At the recent CSI-AGCommons-WhereCampAfrica event in Nairobi we interviewed some of the participants to get their perspectives on why maps are important, on their role in the response to climate change, on their use in recent crises….

Why maps? is a video produced by a Nairobi-based crew to help highlight the value of geospatial technology in agriculture.

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.

Using satellite imagery for counting crop acreage

A conversation with Lieven Claessens, of the International Potato Center

Sweet Potato

Sweet Potato

Let’s say you have a wonder food—or anyway, a crop you’re promoting or tracking. Other than a laborious foot trek, how do you know how much of it people are really planting in a region–especially if farmers grow a complex mosaic of crops?

Yes, district officers estimate acreage devoted to various items. But how good are those estimations?

CIP, the International Potato Centre, promotes sweet potato for its high Vitamin A content and other nutrients. CIP wanted to know how much sweet potato was being planted by farmers in eastern Uganda.

So they developed a way to use satellite imagery to peer closely into fields. Until recently, most thought it wouldn’t be possible to differentiate food crops in a complex farming system. But for this project researchers tuned the satellite cameras to pick up not what the human eye would see–a tangle of green—but wavelengths we can’t see, mostly “infrared.”

Satellite images of infrared are similar the infrared film you (or more likely your parents) may have experimented with in the ’60s or ’70s– trees and grass came out in reds and violets.

Each species reflects its own “signature” colour. Using a hand-held sensor, researchers figure out what that colour is, for, say, sweet potato, as well as crops planted next to or near it, so they can differentiate them. Then they check for those colours in the satellite images.

The result? According to CIP researcher Lieven Claessens,“We discovered that only 63 percent of sweet potatoes in the field showed up in the national statistics. In other words, sweet potatoes were undercounted by nearly 40 percent.”

Improving the accuracy of counting by such a large percentage could be a boon to agriculture researchers worldwide. One more win for “the eye in the sky.”

Andy Jarvis

Andy Jarvis

An interview with Andy Jarvis, agricultural geographer, CIAT and Bioversity

Q: You say you have two “mantras.” What are they?

A: One is “crop wild relatives.” (Note: A crop wild relative (CWR) is the wild variety of a domesticated food crop.) When you look at the status of crop wild relatives, it’s actually very scary. They’re not conserved in the wild. And the degree of conservation in gene banks is appallingly low. Many have gone extinct already—and we have no idea what genes they might have had—for disease resistance, productivity, drought or salt tolerance….

At the same time, there’s exponential growth in the demand for and use of these genes through biotechnology. In the past, when you bred a wild crop relative with a cultivar you might get what you wanted—say disease resistance—but along with that came a tough seed coat or small pod or other things you don’t want. Now, you can use molecular markers to take just what you want.

Q: If they’re not in the genebanks, how do you find wild crop relatives?

A: We’ve been going through 30 major crop genepools, including beans, potatoes, wheat, rice, sorghum, cassava, some forages, coffee…. We collect all available information, through herbarium and genebank databases, of every point where wild crop relatives have been observed. Then we model the species distribution see what all these habitats have in common, to come up with suitability requirements.

So if, for instance, we know something exists in ten sites with these characteristics—where else in the world has those characteristics? That’s where you’re likely to find the species.

Q: For example…?

A: Geneticists were searching for wild chili peppers in Paraguay. We found records of 18 places with chili populations in the past, but they weren’t there any more, nor in collections So we modeled the conditions in the sites the botanists had described—and came up with 20 places with similar environments where people might look. It worked–they found the chilis in seven of those places.

In beans, there are 70-plus wild species, all in the Americas. There are 170-plus wild relatives of potatoes. But in lots of crops—maize being one of the most notable—there are just a few wild relatives left. Most of the species have been lost.

A massive global initiative is urgent for our major crops. That’s what the Global Crop Diversity Trust, housed at FAO, is trying to do.

Q: And the other mantra?

A: Climate change and crops. We’ve taken the 50 biggest crops, by area, and modeled how climate change will change their geography. After the biggest—rice, maize, wheat and a couple of others—no one has done this. We’re using a simple, niche-based approach: this crop grows in an environment with this rainfall and other characteristics, based on expert knowledge.

The shocking thing is that there are huge changes, for both 2020 and 2050. For instance, the models show that maize goes way down in Africa. But cassava gains area. Already, there’s anecdotal evidence of farmers shifting from maize to cassava or sorghum.

In a few areas farmers will lose all sorts of options. Maybe today they have 20 crop options; in the future, maybe they’ll only have 3. Some regions are in serious trouble: Southern Africa. Parts of Sahel. Eastern Brazil, northern Africa and the Mediterranean, including southern Europe.

But in East Africa—the rainy parts, such as most of Uganda—massive increases in rainfall are predicted. So farmers may have more choices. And they may be able to crop continuously. But the models show that pests and diseases also rise.

The bottom line is that everything’s changing, and quickly. The first users of climate-change information should be researchers themselves. Most agricultural research programs take at least 10 years to come to fruition out in the fields. So researchers need to target a 2020 world for their 2020 research results—not work toward better strategies for a 2009 world in 2020.

Q: Why do you call yourself a “promiscuous geographer?”

A: I use the same geographic tools—but apply them to all sorts of things: what we’ve been talking about, plus forest biodiversity, coffee quality, forage, threats to protected areas…. I’m interested in so many things, I seem to need to keep moving around.

You can hear Andy’s perspective on BBC Digital Planet – available at ICT-KM Blog on Famers’ productivity

wherecampafricaGoogle Maps has just arrived in Kenya, where it’s feared that mapping the region could inflame inter-tribal tensions over land ownership.

That’s one of the issues that came out of our meeting in Kenya last week: WhereCampAfrica.. But there is a bright side to this!

WhereCampAfrica, which was part of our First Africa Geospatial Agriculture week, brought together about 100 between geographers, cartographers and mobile mapping specialists to discuss the potential – and difficulties – of the ‘geographic web’ in Africa.

The BBC Nairobi reporter David Ogot reports with interviews to our AGCommons steering committee member, Peter Ndunda, CIAT’s Andy Jarvis and ICRISAT’s Pierre Sibiry.

To hear the issues covered in the BBC Digital Planet visit WhereCampAfrica on BBC

CJ Terborgh 


CJ Terborgh

An interview with Carmelle J. Terborgh, Federal/Global Affairs team lead, ESRI at the Africa Geospatial technology for Agriculture week in Nairobi


Launched 40 years ago as a consulting and research firm, ESRI created the first commercial geographic information software, ArcInfo. Since then, geographical information system (GIS) solutions have found use in at least 40 industries– from environmental management to epidemiology; agriculture to transportation; disaster response to demining.

ESRI and the CGIAR centres enjoy a close and longstanding relationship. It’s easy to see how the CG benefits: The memorandum of understanding with ESRI provides CGIAR centres with a number of licenses for software, plus technical support, training and professional development opportunities for a fraction of their commercial cost.

In her interview, ESRI’s Carmelle Terborgh describes, among other things, the arrangement from her company’s point of view.

Q: Why focus on GIS?

A: Our founder and president, Jack Dangermond, likes to say: When humans first developed a microscope, we could see things smaller than we could otherwise. GIS is a “macroscope.” Now we can see bigger parts of the world than we could without it. You can only see 13 miles on flat terrain. But the macrosocope gives you a way to understand the world in a way you could never experience from one location. You can sit in Nairobi, say, and see the world.

Q: How do you view the CGIAR?

We want to support people working in agriculture, food security, livestock—their work is critical, and we can’t do it ourselves. We support a number of conservation, humanitarian, educational programs.

As far as the CGIAR goes, we feel honoured that CGIAR centres are using this.

Jack and Laura (Jack’s wife and VP) have a passion for seeing these tools applied for really good purposes. When you see a huge need, you just have to respond.

Q: Any big event coming up for geospatial specialists to get together?

A: We like to convene the people who are using our software and give them a forum. We host the ESRI International User Conference–this year it’s July 13-17 in San Diego. It’s a really good professional development opportunity for CG staff. Usually representatives from about five CG centres come.

A few years ago we focused on poverty mapping. I’d love to do another one focused on food security. That’s an offer we can make to the CG.

Q: What’s a favorite example of using GIS for agriculture?

A: One of our customers, USAID, had a project in Ghana called TIPCEE. It was really innovative in that they had women using GPS to go out and map the size of farmer fields. One thing they found was that plots were generally considerably smaller than people had thought. So farmers had been wasting money paying extra money for fertilizer and plowing. Also, they were buying too much fertilizer, so it was likely running off into the groundwater.

Another result was that since they had good maps of where the cash crops are grown, they had a better idea of where cooperatives and warehouses should be. Better location of those facilities could mean faster processing for export and shipment.

In addition, the maps helped them get organic certification by European markets. For that certification, you need a map to show you’re not, say, in a protected area, or surrounded by farms using chemicals.

Q: How did you get into this?

A: I’m a geography geek. When I was a kid, I used to read a Time Magazine atlas of the world at night, under the covers with a flashlight.

In college I was a forestry major –I wanted to be working out in the field. But then I developed horrible allergies to trees. So I went back to my first love and did my Master’s and PhD in geography.

Also…my father’s blind, and I think his lack of vision made me passionate about seeing the world. I got pretty good at describing the world to him as we walked together, and as we traveled. And geography is the art of describing our world.

Whitney Gantt

Whitney Gantt

Whitney Gantt

A Quick Win: Community Knowledge Workers in Uganda

AGCommons, the newly funded project coordinated by the CGIAR, is about getting the right farm information to the right person in the right place at the right time.

To jumpstart the effort, in December 2008 AGCommons challenged organizations to come up with a “Quick Win”: a product that would have real impact on the ground, useable within six to nine months.

The Grameen Technology Center, an initiative of the Grameen Foundation, is one of 5 recently announced winners out of 40 entries. Known for supporting microfinance programs across the world, Grameen Foundation also sponsors other wealth-creation ideas, including “Village Phone”. For this micro-enterprise, a villager takes out a loan, buys a phone, or rather a “business in a box”—and then allows everyone in the village to use the mobile for a small fee

“ Village Phone worked really well in 2001 when we started it, but began losing competitiveness as the cost of mobile phones dropped,” says Whitney Gantt, a Program Officer working with Grameen Technology Center. “But mobiles have much more potential for rural dwellers than just phone calls….”

Enter Grameen’s Quick Win solution.
First, Grameen is creating a network of Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs). They will be the information “hubs” who connect agricultural and research institutions with farmers, and vice versa. They’ll have a mobile phone with either a camera or a camera and GPS.

Next comes figuring out the exact types of information farmers need—and how to collect, package, and deliver it through the CKW’s mobile devices. So, for instance, instead of calling an uncle in Kampala to ask about fertilizers, a farmer could ask a CKW, who would connect to the right data source and a have a site-specific answer.

One use of the CKW setup would be an early warning system for crop diseases. Banana diseases, for instance, create a huge drain on farmer income in Uganda, where bananas are a staple crop.

A farmer could call the CKW: “There’s a disease on my bananas.” The CKW motors or bikes to the farm, snaps a photo of the infected plant, and debriefs the farmer with a structured survey, already installed in the mobile. A few clicks send that info plus the exact location (in GPS coordinates) directly to the computers housing the database. As more surveys come in, an analysis of the disease’s whereabouts and progression comes back to the CKWs to distribute to the farmers—along with treatment or preventive actions to take.

And there’s more. “We want to create a suite of information products that CKWs can access and pass along to farmers,” says Whitney. These might include:

 Real-time information on markets and prices
 Where to buy high-quality seed and chemicals—plus information on improved seeds and how to use them
 A farmer hotline. Operators at a call center would answer technical questions using a database, or search on the internet—even connect directly to an expert if necessary. The call-center pilot will begin in early April
 A way for institutions and innovators to get news to farmers, e.g. on a new technique for growing organic coffee, or improved, drought-resistant seeds.

“My dream vision,” says Whitney, “is to see this network scaled up—one community knowledge worker per parish. And all functioning as a two-way info channel. Then farmers can overcome info barriers, increase productivity, get higher prices….

“One big challenge is gender. We have about one third women. But it’s not easy to find women to participate. They can get stuck on the farm with their duties. Or prevented by family members from attending meetings or trainings. How to ensure that this includes women and doesn’t exacerbate gender imbalances is a priority.

“I like how dynamic this is. There are a lot of different opportunities to create value with the farmers and CKWs. It’s not just one mobile application focused on markets. You have a system you can plug ideas into and test. If they work, great. If not, you move on to the next thing.”