Nakalembe: Advancing Remote Sensing for Food Security

Dr Catherine Nakalembe

The achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is a global concern. One of the goals which carry an urgency above others is Goal 2 – “Zero Hunger”. In Africa, food insecurity is still on the rise. Prior to the impact of COVID-19, it is estimated that about 73 million people in Africa are acutely food insecure. With 85% of the African population depending on food importation, COVID-19 has further caused a detrimental increase in the level of food shortage due to travel restrictions and other lockdown measures. Sub-Saharan African is a place of major focus in terms of food insecurity and it was estimated that one in five people is undernourished. Before the pandemic, these food crises have ensued due to factors like climate change, conflicts, lack of investment in agriculture, economic shocks, and unstable markets. Unprecedented locust breaks have caused losses approximated at USD8.5 billion in crops and livestock, poor harvests, and have severely crippled food buoyancy in the continent.


As global agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD),  are committed to fighting food insecurity and eliminate hunger in Africa, agencies, development partners and ministries have also risen to this overwhelming challenge. Several steps have been taken or proposed in a bid to pursue this highly wanted solution, which includes; prioritising agriculture as an economic agenda, increasing the involvement of youths in agriculture, developing favourable policies, amongst others. Despite all these, there is a fixing that has remained underutilised but has proved its competence in the miniature ways that it has been exploited in Africa.

In the middle of this rubble is an African woman, whose dedication to the utilisation of satellite technology for food security, received massive recognition, Dr Catherine Nakalembe. On September 11, 2020, Dr Catherine Nakalembe formally accepted the Africa Food Prize award virtually during the Africa Green Revolution Forum. She is a Ugandan Researcher who was honoured for her research dedicated to improving lives for smallholder farmers which includes the use of Remote Sensing and Machine Learning applications in smallholder agriculture, food security, early warning, and disaster assessment. Nakalembe has received one of the 2019 GEO Individual Excellence Awards and she is recognised by the Group for Earth Observation (GEO) for her intensive capacity building activities in the use of Earth Observation (EO) for agricultural monitoring to support food security.

Her researches are contributing to innovative solutions in Africa. Her progression went from a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science with an internship in mapping encroachment at Mt. Elgon National Park, to a Master’s in Johns Hopkins University, then a PhD in Geographical Sciences where her doctoral thesis was on “Agricultural Land Use, Drought Impacts, and Vulnerability: A Regional Case Study for Karamoja, Uganda”.

As an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Maryland, she travels across countries and continents working with national ministries and regional agencies in the Eastern and Southern parts of Africa to monitor Agriculture with data from Earth Observation. Also, she organises training on remote sensing in the use of Earth Observation tools to assess and predict the states of crops.

NASA Harvest, an organisation commissioned by NASA and led by the Department of Geographical Science at the University of Maryland has been committed to the use of satellite data in decision making related to food security and agriculture. This organisation has been working with governments across the world and has been helping them learn to use the data. At the heart of these innovations is Dr, Catherine Nakalembe, who works as the NASA Harvest Africa Program Director.

Her work has led to the development of food security and crop monitoring bulletins that integrate satellite data. This bulletin includes the Tanzania National Food Security Bulletin, the Uganda National Integrated Early Warning Bulletin, Kenya, Rwanda Crop Monitor reports, and the Eastern Africa Crop Monitor. By designing a trigger mechanism of a disaster risk financing program, over 300,000 households have been supported in Uganda. Her work in this area has helped avoid possible tragic impacts of crop failure. Her persistent efforts have also stimulated the formulation of policies and programs that are directly impacting farmers against the negative effects of food failure

According to Richard Munang, UNEP’s Africa regional climate change coordinator, and Zhen Han, a doctoral student at Cornell University, food insecurity should be looked at and tackled as a regional problem, not as a national conundrum. Then the limited resources the continent has should be prioritised and directed towards the most effective solutions, thereby reducing general costs. It was also mentioned that ecosystem monitoring and assessment programs should be done jointly to yield high-quality information necessary for decision making in countries. This creates a sustainable avenue for tackling food insecurity.

Satellite imagery will allow governments and decision-makers to monitor crop conditions across the large expanse of land. This information aids preparation for any forthcoming disasters like droughts and floods, thereby, increasing productivity and profitability. This information when gathered for some time can also be used to forecast an entire region’s agricultural output, including anticipating crop shortages. This critical information is necessary to adequately prepare for food shortages and avoid famine by positioning food supplies in areas likely to experience these challenges. With these tools, crises can be predicted instead of being in disarray or reacting after the crises have happened.

In Mali, Lutheran World Relief has been achieving great feats in aiding the interpretation of these satellite images. They collect real-time information on crop and land conditions through applications on smart devices and forward them to government ministries. Through analysts that have received training from the NASA Harvest team, they can see where the crops are doing better or worse historically. This information can even indicate potential problems like pests.

By working with various stakeholders, individuals, agencies, and ministries, the potential of the vast farmland in Africa can be harnessed, and a sustainable Agricultural system can be achieved. Satellite technology indeed holds the key in continents like Africa, and with people rising to maximise this technology, the vast African population will be set on a better path towards achieving Goal 2 – “Zero Hunger” of the SDGs.

While there is still a lot of work to do towards using remote sensing to advance agriculture in Africa, with more people like Dr Nakalembe, there is something to look forward to. 


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