My work helps improve people’s livelihoods

What you need to know:

Global recognition: Ugandan researcher, Dr Catherine Lilian Nakalembe was this year’s winner of the prestigious Africa Food Prize (AFP). She took home a $100,000 prize which she shared with Dr André Bationo from Burkina Faso, a fellow winner. The prize celebrates extraordinary individuals and institutions contributing to the welfare of Africa’s agriculture sector.  She talked to Bamuturaki Musinguzi about her win, passion and the future of agriculture in Africa.

Dr Nakalembe was honoured for her dedication to improving the lives of smallholder farmers by using satellite technology to harness data to guide agricultural decision-making. Her work in this area has helped prevent potentially disastrous impacts of crop failure. Her relentless efforts have also promoted the formulation of policies and programmes that are directly protecting farmers against the impacts of food failure.

What does winning the Africa Food Prize mean to your career?

Recognition of my work with colleagues at the University of Maryland and countless individuals in partner organisations on the continent is rewarding. It shows that the need for data and value of data in improving the livelihoods of millions of farmers in Africa cannot be overstated. For my career, it is my hope that the work I have been doing opportunistically now has the much needed attention and this prize will draw the right attention and investment in information systems based on satellite remote sensing that offer unparalleled information about agricultural and earth systems. I also hope it can encourage other young women starting their careers or girls in schools to want this for themselves because they too can achieve this.

Can you break down for us what you do?  

My work spans from developing methods and models for understanding crop field performance to the impacts of extreme events such as flooding and drought. I do a lot of capacity building, with analysts within ministries of agriculture and early warning departments in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Mali. I have interacted with many more countries in Africa through work with regional agencies.

My work at the Center for Global Agricultural Monitoring and now under NASA Harvest Program at Maryland has led to the establishment of national bulletins and reports as well key food security reports that have had significant impact on programmes that have ultimately impacted on communities in these countries. I am principal investigator and co-investigator on various projects that focus on leveraging the best available satellite technology to develop models and products that can support improved decision making.

What role does data play in guiding agricultural decision-making?

We need data and information at every stage. A farmer needs to decide what seeds, when to plant, how much to plant, will rainfall be sufficient, should I irrigate, is my crop suitable for my area, how can I improve productivity, et cetera. 

At the regional or national level or from a policy perspective, decision makers need to be able to understand what areas are most productive, what areas are not productive and why. Where we might need to provide assistance, what type of assistance and how and when. What development programmes have had the most impact, which ones have yielded no results, which ones to improve. What information to get to farmers and so on. For all the above and so much more we need data at the right scale, at the right time to make the appropriate decisions.

How has your work impacted on governments and small farmers in East Africa?

Some examples include jump starting reporting mechanisms that use remote sensing including the re-realisation of the Tanzania National Food Security Bulletin, the establishment of the Uganda National Integrated Early Warning Bulletin, the Kenya Crop Monitor report, The Eastern Africa Crop Monitor that reports on 10 countries in the region.

The bulletin for Mali and Rwanda are still in development. In Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya these have become critical sources of information about crop performance across the countries. All these systems are run locally by national analysts in government agencies that appreciate having access to timely data and information about rainfall and crop performance.

More directly, in 2015, I wrote a report that was presented to the Prime Minister of Uganda, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, and that report led to an immediate decision to bring food aid to Karamoja region that was facing widespread crop failure. These types of decisions often take long and often have to be debated but the unequivocal evidence in the report including photos and video and how wide spread crop failure was, as shown by the remote sensing data, led to the dispatch of food aid two days after the presentation of the report.

This led to my involvement in the Disaster Risk Financing Programme for which I designed the trigger mechanism using satellite data. The programme is run in such a way that if there is clear evidence of impending crop failure the fund is triggered and it supports alternative livelihood options for affected farmers but paying attention to differences in severity so that sub-counties that are hit the hardest receive the most funds.

Dr Catherine Lilian Nakalembe (seated) during her field work. PHOTO/courtesy

In your observation what is the major cause of food insecurity in East Africa?

I do not think there is a single cause. Food security is the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. So, it is often a combination of factors that have to be addressed. Agriculture should be profitable yet many farmers face losses season after season which directly and indirectly impacts on food security.

I think one of the most significant factors is accessibility. You find at the end of a growing season that farmers in one region (A) are struggling to sell their bumper harvest while in another region (B) not too far away, food prices skyrocket due to crop failure. In this case, the solution would be to ensure produce is purchased from farmers from region A and brought on the market in region B to help stabilise prices so that people can afford the food on the market.

Secondly, largely because agriculture is rain-fed, most farmers’ fields fail when there is a delayed start of the season, a dry spell in the middle and in other cases, when there’s too much rainfall, which causes flooding. In both cases we would need to invest and mechanise. Harvest the rainwater when in excess and irrigate when there is  a dry spell.

How is climate change impacting food and livestock production in East Africa?

Seasons have become so variable that it is impossible for farmers to plan ahead and are often reacting to extreme events. From cyclones, heavy rainfall events, dry spells, droughts that can happen in the same year.

For example, after Cyclone Idai made landfall  in Mozambique on March 15, 2019, it ravaged through Southern Africa, causing catastrophic winds and flooding in several countries. Idai was identified by the UN as one of the deadliest storms on record that occurred in the Southern Hemisphere.

The cyclone caused an estimated 1,297 deaths, 2,262 people were reported missing; it affected more than three million people in total and caused an estimated $2 billion in damages.

A few weeks later (April 25, 2019), cyclone Kenneth made landfall in northern Mozambique, and it affected 170, 000 people, who were already experiencing armed violence. Simultaneously, farmers in Eastern Africa who had been anticipating good rainfall waited in vain for the rain. Idai removed moisture from Eastern Africa at the onset of the growing season. Consequently, parts of Kenya and Somalia experienced total crop failure.    

What is the importance of applying technology in crop and livestock production?

Technology can lead to higher crop productivity, decreased use of water, fertiliser, and pesticides, reduced impact on natural ecosystems, less runoff of chemicals into rivers and groundwater and increased safety on farms.

Technologies also enable more reliable monitoring and management of natural resources, such as air and water quality. It also gives producers greater control over plant and animal production, processing, distribution, and storage, which results in greater efficiencies and lower prices, safer growing conditions and safer food and reduced environmental and ecological impact.

What technologies have been  used in improving crop and livestock production in East Africa?

I cannot speak to everything that is being done but I know that more and more farmers are investing in irrigation.  On some  commercial farms that produce for export one can find sophisticated technologies such as robots, temperature and moisture sensors, aerial images, and GPS technology, these are some of the systems that can allow farm businesses to be more profitable, efficient, and safer.

Why do you find this type of work interesting?

My work has huge and already demonstrate benefits that can lead to positive outcomes for millions of farmers, save resources and really supports farmers who are working to improve their livelihoods. I would like to see more positive impacts on farmers through better and more timely decisions that are informed by remote sensing systems and the scaling of programmes like the disaster risk financing and crop insurance programmes but also programmes that can see farmers succeed rather than constantly lose their investments season after season.

I think I have also always been a geographer and being able to walk miles and miles in the field to collect data that can later help me form a better picture of what is really going on is one of my favourite things to do. Fieldwork to me feels like exploration with a purpose to learn and ultimately figure out how to contribute back to the communities you meet on your journey.

How do you divide your time between family and field research?

It is a very delicate balance and I spend as much time with my sons as possible. It is still incredibly challenging because they are still really young but I do my best.

Fact file

Dr  Nakalembe is an assistant research professor in the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Harvest Africa Programme Director and the Agriculture and Food Security Thematic Lead for NASA SERVIR. Both programmes are part of the NASA Applied Science Programme.

Dr  Nakalembe is married to Dr  Sebastian Deffner, and they have been blessed with twin boys Maximillian Waswa Deffner and Alexander Kato Deffner.


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