To ensure food and energy security for today's growing populations, governments increasingly turn to earth observation. Remotely-sensed data can provide valuable information on crops, livestock, woodlands and fires. Innovative, EU-funded research partnerships helped reinforce African capacities in this area.
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The AGRICAB project had three key objectives: ensuring the continued, free and open provision of earth observation (EO) data and software tools; developing real-life applications to support national policy in a set of focus countries around Africa around Africa; and stimulating uptake of EO techniques at large.
Achievements in each area have significantly contributed to the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), its Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), which seeks to integrate existing and planned observation systems for the benefit of society, and the African GEO initiative AfriGEOSS.
Reinforcing capacity, sharing knowledge, building partnerships
While African countries are already using EO data to support their agriculture and forestry sectors, there is a risk that new technologies – or even updates to previous systems – pass them by. “When EO technologies are updated, for instance with the advent of new sensors or services, we need to make sure that Africa can continue to make sensible, integrated use of the collected data,” explains project coordinator Tim Jacobs of VITO NV in Belgium.
In the 3.5 years of AGRICAB, reinforcement of existing capacities involved an impressive 47 training workshops for African scientists and officials, with a total duration of 372 days. Training addressed a variety of topics: collecting and analysis of satellite data using free software, taking models to an operational level, comparing satellite and ground-based data and more.
The results are already visible, even at institutional level. In Senegal, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture set up a new unit within its statistics department and entered a new partnership with local project partner CSE (Centre de Suivi Ecologique) to carry forward the improved methods and knowledge.
Observing fields and forests
The applications integrated EO data, ground measurements and local statistics in a variety of software tools. Extensive consultation with national experts and stakeholders, beyond the project consortium, and building on existing, multi-disciplinary networks and cooperation mechanisms, were further success factors.
“For rain-fed crop production in Kenya, Mozambique and Senegal, we were trying to improve the modelling of crops to forecast yields, to provide an early warning when harvests could be at risk, often by comparing with past seasons, and to estimate acreage covered by the main crops,” explains Jacobs. “This of course required a partner with local knowledge, but also several consultations with the agriculture ministries.”
In northern Africa, the team helped monitor the water balance between available groundwater and irrigation, tying into a pre-existing initiative involving Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.
For Niger, Senegal and Kenya, AGRICAB supported PhD studies developing better estimates of biomass production for forage, improving EO indicators used in farmers’ insurance against livestock mortality, and modelling livestock under various climate change scenarios.
In South Africa, the team studied the cover and structure of trees in the savannah, using new processing techniques and extensive ground validation, leading to several publications and a new map of forest cover at hectare scale. Datasets were also developed to characterise the dynamics of fires, including the impact of human activities.
Unlike some other programmes in the same domain, AGRICAB addressed the national level, and invested in innovative bilateral partnerships to ensure an in-depth exchange of knowledge.
While the project finished in March 2015, the research and partnerships are continuing through a range of projects. Many of the partners are planning to re-join forces in a new Horizon 2020 project on Africa and food security. “We are stronger together,” says Jacobs.