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…
“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.