait for an indication that it will soon start raining before they begin to plant, delayed (or non-existent) rains translate into delayed planting, while poor rainfall and high temperatures during the growth cycle—especially during flowering—can wreak havoc on yields.  Pairing these insights about sensitivities with weather data makes it possible to accurately evaluate drought.
The below visualizations of Ethiopia’s 2015 kiremt rainfall anomalies indicate that July experienced the most significant rainfall deficit compared to the 10 year mean. July is the peak growing season for corn and sorghum, and to make things worse, the regions in which they’re commonly grown—central, eastern, and southern Ethiopia—were strongly affected by the drought.

Monthly Precipitation Anomalies of Ethiopia’s 2015 Kiremt: Illustrates the differences in monthly rainfall compared to the 10 year mean (2001-2010) in the same month.

It is therefore unsurprising that compared to other cereals, corn and sorghum experienced the largest year over year drops in terms of overall production volume. From the 2014-2015 market year to 2015-2016, output for the two crops fell by 22 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Wheat, which grows in central Ethiopia where the drought persisted through August, also suffered a big drop. Rainfall deficits were more mild in the northern highlands in August, peak growing season for the region’s large teff crop, and thus it experienced only a 2 percent drop in production.
Evaluating Drought Severity

Because droughts can be complex and difficult to measure, experts must go further than measuring rainfall. Geospatial data like land surface temperatures, evapotranspiration (the sum of land surface/open water evaporation and plant transpiration), and vegetation health can paint a more complete picture.
Accessing this critical geospatial data alongside a multitude of other relevant information like crop calendars, infrastructure maps, production, and trade volumes with tools like Gro Intelligence’s Clews can help a variety of decision makers react to weather conditions as they are unfolding. 

Recent Soil Moisture in Ethiopia: A value of 10 means that only 10% of past observations were drier than in that location on that month (and 90% of observations were wetter). The base period used for comparison is Jan 1, 1982 to Dec 31, 2014.

For example, the above visualizations illuminate the drought’s more recent impact on soil moisture levels. By this past February, the month before the start of the short rains, many parts of the country were exceptionally dry, pinning even more importance on a successful short rainy season in 2016 (which is ongoing).
Tracking these environmental indicators as they arise and evolve is critical in developing countries, like Ethiopia, where subsistence farming and pastoralism are prevalent. For both of these vulnerable groups, even slight or short-term weather changes can have devastating effects.
Unfortunately for the Horn of Africa, climate change is expected to bring lower rainfall and higher temperatures to the region, which translates to more frequent droughts.  While that may be ineluctable, it is and will be critical that regional decision makers address these challenges proactively and effectively, aided by the early and robust warnings that accessible, reliable, and timely agricultural data can provide.
And those decision makers aren’t limited to governments or aid agencies who have to deal with specific events. Access to better data can be transformational in the long-term, encouraging private sector activity and attracting the types of agricultural investments that can help make the sector more resilient.
Fundamentally, agricultural data is like any other form of critical infrastructure: it should be robust, meticulous, and well maintained. And while that will require effort and investment, good data, like good infrastructure, helps societies thrive. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


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