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Building A Network Of 20,000 Cheap Weather Stations For Africa

You can’t measure climate change and its effects unless you can track the weather. The Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory project wants to bring cheap sensors to all of Africa to help.

Facing up to climate change without data from the ground is like flying blind. Unless you have up-to-date weather information, you can’t assess the impact on people, infrastructure and crops, and try to do something about it.

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The trouble is, some of the most climate-affected places are some of the worst served with meteorological equipment. Many countries are struggling to replace old gear and employ maintenance staff.

“The standard stations cost, say, $15,000 apiece, and they’re typically run by professional services or governments,” says Nick van de Giesen, a professor at the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. “That’s fine, except for the last four years, the network has been in decline. We’ve been talking for 30 years about how we can reverse the trend, but it’s very difficult when it’s so expensive.”


Van de Giesen is leading an effort to create a much cheaper weather station, and he eventually wants to build a 20,000-strong network across Africa. He reckons he can get the price under $500 by using cheap, modern sensors, and engaging local engineers to come up with new ideas. “We think it can be done. If you think of a smartphone, and all the sensors and communication it has, that costs $200. So why not?,” he says.

The professor’s project, called the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO), has been running a competition to find sensor ideas from around the world. More than 40 teams entered this year, and eight recently attended a workshop event in Nairobi, Kenya. Each team was given a “maker package”, complete with an Arduino Uno, printed circuit boards, cords, screwdrivers and glue gun, and told to go play. The result was a series of concepts, from a sensor that uses silica gel to measure humidity (from Nigeria), to a wind and temperature device from Kenya.

Van de Giesen hopes to integrate some of the ideas into the final design, and build communities of young engineers interested in measuring local conditions. The full station, which will track things like rainfall, solar radiation, barometric pressure, and wind speed, will probably be about the size of a fence post, with as few conspicuous elements as possible (to discourage thieves and animals). They’ll all be connected to the Internet, creating a flexible grid.

Van de Giesen hopes that schools will host the equipment, and use it as teachable props. “We can build a curriculum so that students understand what’s going on. At the same time, we’ll also pay a small maintenance fee to the school, so they have the incentive to make sure it’s clean and upright, and so on,” he says.

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TAHMO estimates the network will cost about $2 million a year to maintain. But it reckons it can recoup that by selling the data to outside groups. Aside from research needs, plenty of companies are interested in getting better information, and building services around it. Crop insurers, commodity traders, and hydropower producers, have all expressed interest, Van de Giesen says.

All being well, he hopes to have at least 5,000 stations in place by 2018, starting with a cluster in East Africa. “Our plan is to have a fully functional network throughout Africa, but as you can imagine some places are easier to get to than others. We’ll start with countries like Kenya first, and go to more difficult places, like Somalia and Congo, later.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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