Climate-smart agriculture: How satellite technology can help

23 August 2023

For a world of 8 billion to secure global food systems amid a changing climate, science, technology and innovation need to play a bigger role, especially in developing countries.

Drought-hit Kenya looks to technology to help boost agriculture and improve food security.
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© Shutterstock/Miaron Billy | Farmers in Kajiado, Kenya. Drought-hit Kenya looks to technology to help boost agriculture and improve food security.

Following July 2023, confirmed as Earth’s hottest month on record, UNCTAD and its partners are ramping up efforts to help developing countries use satellite technology to make farming more climate resilient.

With extreme weather events becoming more intense and frequent, agricultural adaptation to climate change is key to minimizing crop loss and fighting global hunger.

Driven by these objectives, participants from 11 developing countries across Africa and the Middle East participated in capacity-building activities held in Mauritius from 7 to 10 August as part of the UNCTAD-led CropWatch innovation cooperation programme.

CropWatch uses Earth observation satellite systems and other climate-related data on drought, pests and diseases to monitor crop conditions and improve farm management. Countries can customize the technology to local conditions.

“By leveraging the power of science and technology, we can navigate these challenging times and fortify our nation against the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world,” said Mauritius Vice Prime Minister Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun, who also leads the country’s education, science and technology ministry.

The country’s foreign secretary, Joyker Nayeck, joined the vice prime minister at the workshop’s opening.

Hands-on training

The workshop brought together policymakers and technical experts from Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Syria, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Besides case studies and country profiling sessions, the workshop featured a full day of field visits and practical exercises at local plantations where CropWatch is in action for precision farming – site-specific crop management drawing on insights from high-technology sensors and analysis tools.

While there, participants practiced using the application’s global positioning, video and geographic information systems to collect crop sample information.

They also learned to harness geolocation data to strategically manage irrigation duration and scheduling, which is highly useful in Mauritius, where agriculture accounts for 30% of water use.

Jane Nzisa Kioko, head of Kenyan national food crops statistics, said this part of the training was very relevant for her country.

Due to five consecutive failed rainy seasons, Kenya has felt the impacts of the severe drought gripping the Horn of Africa since 2020.

In such a challenging context, Ms Kioko said tools like CropWatch will help optimize irrigation efforts for her country’s mostly rainfed crops.

South-South technology transfer

Launched in 2021, the CropWatch programme is a joint endeavour by the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), to which UNCTAD provides substantive support; the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Alliance of International Science Organizations (ANSO) – a non-profit and non-governmental entity.

The programme leans on the power of South-South cooperation to help more developing nations – often confronted with similar technology deficits and financial constraints – tap satellite technology for agricultural transformation.

Professor Chunli Bai, president of ANSO, said the programme is effective because, as the Chinese saying goes, “it is always better to give a man a fishing rod than a few fish”.

The CropWatch programme has so far equipped 11 Asian and African countries with the skills and knowledge to adapt the CropWatch system to specific local requirements, paving the way for better planning of crop import or export needs, more effective early warning mechanisms and, in some cases, quicker assessments of crop damage after a disaster to get assistance to affected farmers.

Among the participating nations, Cameroon, Ghana, Lebanon and Zimbabwe are newer to the programme. They joined in March 2023, after learning about CropWatch at the CSTD's 26th annual session.

“The CSTD again shows itself to be a powerful incubator, driving technology-focused partnerships among member states,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of technology and logistics at UNCTAD.

“Successful implementation of CropWatch will enable countries to make data-driven policy decisions, bolstering climate-resilient agricultural development in the long term.”