Farmer Thomas Mwiraria surveyed the parched terrain at a church compound in Muiri village in central Kenya, and asked a passing agricultural officer when he thought the rains would come.
Like many others here, Mwiraria had yet to harvest anything from his land since a long drought began in January.
The officer pointed to Mwiraria’s neighbour, Joseph Ibeere, who was seated under a giant tree working out how local farmers could receive compensation for their lost crops using “picture-based” insurance.
The new way of tracking and verifying when harvests fail, using an app on a smartphone, is intended to result in a cheaper and more effective type of insurance than commonly used schemes based on satellite imagery or agents visiting fields in person.
“Index-based” crop insurance, which has been promoted widely among small-scale farmers in recent years, depends on satellite images to detect if a given area – which may cover up to 1,000 farmers – is being hit by extreme weather.
But the growing use of satellite mapping to determine payouts has not worked well for many farmers, according to Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
That is because the technology gathers data on a wide area, giving a general view of whether it is affected by drought or floods but does not measure rainfall at a local enough level, said Jemimah Njuki, an IDRC specialist in agriculture and environment.
“In a situation where satellite data indicates that a region had sufficient rainfall, some farmers there who experienced crop loss due to micro-climates are not given insurance payouts. Feeling upset, some opt out of the insurance scheme,” she said.
But a solution is on offer in some villages like Mwiraria’s.
Using smartphones, farmers are learning how to take photos of their land, starting from before a crop is sown to after it is harvested or damaged by weather extremes, said Ibeere.
The snaps should include a recognisable landmark so they can be verified and are shared with researchers and insurance agents, helping them decide more precisely which farmers have suffered losses.
“This project is trying to combine the information collected by farmers on their smartphones with satellite data. The combined data makes it easy to determine whether a farmer gets a payout,” said IDRC’s Njuki.
The pilot aims to boost farmers’ trust in crop insurance, which has been dented by the bluntness of satellite technology as a basis for approving payouts, she added.
The new data source also makes it possible to determine if a crop failed due to too much or too little rainfall, or was harmed by pests and diseases, she noted.
Partnering with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and insurance product developer ACRE Africa (Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise Ltd), the new project aims to work with 50,000 farmers, she said.
The CAD$1.7 million ($1.3 million) project, which began in April, will run for three and a half years and has so far enlisted farmers in the central counties of Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Embu.
ACRE Africa, which mediates between farmers and insurers, is introducing an app called Kilimo Care to help farmers take good-quality, accurate photos, according to Joseph Chegeh, its portfolio manager.
Developed by an expert at the International Food Policy Research Institute, picture-based index insurance has been tested in India with success in estimating losses and reducing administration costs, ACRE Africa said on its website.
Farmer Purity Nkatha, 41, from Luuma village in Meru County, said that under the old system based on satellite images farmers were not sure of receiving payouts when merited. But that “trial and error” approach is now changing, she said.
“I feel I am part of making decisions for my insurance payouts with this system that involves me in collecting data through photography,” she added.
The Nairobi-based Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) said satellite imagery does offer a high enough resolution to detect potential weather problems and their impact on crop health over a period of time.
But additional information to complement satellite data can help provide insurers with a more detailed picture, said director general Emmanuel Nkurunziza.
“The more information the better. Instead of going with one, it is better to increase the sources,” he said.
Michael Hailu, director of the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), told a recent conference in Accra that combining digital innovation like drones, smartphones and artificial intelligence with satellite data could build more comprehensive information on weather and agricultural field work in Africa.
New technology has huge potential to boost productivity, incomes and resilience among small-scale farmers, he added.
But Muthomi Njuki, governor of Tharaka Nithi County and chair of the Kenyan parliament’s agricultural committee, said those innovations should be made affordable to farmers – by providing credit, for example – so they can benefit.
"Weather extremes in Kenya have made most farmers poor," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. ($1 = 1.3329 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Kagondu Njagi; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)