Data Farming

Satellites Give Researcher Long View on African Food Security
By Liam Farrell | Photo courtesy of CATHERINE NAKALEMBE

With little money for modern equipment or the crop data and climate analyses that richer countries widely rely on, farmers in the native Uganda of Catherine Nakalembe Ph.D. ’17 and across the African continent often face the planting and harvest seasons supplied with little more than tradition and personal experience—static expertise that can sometimes betray them in a world where the climate is changing rapidly.

“They are operating in the dark,” says Nakalembe, an assistant research professor in the Department of Geographical Sciences. “It just stops raining, and that equals complete failure.”

She is working to give growers a heads up on looming problems as Africa program director for NASA Harvest, a group commissioned by NASA and led by the University of Maryland to help governments and development organizations integrate satellite and remote sensing data into food security and agricultural decisions. Providing assistance across the continent, from Mali to Kenya, Nakalembe was named a 2020 Africa Food Prize laureate by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

“I really like the global perspective with the possibility of looking down,” she says of her research with satellites. “It really can inform large-scale programs.”

By harnessing data such as rainfall, temperature and soil moisture levels along with maps of crop coverage and on-the-ground observations, governments and farmers can make better decisions on everything from which seeds and fertilizer to use, to where to send emergency aid. The goal, Nakalembe says, is to preempt disasters with better management instead of spending exponentially more money to recover from them.

She came to UMD in 2010 for her doctorate after completing her undergraduate degree at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and earning a master’s in environmental engineering from the Johns Hopkins University. Maryland has turned out to be a “perfect fit,” she says, for its expertise in geographic information systems and opportunities to help Uganda and other African countries.

In addition to agriculture, Nakalembe is also working on ways to use satellite observations for public safety. Her newest project is developing an early warning system for the Mount Elgon region of eastern Uganda, where dozens of people are killed each year by landslides from the slopes of the extinct volcano.

“The data, the tools and the system exist,” she says. “There’s a clear need.”


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