Transforming satellite data for smallholders

Remco Dost

ICT Update spoke to Remco Dost, senior project manager at eLEAF, about the company’s work, what it does with the raw data it sources from satellites and what role it is playing in the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service (MUIIS).

eLEAF procures satellite imagery from the vast fleet of satellites orbiting our planet launched by space organisations such as ESA and NASA. Once sourced, eLEAF converts satellite pictures into quantified data. ‘It’s a process called PiMapping,’ says Remco Dost. ‘What we basically do is measure how much radiation solar has been emitted by the sun, how much of that has been used, reflected back into space, absorbed by the soil, and that allows us to calculate how much is used by vegetation for photosynthesis.’

From that, eLEAF can get an idea of the status of the actual crop in the field. What is the current state of the vegetation growing right now? PiMapping tells you this in kilogrammes or tons per hectare. ‘It also reveals the condition of the crop in terms of water,’ says Dost. ‘Is the crop thirsty, does it need water?’ The technology also makes it possible to see in-field variation. ‘It shows you that a crop is doing well at the edge but not at the centre, for example,’ Dost says. Or compare two fields. ‘Because we have detailed input information, we can see whether a given field is suffering from water stress or soil compaction. Then you can compare that to the neighbour’s field and ask why one is doing better than the other. Is it variety? Is it management?’

That’s one side of the eLEAF story. The company helps farmers to monitor their crop over the season. Once it figures out why a crop is producing less, it provides the farmer with advice on how to improve production. But eLEAF also combines data. ‘We can monitor a crop over the years and establish what its potential growth would be in a given region. And by combining that with climate information we can even provide information on what kind of yield to expect,’ says Dost.

So the next question is, how is this advice packaged so that it is useful for farmers on the ground? ‘There are a number of access structures,’ Dost says. ‘Indeed, satellite imagery in itself would not be useful information for a farmer. So we provide a derived product with weekly updates on the status of the crop. We have our own interface, called FieldLook, so you can access it online. There farmers can log in and get all their fields spatially visualised in graphic form so they can also see the evolution over time.’ 

The Gezira Irrigation Scheme

eLEAF and CTA worked together prior to the MUIIS project. ‘We worked together on the Gezira project in Sudan, which was very successful,’ Dost says. Gezira is a large irrigation scheme, more than a million hectares. But farmers were having productivity issues. ‘It was all gravity-based irrigation: the gates open and water flows over the fields. So we provided farmers there – who have mobile phones but not smartphones – with irrigation advice by SMS. We calculated the status of the participating farmers’ crops and linked that to the weather forecast. Based on that we were able to determine when to irrigate a crop before water stress sets in.’

Once a crop suffers from water stress, farmers start to lose income. The irrigation advice that eLEAF gave farmers had stunning results. In some cases, the yield increased by as much as 200% to 250%. In fact, the advice was to irrigate more, not less, which had two benefits. First, it solved the water stress problem. But second, farmers actually used less water. Because they were irrigating more, they became more conscious of the amount of water that they put on the field.

eLEAF’s role in MUIIS

Gezira was the start of the collaboration between CTA and eLEAF and the use of this type of technology for smallholders. ‘Many of these services are normally used for large corporations, commercial companies that have some money to spend,’ Dost says. ‘But of course smallholders are a completely different sector. They have small fields, limited access to information, and willingness to pay is also usually low. That makes it difficult to provide them with these kinds services.’ That is where combined services comes in, which is precisely the strength of the MUIIS project. ‘That kind of project requires an investment and you have to get the technology to work. You have to put a team together, and all of these things are difficult for smaller companies. The Netherlands Space Office’s tender through Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) solved this problem.’

It effectively made it possible to create a consortium of partners, each responsible for a service in the MUIIS chain, from generating raw satellite data to providing local support to farmers. ‘While Gezira provided irrigation support, what’s nice about MUIIS is that there’s a shift towards a more holistic economic advice suite,’ says Dost. ‘Irrigation advice is very specific, but most farmers engage in what we call rain-fed farming, so they rely on the weather. One of the things I really like about MUIIS is that it looks at a variety of weather and crop factors.’ And the state-of-the-art tooling will hopefully get the youth interested in farming again. ‘If you want to solve the food security situation in the next 30 years, I think smallholders are a large part of the solution. And youth need to be involved too.’

Yet the question of tooling is complex, according to Dost. ‘If the farmers in Uganda had access to smartphones we could provide them with more tooling and they could also provide us with useful feedback and data. The way we see it, the technology is there, and we are basically adapting how we deliver the messages.’ eLEAF is currently conducting a feasibility study in Ghana, where literacy is an issue, so they are using voice messaging. ‘But 20 years ago when I started my career there were no mobile phones, let alone email,’ Dost says. ‘We communicated by fax. So we’re already working on the tooling that smallholders can use on a simple smartphone up to an advanced smartphone. I don’t know whether they will all have a smartphone five years from now, but a number of them will. And having the access structure to those services doesn’t only mean that they get better services but they will also become better advocates of the services that are there.’

As for MUIIS, once the initial three-year term of the project comes to an end, it will need to stand on its own two feet. There is already a subscription fee model that farmers can subscribe to. ‘But we need the numbers for that to work. We need to build up the confidence. The total MUIIS system needs to be locally owned after the subsidy and project have stopped. This isn’t a project where, after the work is finished, everything is done, end of story. On the contrary, we’re aiming for a sustainable service that will continue way after.’ 


Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.