How Ugandan Nasa scientist Catherine Nakalembe uses satellites to boost farming
An avid badminton player, Ugandan Catherine Nakalembe wanted to study sports science at university, but a failure to get the grades required for a state scholarship set her on a path that led her to NASA and won a prestigious award in food research, writes Patience Atuhaire from the BBC.
When Dr. Nakalembe was trying to explain to a Karamojong farmer in northeast Uganda how their work with images from satellites taken hundreds of kilometers above the earth related to his little conspiracy, he laughed.
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While she pioneered the high-resolution imagery to help farmers and governments make better decisions, she still needs to be there to sharpen the data.
In other words, you can't tell the difference between grass, corn, and sorghum from space.
Dr. Nakalembe talks to farmers about how they can use an app to send in information about their crops
"I told the farmer through a translator that when I looked at the data, I only saw green.
"I had printed a picture that I showed him. He could then understand that ... you have to physically see the farm in order to make these distinctions," says the BBC academic.
She is a softly spoken woman with a radiant demeanor, and it's hard to imagine her trekking for hours in the heat of semi-arid Karamoja to work out the grainy differences that can only be seen on the ground.
This is especially important in agricultural areas that are dominated by smallholder farmers who may grow different crops at different times, leading to a variety of variables. This complexity makes it almost impossible for most agencies to monitor them.
Dr. Nakalembe's work has helped people in the semi-arid Karamajong region
Dr. Nakalembe, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Maryland, USA, uses the satellite data to study agriculture and weather patterns.
This information is combined with data collected in the field about the plants and their condition to create a model that learns to recognize patterns to make predictions.
For this reason, together with Dr. André Bationo from Burkina Faso won the 2020 Africa Food Prize for his work on fertilizers.
The scientist, who also heads the Africa division of NASA's food and agriculture program, explains: "From the air you can see which area is built up, bare, has vegetation or water.
"We can also determine what is arable land or what is forest. Since we have known what arable land looks like for 30 years, we can determine what is healthy, what is not or which part has improved."
"A lifeline for rural families"
Using information gathered by on-site researchers or submitted by farmers themselves, she can then distinguish between crop types and create a map that shows whether the farms are thriving elsewhere in the region compared to the same crop.
The model has been used in countries such as the United States where machine farming takes place on an industrial scale. The information can help make decisions about when to water or how much fertilizer to use.
But even a farmer in Uganda or elsewhere on the continent who only uses a hoe and works for hours on his small property will find this information valuable.
"Remote sensing enables large areas to be monitored using freely available data.
"You can make a forecast. If you combine satellite estimates of precipitation and temperature, you can see that it is going to rain for the next 10 days and farmers should prepare their fields. Or if it doesn't rain, they have no seeds to waste." and can wait a couple of weeks, "says Dr. Nakalembe.
Dr. Nakalembe is working with local officials to improve agricultural policy
In much of the continent, where farms are often small, fragmented plots far from sources of information, this data can be shared in local text messages, radio programs or through agricultural advisors.
It is also proof that governments can plan disaster relief in the event of crop failures or flash floods and save communities from famine.
Early research by Dr. Nakalembe enabled 84,000 people in Karamoja to avoid the worst effects of a highly variable climate and lack of rainfall.
"She worked with us in 2016 to develop tools that would predict drought occurrence," said Stella Sengendo, who works in the prime minister's office on disaster risk.
"We use this to estimate the number of households likely to be affected by severe drought. We then developed a program that provides funding for families through the local government.
"Locals do public works and make money during the dry season. They save 30% and use 70% for daily consumption," explains Ms. Sengendo.
The 5,500 Ugandan shilling (US $ 1.50, £ 1.12) per day is a lifeline for families in a region where there is only one harvest season per year. And around 60% of those workers are women, who studies have found to be the worst effects of climate change.
Accidental environmental scientist
Dr. Raised in the capital Kampala by a mother who runs a restaurant and a father who is a mechanic, Nakalembe never imagined working with satellites.
She played badminton with her sisters and wanted to study sports science, but without the grades required to receive a state scholarship, she turned to environmental science at Makerere University.
After never leaving Kampala except for the occasional family event, she applied to the Uganda Wildlife Authority to earn credits for her course.
"Mapping spoke to me. I went to Mount Elgon in the east. I still have pictures from my first fieldwork because it was really exciting," she says, beaming.
"I always had the same personal statement: to acquire knowledge and apply it at home", source: Dr. Catherine Nakalembe, source description: winner, Africa Food Prize 2020, image: Catherine Nakalembe
The NASA scientist, now traveling through Africa training government departments in the development of food security programs, studied geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
She says, "I always had the same personal message: to acquire knowledge and apply it at home.
"The doctoral program at the University of Maryland allowed me to get into remote sensing, but most of all, I came to Uganda and across the continent to work."
The pioneering researcher also mentors young black women to encourage them to get into environmental science.
"In the diaspora, I go to meetings and I'm the only one who looks like this. It feels lonely when it's a new country or a new space.
"In East Africa I meet a lot of people with whom we can share experiences and our struggles. I would like to see more black women in this group," says Dr. Nakalembe determined.
Winning the award was for Dr. Nakalembe a shock
The news that she won the Africa Food Prize 2020 this September came to her on an inconsistent phone call. Little did she know she had been nominated and wondered why her coworkers insisted that she keep her phone close by.
When the call finally came, she was asked to wait for former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who barely survived the congratulations before the line was cut.
"It was like going to the hospital with a headache and then finding out that you were going to have a baby.
"When I called my family, my sister thought I was being cheated. My mother said the same thing she always says when I achieve something: 'Webale kusoma' ('Thank you for studying hard' in Luganda)", says she.
The euphoria of victory clearly hasn't let up, judging by the big grin with which she talks about the price.
"Imagine I have a Wikipedia page now.
"When I introduce myself lately, I have to remember to say, 'I am also the 2020 Africa Food Prize winner'. And I have my huge trophy that weighs around 5kg. So I know I am not dreaming "she said quips.
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