Photo: Space science and earth observation can help institutions in sub-Saharan Africa face many challenges in integrating climate information to inform policy making in the management of natural resources, and reducing disaster risks. Credit: RCMD - Photo: 2018

Space Science Vital to Achieving Global Development Goals

By Justus Wanzala

NAIROBI (ACP-IDN) – Space science and earth observation are some of the key pillars in the attainment of most of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to experts participating in an international conference, organized by the Regional Centre for Mapping Resources for Development (RCMRD) in Kenya’s capital city.

The central theme of the RCMRD International Conference (RIC 2018) was ‘Space Science for Sustainable Development’ with particular focus on agriculture and food security, weather and climate, water and hydro-climatic disasters, land use land cover and ecosystems, land management and surveying, and cross cutting themes.

The conference from August 15-17 was purported to spur exchange of ideas on fast-tracking application of earth observation and geospatial technologies in development decision-making. The key question was: “how to use earth observation data and information to effectively address mundane problems that impact livelihoods in Africa and beyond?”

Established in 1975 in Nairobi under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), today African Union (AU), RCMRD is an inter-governmental organization.

Currently it has 20 Contracting Member States in the Eastern and Southern Africa Regions: Botswana, Burundi, Comoros, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland (new name: Eswatini), Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

They are all members of the African, Caribbean and the Pacific Group of States (ACP). One of ACP’s main objectives is “sustainable development of its Member States and their gradual integration into the global economy, which entails making poverty reduction a matter of priority and establishing a new, fairer, and more equitable world order”.

RCMRD too aims at promoting sustainable development in the member states through generation, application and dissemination of geo-information and allied ICT technologies, products and services.

Officially opening the conference, Farida Karoney, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning said, the conference theme ‘Space Science for Sustainable Development’ was appropriate and timely. She said the forum was convened at a time when the international community is marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – UNISPACE+50 – and when nations are steeped in implementing SDGs.

“It is gratifying to see delegates from various Earth Observation fields from around the world converging in Nairobi to exchange notes on the current state of development in the area of space science and how these advancements can be harnessed for the benefit of mankind,” she stated.

Already RCMRD Through SERVIR, a partnership between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is using earth observation information to improve environmental management and resilience to climate change.

Ashutosh Limaye, a NASA Chief Scientist involved with the project said technical exchanges as RIC 2018 were important for they bring new way of analysis as well as different perspectives on issue at hand. “Earth observations provide a vantage point from space that is unique. It knows no boundaries; at the same time, it provides us with an opportunity,” he observed.

He said, SERVIR aims to connect satellite data with environmental decision-making around the world. In an interview with IDN, Limaye said SERVIR regional hubs cover Africa, Hindu Kush-Himalaya, Lower Mekong, and Mesoamerica.

He noted that they work in partnership with leading regional organisations worldwide to help developing countries use information provided by Earth observing satellites and geospatial technologies for managing climate risks and land use.

According to Limaye, SERVIR uses a top down approach through targeting and engaging with end users of satellite data. “We begin with needs assessment and consultations after which we design projects, then analyse missing links and thereafter initiate capacity building. So we end up with a matrix of what needs to be done, the tools and training required,” he pointed out.

Limaye said, in Nepal’s Himalaya region SERVIR has worked with local authorities and population to develop a satellite data based system that is being used by the country’s forest department to detect and curb forest fire hot spots using satellite data.

In terms of technoloy transfer and accessing of equipment among SERVIR project partners, Limaye said computers are the basic tools used and most partners have no challenge to access them. However, there is always a challenge of low band width and ability to use newer data handling techniques such as cloud computing and other online platforms that aid in doing computation processing.

Besides, there is reluctance to share data. “Most institutions are reluctant to put their data in the cloud, although the situation which has been widespread across the world is changing as peole realize its importance,” he said.

But in Limaye’s view people and institutions are changing their attitude. “Where institutions’ data policy bars exposure, we reach exclusive partnerships that makes us honour the policy and use it in modeling without sharing it with the public,” he noted.

According to the NASA expert, in a few coming years, more data will be going into the cloud. “There are a lot of opportunities. Search engines such as Google and amazon are set to be huge game changers. I envision more and more things being processed in the cloud, more artificial intelligence used,” he added.

Patrick Wilson, USAID Kenya and East Africa Deputy Mission Director said the information and analyses provided by RCMRD/SERVIR is critical to the work that USAID is doing with vulnerable pastoralist communities within the arid and semi-arid lands in northern Kenya.

He said that one successful initiative of the SERVIR programme was digitizing of grazing areas in northern Kenya to improve rangeland management.

Likewise, SERVIR works with USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) and Kenya’s Department of Agriculture to update the cropland maps. The maps provide information on the locations of crops and indicate if they are rain-fed or irrigated.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture renders the small holder farmers who are the majority and agricultural decision-makers particularly vulnerable to climate variability.

RIC 2018 participants felt that universities have a role to play in enabling the use of Geospatial Technology in Africa.

Wanjala Nicodemus from the Department of Geospatial Science, University of Nairobi, said data driven agriculture is key to increased productivity among small-scale farmers. “In Africa agriculture is still a big player in the economy as well as ensuring nutrition and food security, it has a role in ensuring attainment of Sustainable Development Goals… We can’t achieve the SDG on zero hunger without ensuring food security. The world will have 8.3 billon people by 2030 that will require their food needs addressed,” he said.

Technologies such as Artificial intelligence, the cloud, big data, and Internet of things, block chain (for example farmers using apps to manage diseases), will enable farmers practice smart agriculture, he added.

Moustapha Mimouni from the Sahara and Sahel Observatory, in an interview with IDN said, a lot of research has been undertaken on the continent about effective use of satelite data but unfortunately findings have not been fully harnessed. “Many projects have been done by reseachers working with univerties and reseach organisations with promising results after pilot stages but are rarely cascaded to end users,” he added.

He also noted that gaps exist between policies and institutional needs in terms of haressing and using satelite data. “We lack a link between decision makers and thematic experts,” he said. “There has been some success but a lot has to be done,” he added.

Mimouni concurred with Limaye that data sharing in Africa is poor. “It is complicated to get information from official gorment sources such as metereological agencies and when accessed it is usually on paper, complex and not reliable,” he complained.

Additionally, Alex Obiria from ‘Go Green Hub’, a community development organisation that works with small-scale farmers in several counties in Kenya, said using GIS and remote sensing technology enables farmers to practice precision farming. The method uses automated farming tools that utilise weather parametres to ensure quick adjustment to weather changes, thus enabling farmers to take right measures and ensure better harvests.

Still, Andrew Lapperie from Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (Godan) said  satelite information could be applied beyond weather prediction. He noted that other areas of application are improving nutrition and determining soil quality for farmers to make decisions on suitables crops.

Godan is a three-year project to enable data users, producers and intermediaries engage effectively with open data and maximise its potential for impact in the agriculture and nutrition sectors.

Since its establishment, RCMRD has been instrumental in capacity building in resource survey, mapping, remote sensing, Geographic Information System (GIS) and natural resources assessment and management in Africa. It has also been instrumental in helping different countries establish their National Mapping Agencies.

To date the RCMD in any given year trains more than 3000 technical officers from its member States and other African countries in the fields of surveying and mapping, remote sensing, GIS and natural resources assessment and Management. It has also implemented numerous projects on behalf of its member States and development partners.

RCMRD functional programmes have meanwhile moved away from service technology framework (for example, remote sensing, geodesy, cartography etc.) to problem solving applications in natural resource and environmental management. RCMRD is now providing service on demand driven basis. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 August 2018]

Photo: Space science and earth observation can help institutions in sub-Saharan Africa face many challenges in integrating climate information to inform policy making in the management of natural resources, and reducing disaster risks. Credit: RCMD

This report is part of a joint project of the Secretariat of the ACP Group of States and IDN, flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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