How nomadic herders in Mali rely on satellites to spot water and vegetation in the desert

How nomadic herders in Mali rely on satellites to spot water and vegetation in the desert
Africa’s Sahara Desert is expanding, encroaching on savanna ecosystems. Image Credit via Luca Galuzzi. Source:

Nomadic herders in the Region of Gao in northeastern Mali are using satellites to search for water spots in the Sahel in such a way that improves productivity and security.

Usually, cattle nomads in the desert regions wander thousands of kilometres in search of greener pastures and water alongside their cattle herds. Over time, nomads in the Region of Gao delegated the search duty to camel riders and motorcyclists who locate and report oasis and vegetable areas.

Recent climate change has caused more frequent, longer drought spells that make the process of using emissary motorcyclists and camel riders more difficult and risky.

The ecoclimatic and biogeographic conditions of the Sahel region, Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south, are rapidly changing faster than the global average. As the Sahara fast encroaches, the Sahel region witnesses rising temperatures and frequent, prolonged droughts. Freshwater wells and vegetation become scarcer and several miles away in between oases, causing misery for nomadic herders and Sahel dwellers.

It became almost impossible to rely on emissary camel riders and motorcyclists to locate freshwater points and vegetations. Some times water wells and creeks dry up rapidly before the camel riders return.

In an article recently published on MIT Technology Review, Tim McDonnell explored how nomadic herders in Mali are using satellites to beat the challenges in the Sahel and effectively improve productivity.

Satellite image showing freshwater points and vegetation.
Courtesy of SNV
Source: MIT Technology Review

The nomadic herders leverage an experimental service to receive real-time satellite information on freshwater points, vegetation and weather conditions using mobile phones. The experimental service, known as the Garbal mobile phone service, is operated by Orange Mali – a telecom company.

Established in November 2017 under the Sustainable Technology Adaptation for Mali’s Pastoralists (STAMP) project, “the Garbal service has fielded 1,300 phone calls and 88,000 text messages from more than 50,000 users, Tim notes, citing data from SNV, a Dutch NGO that helped develop it.

According to ReliefWeb, “the project is funded by the Netherlands Space Agency through the Geodata for Agriculture and Water facility. The Netherlands, via Hoefsloot Spatial Solutions, provides the satellite imagery, Orange Mali operates the call centre and TASSAGHT, with its team of local pastoralists, collects and sends up-to-date information to complement the data coming from space”.

As at January 2019, about 21,000 pastoralists in Mali use the Garbal mobile phone service to receive real-time weather information and improve farm productivity.

The STAMP project originally aims to improve the resilience of pastoralists to climate change through the access and use of geo-satellite data. About 98 per cent of users are satisfied or very satisfied with the service and 97.6 per cent praise the accuracy of the information, ReliefWeb reports.

According to Tim’s Review, Abdoul Ag Alwaly, a cattle herder using the service said, “With your phone and 25 francs ”—about four US cents— “you’ll know, and can move with a lot more certainty”.