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How Ugandan Nasa scientist Catherine Nakalembe makes use of satellites to increase farming

Catherine Nakalembe
Catherine Nakalembe

As a keen badminton player Ugandan Catherine Nakalembe wanted to analyze sport science at university but a failure to get the mandatory grades for a executive provide set her on a route that led her to Nasa and winning a prestigious meals analysis prize, writes the BBC’s patience Atuhaire.

When Dr Nakalembe tried to clarify to a Karamojong farmer in north-eastern Uganda how her work the use of photographs taken from satellites hundreds of kilometres above the Earth relates to his small plot, he laughed.

whereas she makes use of the excessive-resolution photos in her pioneering work to help farmers and governments make enhanced decisions, she still should get on the floor to sharpen up the data.

In different words, from space you cannot inform the difference between grass, maize and sorghum.

Catherine Nakalembe talking to a group of men
Dr Nakalembe talks to farmers about how they could use an app to ship in tips about their crops

“through a translator, I informed the farmer that when I look on the facts, I just see green.

“I had printed an image, which I showed him. He become then capable of take into account that… you should see the farm bodily to make these distinctions,” the educational tells the BBC.

She is a softly spoken lady with a radiant manner, and it’s hard to picture her trekking for hours within the warmth of semi-arid Karamoja, looking to tease out the granular distinctions that may most effective be spotted on the ground.

here is above all important in farming areas dominated by small holders who could be planting distinct vegetation at diverse instances, resulting in an incredible variety of variables. That complexity makes it almost unimaginable for many authorities to display screen.

Rural Karamoja
Dr Nakalembe’s work has helped people within the semi-arid Karamajong enviornment

Dr Nakalembe, an assistant professor at the college of Maryland’s geographical sciences department within the US, uses the satellite tv for pc records to analyze agriculture and climate patterns.

That counsel is combined with information gathered on the ground in regards to the crops and their situation to build a model that learns to understand patterns to aid make predictions.

It changed into this that gained her the 2020 Africa food Prize alongside Burkina Faso’s Dr André Bationo for his work on fertiliser.

The scientist, who also heads the Africa element of Nasa’s food and agriculture programme, explains: “From the air, that you can see which area is developed-up, naked, has vegetation or water.

“we’re also in a position to inform what is cropland or what’s wooded area. as a result of we now have a 30-year list of what cropland seems like, we will tell what is in shape, what isn’t or which part has more advantageous.”

‘A lifeline for rural households’

the use of information gathered on the floor by using researchers or despatched in by way of farmers themselves, she will be able to then distinguish between crop forms and create a map that suggests even if the farms are thriving compared to the equal crop in other places in that place.

The model has been used in locations like the US the place mechanised farming takes place on an industrial scale. The counsel can aid inform selections about when to irrigate or how lots fertiliser should be used.

but even a farmer in Uganda, or in other places on the continent, the usage of only a hoe and working for lengthy hours on their small plot will discover this advice helpful.

“faraway sensing makes it viable to monitor large swathes of land the usage of freely obtainable facts.

“You may give a forecast; if you mix satellite tv for pc estimates of rainfall and temperature, that you may tell that it is going to rain within the subsequent 10 days and farmers should still put together their fields. Or if there is no rain, they don’t have to waste their seeds and might wait a number of weeks,” Dr Nakalembe says.

Dr Catherine Nakalembe talking to some men
Dr Nakalembe works with local officers to assist enrich farming guidelines

In an awful lot of the continent, where farms are often small fragmented plots removed from sources of assistance, this records can also be translated into local-language text messages, radio programmes or passed on via agricultural extension people.

it is also facts that governments can use to plot for disaster response in case of crop failure or flash floods, and store communities from famine.

Early research by Dr Nakalembe enabled eighty four,000 individuals in Karamoja keep away from the worst outcomes of a extremely variable local weather and a lack of rainfall.

“She labored with us in 2016, to strengthen equipment that predict the incidence of drought,” says Stella Sengendo, who works on disaster risk in the top minister’s workplace.

“We use these to estimate the variety of households which are more likely to be affected by extreme dry spells. We then developed a programme that extends cash to families, throughout the local government.

“Locals do public works and earn funds all through the dry season. They save 30% and use 70% for every day consumption,” Ms Sengendo explains.

The 5,500 Uganda shilling ($1.50, £1.12) a day is a lifeline for families in a place that has only one harvest season a yr. And about 60% of these laborers are women, who, stories have shown, suffer the worst outcomes of local weather alternate.

accidental environmental scientist

brought up in the capital, Kampala, by way of a mother who runs a cafe and a father who’s a mechanic, Dr Nakalembe not ever pictured herself working with satellites.

She played badminton together with her sisters and wanted to pursue sports science as a degree, however with out the required grades to get a executive provide, she grew to become to environmental science at Makerere school.

Having under no circumstances left Kampala except for the occasional household event, she applied to work with the Uganda wildlife Authority to earn credit for her course.

“Mapping appealed to me. I went to Mount Elgon within the east. I nevertheless have photographs from my very first field work because it changed into in fact entertaining,” she says, beaming.

"I have always had the same personal statement: to gain knowledge and apply it back home"", Source:  Dr Catherine Nakalembe, Source description: Winner, Africa Food Prize 2020, Image:  Catherine Nakalembe
“I even have at all times had the same own commentary: to gain capabilities and apply it again domestic””, source: Dr Catherine Nakalembe, supply description: Winner, Africa meals Prize 2020, photograph: Catherine Nakalembe

The Nasa scientist, who now travels during Africa training government departments on a way to develop meals security programmes, went on to Johns Hopkins institution for a masters in geography and environmental engineering.

She says: “I actually have all the time had the same personal statement: to gain advantage and practice it again home.

“The PhD program on the college of Maryland allowed me to get into faraway sensing, however most importantly, come and work in Uganda and around the continent.”

The trailblazing researcher additionally mentors younger black women to motivate them to get into environmental sciences.

“in the diaspora, i am going to conferences and i am the only one who seems like this. It feels lonely when it’s a new country or space.

“In East Africa, I meet lots of people with whom we are able to share experiences and our struggles. i would like to look more black girls in this group,” says Dr Nakalembe, sounding decided.

Catherine Nakalembe holding award
winning the prize came as a shock to Dr Nakalembe

The information that she had gained the 2020 Africa meals Prize this September came to her in a patchy telephone name. She did not comprehend that she had been nominated, and puzzled why her colleagues insisted she kept her mobilephone shut.

When the name at last got here, she changed into asked to hold for former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who barely bought throughout the congratulations earlier than the road was disconnected.

“It became like going to the hospital for a headache after which being instructed you might be having a child.

“once I referred to as my family, my sister concept i was being scammed. My mother noted the identical issue she at all times says each time I achieve whatever thing: ‘Webale kusoma’ (‘thank you for getting to know hard’ in Luganda),” she says.

The euphoria from the win has clearly yet to put on off, judging with the aid of the large grin with which she talks concerning the prize.

“think about, I now have a Wikipedia web page.

“once I introduce myself these days, I need to bear in mind to assert: ‘i’m also the 2020 Africa meals Prize Laureate’. and that i’ve received my huge trophy which weighs about 5kg. So, i know i’m not dreaming,” she quips.