I am doing it again…giving titles that sound like an Aesop’s fable….just like my earlier “The Starfish and the Spider” post. But again, this has nothing to do with the more famous fables…. This is about applying map technology to reduce a public-health menace. After all this is a blog about ICTs, knowledge and agriculture…

 

Sibiry Traore

Sibiry Traore

Ok….let’s see what our conversation with Pierre Sibiry, research scientist at ICRISAT in Mali during our First Africa Geospatial week reveals…

 

“You don’t have to describe to a child what an elephant is when he can see one.” Pierre borrows this Dagaare proverb from Ghana to explain the sheer visual power of maps.

On the other hand, he is also quick to admit not understanding, just yet, why West African farmers are captivated by digitized, very high resolution maps of their land.

“We don’t know why they like this imagery,” says Traore, “but they seem to love it. They all ask for it. Why not provide very high-resolution imagery everywhere for rural communities? You could map villages, fields, trees, cart paths, landscapes. You could have every mayor, village chief, farmers’ representative discuss local maps with local people and see what happens.

“Ever wondered why you stare at your own backyard on Google Earth? Well, the farmer might just be like you – or vice versa. There is no reason to deprive the majority of Africans of that imagery.”

One unpredicted effect of maps on Traore himself has been a growing interest in aflatoxins—toxic substances produced by the Aspergillus fungi that infest peanuts and other crops. Aflatoxins are among the most potent carcinogens known, and particularly affect the liver.

“I recently read that one in ten males in the Gambia die from liver cancer. Isn’t that shocking? West Africans eat a lot of peanuts—a majorl source of protein and energy. In addition, you find aflatoxin in weaning formulas and milk when cows are fed infected peanuts—it causes stunting and other child health problems.”

So what does this have to do with maps?

Weather and field conditions control how quickly the fungus grows in any particular harvest. And these environmental and management conditions can be monitored by satellite.

“It turns out that peanut pods are particularly susceptible if they matured during a dry spell – weaker shells allow the fungus in. But also if they sit on the ground after harvesting when it’s damp—then the fungus just explodes. Quite often you can see the fungus in the peanut shell—a green powdery stuff. But it doesn’t have to be visible to be dangerous.”

Some weather satellites can help predict harvest time and moisture levels. Combined with very high-resolution imagery—satellite pictures that allow you to zoom in very close and see inside fields, they help tell whether a particular field has a high, medium, or low risk of aflatoxin in the harvest. That means they show critical places where farmers should rush the crop off the field to dry.

Resistant varieties are in development. In the meantime, the most important defense is not to let the crop sit on the ground in damper than average conditions.

“It’s not that the farmers leave them there out of neglect. Peanuts often come last. Cotton can’t stand in the field or it gets ruined—and it’s cash so it’s more urgent. After that comes millet and sorghum, since they’re staples for family. Then you can turn your attention to the peanuts.”

Most in West Africa simply have no idea of the dangers of aflatoxin.
“Aflatoxin is like tobacco—you usually don’t see the effects till many years later. In Kenya in 2004, about 130 people died from eating contaminated maize. But the bigger impact is chronic exposure. It’s well documented in the medical literature, but the problem is hugely underestimated in Africa. Aflatoxin delays development. And it’s a silent killer..”

With luck and funding, that particular elephant might be tamed.

The Consortium on Spatial Information (CSI), of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), in partnership with AGCommons Program, has organized the first African Geospatial Week, to be held in Nairobi 31 March – 4th April, 2009.

The week will include three events, the CGIAR-CSI 2009 Annual Meeting (31 March – 1 April),  a two-day workshop on the AGCommons Program (2 – 3 April) and finally the WhereCampAfrica day (4 April): the first event of its kind to be held in Africa.

With the theme “Mapping our Future 2009-2014: Collective Action and Advocacy to Improve Spatial Solutions for Sustainable Development”, the CGIAR-CSI Annual Meeting will open the week. It is in the context of growing recognition of the importance of location as well as potentially major institutional change that the CSI holds its annual meeting. The CSI needs to respond coherently and responsibly but also with boldness and imagination to this unique time and opportunity.

It will be followed by the AGCommons workshop: Phase I of the Program is underway with consultation activities in Africa and the implementation of five “Quick Win” projects; the workshop will provide guidance for planning the second Phase of the Program (2010-2012).

The primary goal of the AGCommons Program is to identify and develop data, tools and services that deliver relevant, timely and targeted information directly to farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and those working on their behalf.

With real-time, location-specific information, farmers will be able to plan and decide more effectively which crops or livestock will perform best on their farms, anticipate and manage disease outbreaks and rainfall shortfalls, as well as decide when to harvest and to which markets to sell. The farmers’ rich knowledge on various aspects of farming will feed into the upcoming information toolkit in AGCommons that will deploy high-tech geospatial technology to the service of Africa’s farmers.

 WhereCamp Africa  is the closing event of the week: it is a free “un-conference” for geographers, mobile location experts and social cartographers and anyone interested in “place” or locational information and technologies.

The idea comes from FooCamp and BarCamp as a way to give everybody an opportunity to bring to the table the things that interest them the most and lets them talk about topics that are still new and exploratory. Part of what is important to hearing new voices and getting new ideas is lowering barriers to participation – this event is free and it is driven by the participants. Wherecamp will bring together software developers, artists, geographers and academics for a one day extended discussion, as an opportunity to present on ideas, questions, projects, politics, technical issues and get feedback from other people.

 Society is being transformed by new maps and new mapping technology. WhereCampAfrica is an opportunity to help create a free forum in Africa for people to talk about, present, explore and learn about projects that involve “place” and relevant technologies.

Top ten reasons to participate:

§         To formulate a CSI vision of the enhanced role of spatially-referenced and location-aware data, analysis, and knowledge products for sustainable agricultural development, improved livelihoods, and food security.

§         To achieve consensus on a strategy (or as a minimum, agreeing a rapid, cost-effective process for developing such a strategy) for CSI’s engagement with the donor, development and science communities in making progress toward achieving that vision.

§         To have a scientific exchange on CSI member research and implementation activities

§         To develop specific recommendations on strategic opportunities to the AGCommons Program 

§         To participate in WhereCampAfrica, the first event of its kind to take place in Africa

… only 5 reasons? Find out the others in Nairobi!

 With over 100 participants expected, the African geospatial week will be held at John Vercoe Conference Room, ILRI Headquarters, Nairobi, Kenya