A conversation with Meshak Nyabenge, GIS Unit Manager, WorldAgroforestry Center (ICRAF) Nairobi at the CSI-AGCommons meeting in Nairobi

Q: What sparked your interested in GIS?

A: As a kid, I was always imagining I could develop a boundary map of my village. I don’t know why–maybe ‘cause I was good in geography. I thought why not have a map of our own place, know where it begins and ends.

At the University of Nairobi I studied surveying and photogrametry—how to interpret aerial photos. Fortunately a professor impressed on me the benefits of geographical information. So now I’m a GIS analyst instead of surveying people’s plots and getting into land conflicts over where somebody’s property ends and where somebody else’s begins.”

Q: What are some of the cool things happening with GIS at ICRAF?

A: One is mapping of rainwater harvesting and potential in Africa. We estimated
how much rainwater can be harvested in a particular place based on rainfall and use of a specific technology—roof catchment, rock catchment, runoff, other methods. people can see how much water they’re likely to capture in a local area, with which technologies. It’s being used by the rainwater network in Kenya and at ICRAF.

Also, ICRAF wanted to scale up their agroforestry programs. So we developed suitability maps as way of targeting where to scale up use of, say, fodder trees, like caliandra, glyricidia.

Third is, for GTZ and an energy company, we mapped where 11 key biofuel crops could be grown in Kenya. We looked at jatropha, croton, caster, coconut, cotton, sorghum, sugar cane, sunflower, rapeseed (canola) pagamia…. The oil crops would be for producing biodiesel, and the others, like sugar cane, for bioethanol.

Q: What’s next?

A: We’re now combining the biophysical and agronomic data with socioeconomic data—population, labour availability. Then we’ll know where it’s most suitable to invest in biofuel crops—and what the potential returns would be.

GTZ and the Government of Kenya plan to use this information for planning and as the basis of investment discussions.

We’ve now received funding to map four more countries: Ethiopia, Rwanda, TZ, Uganda for biofuel potential.

We’re also working with a Kenya-based NGO—the Vanilla Jatropha Development Foundation—to do biofuel mapping, specifically for potential for plantations of jatropha, the “oil tree.”

Q: What do you like most about working with GIS?

A: I use it to conceptualize the human dream. And I can manipulate options to come up with scenarios, applied in different fields. Basically, I’ve always worked with geographic information, and can’t imagine not doing so.

Q: So how about that village map?

A: Until now I still haven’t done it…. There have been a lot of other things to do!

   Srikant Vasan, BMGF  

Srikant Vasan, BMGF

An interview with Srikant Vasan, Senior Program Officer for Agricultural Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and member of the AGCommons steering committee. Now at the AGCommons meeting in Nairobi

Q: What’s the Gates Foundation’s major interest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

A: Agriculture is your prototypical geospatially referenced industry.

Q: Um, translation, please?

A: In other words, for agriculture, location is critically important. It matters where your farm is, what type of soil is there, where the water table is, what your climate patterns are, the distance to your markets. That’s why maps are interesting. The other piece is: Agriculture is very technology and information intensive. We’re big believers in the power of science and technology to improve outcomes. So for both these reasons, we think of geo-spatial information as a key piece of the puzzle.

Q: How are you using GIS?

A: First of all, location intelligence forms a key piece of several grants across our portfolio, from AfSIS (building digital soil maps) to HarvestChoice (enabling key analyses using geospatial information in agricultural development to AWhere (creating local weather data layers to better inform farming decisions). Second, my colleagues in the policy and statistics sub-initiative are looking at primary “Statistics from Space” data and filling gaps, to feed policymakers’ decisions, and enable better crop models using remote sensing data. My focus, though, is based on the assumption that there’s a lot of data already– but it doesn’t get to the field. We want to help data cross boundaries–boundaries within and between institutions. And also to disseminate information out to the field and closer to the farmer. I’m interested in seeing a transition from a focus on data to a focus on solutions. This is happening in bits and pieces. Why should a farmer care what we’re doing How can this data affect a farmer’s life? How can it ultimately improve incomes on the small farm, the dollar-a-day farm?

Q: So how DO you get information to farmers?

A: A good example is Mali Shambani here in Kenya. It’s a radio program that reaches 2.2 milion farmers weekly with information they can use directly.

Q: Not very high tech….

A: It doesn’t need to be cool or fancy technology to be useful! Radio is fine by me. We’re also exploring using cellphones. There’s a model we’re looking into of farmer helplines: people can just call up and ask about their problem and get an answer. It’s showing good early signs of success. Video works, too: local mediators video what successful farmers are doing, then gather a group of 25 to come and watch the video together and talk. In terms of adoption of improved methods per cost – early indicators show that it is up to 10 times as cost effective as regular extension services. We’re planning to support it. Now they are dealing with 1500 farmers. How can you scale that up to 100 times that? And how do you show you have a viable model while doing so?

Q: What are other focus areas of the Foundation for agriculture?

A: The agricultural development initiative has four subdivisions: science and technology, farmer productivity, market access, and policy and statistics. We have 200-plus grants across those four initiatives.

Q: Do you work a lot with the CGIAR centres?

A: The foundation views the CG centers as key partners in our efforts across the board; CG centres are key grantees in all four of these areas.

Q: What is your background, and why are you at the Gates Foundation?

A: I’m an IT entrepreneur, having started, built and sold two companies. After selling the second company in 2007, I wanted to find a way to use my skills and experiences to try to ‘give back’, which is what led to this role at the Gates Foundation. I try to find ways to use IT to turbocharge our efforts to help smallholder farmers.

We want to make sure we let you know what is happening in Nairobi. We are twittering from the AGCommons meeting at www.twitter.com/ictkm and we are preparing a number of interviews with the participants. We want to hear from ‘those around the table’, we are giving them a space to talk…. stay tuned….you will read their stories here.

On the third day of the joint CSI and AGCommons workshops is AGCommons Day. Today the focus shifts from looking mainly at the CSI community to looking at the broader AGCommons project.

On the agenda will be:

  • Presentation on Program goals, objectives, governance [Srikant Vasan, BMGF];
  • Phase 1 activities and deliverables [Enrica Porcari, CGIAR]
  • Presentation on Phase1: learning/consultation process, Result of scan, report on West Africa consultation [Jennifer Barnes, Rolf de By, KAi Sonder]
  •  AGCommons Quick Win Process and Outcomes- Overview and presentations
  • Panel discussion
  • AGCommons Partner model and resource mobilisation efforts
  • Building AGCommons as a sustainable community
  • Activity to look at and identify key opportunities for AGCommons
  • Report out and group prioritisation of opportunities
  • Poster session

Looks like a long and exciting day ahead.

Check out our social reporting on this blog, on our Flickr site, Twitter and Yammer (for CGIAR staff)

In April 2008 we held a very interesting CSI meeting . Here is the group picture we took then

CSI meeting 2008

CSI meeting 2008

Yesterday we took a group picture for the CSI meeting in 2009

CSI 2009 meeting

CSI meeting 2009

No…location is not the difference..both are taken in Nairobi… so…what is the difference?

The second day of the CSI and AGCommons workshop is now underway with a theme of  ‘Spatial Solutions’. The day will involve presentations from almost all of the CGIAR Centres plus other organisations who have come to participate in this event-all presenting the work they are doing in terms of finding spatial solutions.

During the presentations the participants have been asked to consider what the ‘big issues’ are that are coming out across  the clusters of presentations. Participants have been asked to write these on cards which will be grouped and put up on the wall throughout the day as a set of building blocks to guide the deliberations on what should be done as future activities.

Cluster 1:

  • Bioversity
  • CIAT
  • CIFOR
  • CIMMYT

Cluster 2:

  • CIP
  • ICARDA
  • ICIMOD
  • ICRAF
  • Alliance of CGIAR Centers

Cluster 3:

  • IFPRI
  • IITA
  • ILRI
  • IRRI
  • IWMI

Cluster 4:

  • WARDA
  • WorldFish
  • Other non-CSI presentations

To better facilitate discussion on a number of key topics, issues, opportunities, and action points for the Consortium for Spatial Information (CSI) Annual Meeting, we decided to use a World Cafe approach.

Six topics:

  1. Delivery platforms for Partners
  2. Revitalizing Outreach and Engagement
  3. Core data and tool priorities
  4. Atlas products
  5. Plug and P(l)ay Geospatial Services for CG Mega programs
  6. Enhancing the contribution of the Geospatial ‘Sector’ to Agricultural Development

The participants had to choose only 4 of the 6 topics that they would want to discuss due to time constraints. One table was devoted to each of the 6 topics, and a round of discussion was organised to last 30 minutes–20 minutes of open discussions and 10 minutes of capturing and compiling key points. There were two rounds before lunch and two afterwards.

Th conversations at the tables were very active and at the end of each round participants were reluctant to end their very intensive discussions. After a break for another session, each session Chair was asked to present the key points coming out of their table. This was followed by the facilitator opening up the discussion to the whole group for presenting any gaps, additional ideas, and questions. The facilitator then also asked after each group, what the key action points would be.

For the majority of the group, this was the first time to use the World Cafe approach–so it was unsure how it would go and what the reactions would be.

These points will be taken forward throughout the rest of the workshop.

The reactions were very positive to this with the following comments being some of what was said about it:

*” It made the discussions much more structured than before”

*”It was fun!”

*”I like it alot and i thought it brought out alot of good points and generated alot of energy”