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Boston nonprofit gets Gates Foundation backing to help African farmers

Goal is to develop mobile weather apps that improve crop yields

Boston startup Tomorrow.io is building its own network of weather-radar satellites.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston weather tech startup Tomorrow.io’s nonprofit effort won backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assist agricultural programs in Africa.

TomorrowNow.org will use the $2 million Gates grant to design and test technology for delivering weather data to farmers in East Africa. The system will include Tomorrow.io’s current technology that uses proprietary weather data from unusual sources, along with data from the company’s planned radar weather satellites that will launch starting next year.

The 18-month East African project aims to give the farmers better weather information to improve harvests and avoid crop losses, said Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director for TomorrowNow. The information could also be used by researchers trying to develop climate resistant crops and insurers developing policies to protect farmers against extreme weather conditions.

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Farmers and others in the local agriculture economy will help design mobile phone apps that offer relevant advice in addition to just weather forecasts.

“A big part of the study is spending time with the farm managers and the women and the men who are actually running farm trials and understanding how are they using weather information and what they need, not just in terms of the data, but the tools,” she said.

Climate change is already roiling Africa, as it is other parts of the world. Madagascar is facing a severe climate change-induced drought that is threatening the food supply of one million people.

But a study by McKinsey found that African farmers could triple their yields of many crops with better technology and yield management.

“There’s no way that it can get there without weather intelligence,” Flatter said. “It’s kind of this missing piece in the conversation.”

In addition to the money from the Gates Foundation and Tomorrow.io, the nonprofit has backing from agriculture research group CGAIR and other grants.

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Flatter spent a decade at MIT before joining Tomorrow.io in 2019. She originally met two of the startup’s cofounders when she taught a business school class on social entrepreneurship. She also spent three years as executive director of the university’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.

“I had no idea when I was going into this that I would become a weather geek,” she said. “But I’ve always been obsessed with innovations for tackling climate change.”


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.