A boy sits on the edge of a collapsed bridge in Nhamatanda, Mozambique, on March 21, a week after Cyclone Idai lashed southern Africa. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

ClimaCell, the private weather forecasting company based in Boston that has pioneered “microweather” forecasting based on sensors in smartphones, vehicles and other sources, is spinning off a nonprofit arm that will seek to close the gap in weather and climate information between developing nations and the industrialized world.

The company is tackling this because it sees a need for a new approach to scaling up weather observations and forecasting capabilities that could save lives in Africa and parts of Asia, and thinks that bringing the profit motive to bear on such an endeavor could harm the effort.

In an exclusive interview with the Capital Weather Gang, Rei Goffer, ClimaCell co-founder and chief strategy officer, said too many for-profit companies and international organizations have tried to bring their technology to Africa to help farmers and others with critical weather needs, only to have the efforts end in failure.

Even though ClimaCell is still in its infancy, having started in 2015, Goffer said now is the right time to address this challenge as the company seeks to develop computer modeling tools and observation systems that can be applied to a broad range of geographical settings.

“You can always say, well, let’s tackle Africa or these other parts of the world later,” Goffer said. “We believe and have believed since day one this is an urgent problem and has to be tackled in a focused way,” he added, referring to the drastic disparity between the weather information available to citizens of industrialized countries and what residents of populous African nations can easily access.

The company will seek to build capacity for weather monitoring and forecasting in African countries such as Uganda and Kenya, including through partnerships with national meteorological agencies. They’ll also seek to make sure data is accessible and useful for people on the ground, including farmers whose livelihoods depend on accurate weather information.

The company has hired one staff member, Georgina Campbell, to lead the nonprofit effort, and will begin fundraising from foundations and other sources starting Tuesday. Campbell, who has a background in emerging markets and how businesses can tackle systemic poverty, will head up ClimaCell.org. She has been serving as director of business development for emerging markets at the company.

“No one has actually looked at it as a systems challenge,” she said of many previous efforts to bring better weather and climate information to Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion.

Campbell, who previously served as executive director of the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, said many Western companies active in developing nations fail to close a crucial loop: working with local weather agencies to make sure weather and climate information goes from the computer model stage to the village and farmer level.

ClimaCell seeks to do that through a variety of partnerships, she said, including with the Ugandan weather agency, as well as major international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development and others.


Clouds gather but produce no rain as cracks are seen in the dried-up municipal reservoir in drought-stricken Graaff-Reinet, South Africa, on Nov. 14. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

As an example of how vulnerable parts of Africa are to weather extremes, Cyclone Idai, which slammed into Mozambique in March, killed at least 600 people and cost at least $773 million in direct damage in Mozambique alone, according to the World Bank. The tally is likely to be higher when indirect effects, such as lost productivity, are factored in.

According to the World Bank, Africa has the world’s least-developed weather, water and climate observation network, with a majority of its surface weather stations and 71 percent of its upper-air weather stations failing to report accurate data. A 2017 report put the cost of modernization investment needed at more than $1.5 billion but noted that these costs can be offset by savings of $13 billion per year in asset losses and $30 billion in a resulting boost to productivity.

These costs can be eased, however, or effectively offset. The World Bank Group’s research shows that countries can save $13 billion in asset losses annually by investing in hydro-meteorological services, as well as saving $22 billion in losses to well-being, and $30 billion through a resulting increase in productivity.

Other approaches have not achieved results

Alan Miller, a consultant on climate change policy and finance for international organizations including UNDP, who has worked on improving weather forecast availability and reliability in Africa, said the ClimaCell effort has merit. Miller is not affiliated with the company.

“Approaching the problem of poor to nonexistent emergency warnings in poor countries through a nonprofit is worth trying for several reasons. First, because the greatest barrier to the entry of private weather companies has been a lack of trust,” Miller said via email. “The countries fear they will be ripped off and their needs left unmet — a fear not without some foundation from past experience.

“Second, the delivery of emergency warnings is a public good and shouldn’t be driven by profit objectives. And third, what’s been done so far has mostly failed, so trying some different approaches can’t be any worse.”

Miller noted that Western companies have been selling expensive weather radars to African nations that could do far more to meet their citizens’ weather forecasting needs if they deployed lower-cost surface observing stations, for example.

Goffer said the nonprofit arm of the company will focus on a suite of solutions including deploying weather sensors, running computer models and making sure that local nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and individuals have access to the information they need to be less vulnerable to extreme weather.

This is an issue of growing urgency because of climate change, which is already hitting poorer countries the hardest.

“We have a five-year vision of getting across the whole continent because we need to,” Goffer said.

Goffer noted that the gap between the haves and have-nots has increased when it comes to access to high-quality weather and climate forecast information. The new venture, which aims to have a staff in the double-digits within the next year, will ensure that people understand that “despite all the progress, there has been degradation in some places.”