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British satellite tech to combat food insecurity and climate change in Kenya

24 November 2023

Scientists at the University of Leeds are supporting agricultural productivity in East Africa, by using satellite technology to tackle food insecurity amidst the global hunger crisis.

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

In Kenya, an estimated 4.4 million people face high levels of acute food insecurity. Global hunger is being exacerbated by climate change. 

The scientists are part of a government investment to use British science, technology and innovation to tackle global hunger.

At a major summit on global food security on 20 November, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said almost one billion people across the world regularly do not have enough to eat and as a result, millions face hunger and starvation - and over 45 million children under five suffer acute malnutrition.

He said: “We need a fundamental shift in the way we approach food security, with a focus on long-term solutions to stop food crises before they start.

“And we need to harness the full power of science and technology to ensure supplies are resilient to threats like conflict, drought and floods.

“That’s why the UK is working to deliver lasting solutions.”

He said British science, technology and innovation are already playing a vital role in helping to beat global hunger. 

As part of a package of future investment in international aid and development, he announced the launch of the UK-CGIAR Science Centre to “ cutting-edge research on flood-tolerant rice, disease-resistant wheat and much more. 

These innovations will reach millions across the poorest countries, as well as improving UK crop yields and driving down food prices”.

One of the projects to get UK government funding through the UK-CGIAR initiative is iSPARK, a research project conducted jointly by the University of Leeds and two research institutes working in Africa – the Alliance Biodiversity-CIAT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

The project will focus on safeguarding food security in western Kenya, with the aim of applying lessons learned to Kenya as a nation and beyond.

Big data analysis 
The research will seek to unlock fresh insight into how agriculture in Kenya can become more productive by bringing together two big datasets. 

One will involve information held in the databases of on-the-ground interventions by Kenya-based agricultural advisers who have worked with farmers and rural communities on a range of topics – from plant varieties, to planting techniques and times for irrigation.

Those databases hold details of agricultural practices designed and trialled with thousands of farmers across the region.
The other large dataset will be high-resolution satellite images of the food-growing regions in Kenya. Those images, captured by specialist cameras on board the satellites, will reveal information about the state of the health of crops.

Bringing the two datasets together – described by one researcher as the magic – will allow scientists to assess the effectiveness of the different interventions and to identify links and correlations that had hitherto gone unnoticed.

They hope to develop new analytic techniques by applying machine learning, where computer algorithms are used to interrogate a large quantity of data.

With the results from that big data analysis, the researchers will select three interventions to roll out across the region and then across Kenya.

Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at Leeds and one of the lead researchers in the project, said: “We are capitalising on the agricultural databases that have developed over the years and provide a rich resource around the interventions that have been trialled with millions of farmers and smallholders.

“The databases are a living laboratory which have catalogued new and novel approaches to growing crops. We are coupling that information with Leeds’ expertise in Earth observation, monitoring what is happening on Earth from space. 

“We hope to develop new and novel techniques that will enable us to see how effective these different interventions at the farm scale may have been.”

Professor Challinor said among the outputs of the research will be new metrics for evaluating how sustainable new agricultural interventions are and how resilient they are to changing environmental conditions. 

Dr Aniruddha Ghosh is based in Kenya and a Senior Scientist at Alliance Biodiversity-CIAT, which is part of the iSPARK collaboration. He said: “Our primary goal with this research is to significantly enhance the resilience and productivity of Kenyan agriculture in the face of climate challenges. 

“By leveraging advanced satellite technology and machine learning and working in collaboration with researchers from national research systems and private sector partners, we aim to develop timely and actionable insights for the small-scale producers to improve their farming practices and food security in the region.” 

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