Despite low government investment and a lack of legal framework to guide their use, geospatial technologies are being applied in a wide range of fields across Africa, and are proving to be indispensable tools in the socio-economic development of the continent, according to a recent conference on the topic.
The fifth edition of the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) International Conference was held online and in-person in Nairobi, Kenya between 6-8 September 2022 and explored the theme of ‘Earth observation services for resilient social systems’.
“Geospatial technologies are critical in building resilient social systems and even more important, in making evidence-based decisions for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” Emmanuel Nkurunziza, director-general of the RCMRD, tells Equal Times from the organisation’s base in Nairobi.
The term broadly refers to the state-of-the-art tools used to collect, store and analyse geographic information. These technologies include remote sensing, global positioning systems and geographical information systems, and are being deployed in a variety of areas – from humanitarian relief to agriculture and urban planning – to carry out tasks such as the mapping of forests, lakes and other sensitive ecosystems for biodiversity monitoring, disaster risk reduction and disaster management.
Where laws allow the use of civilian unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, they are being used in agriculture to spray pesticides on farms and rangelands, one example being the recent locust invasion in the Horn of Africa. In addition, they have proved useful in the delivery of essential supplies such as medicine in remote areas and in generating critical scientific data during disasters to support evidence-based decision making.
“We have witnessed different challenges as a region, including the recent floods [in Sudan, Malawi, South Africa, and since the conference took place, Nigeria]. We have had problems of drought affecting food security and triggering water scarcity, and we are seeing growing urban population pressures. All of these challenges call on us to intensify our ability to monitor the Earth so that we are able to develop mitigation strategies,” says Nkurunziza, as well as improve the efficient delivery of services for the betterment of Africa’s 1.4 billion people.
Crucial and accurate data
Exploring seven thematic areas such as geo-innovation in health, and smart and green cities, over 600 conference attendees heard about the successes and lessons in the use of Earth observation technologies. For example, in the area of forest governance, the use of applications in two forest observatories dedicated to monitoring the ecosystems of southern and central Africa are providing crucial real-time data to help in improved management of the forests, according to Robert Nasi, director-general of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Bogor, Indonesia.
One of the observatories is the East and Southern Africa Forest Observatory OFESA, which provides information on trends and threats to forests in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda for better decision-making management of forest ecosystems.
Led by CIFOR and RCMRD, and funded by the European Union, the initiative is developing a governance framework which will allow participating countries to share, use and analyse data to address common issues, such as deforestation and human encroachment.
“One of the main challenges emerging amongst forestry institutions is the lack of updated data, which calls for efforts to update that which already exists. At OFESA we are addressing these capacity gaps as well as supporting the development of a governance framework for data sharing,” says Douglas Bwire, a research officer at CIFOR.
Data collected under OFESA will be shared with governments and organisations protecting forests, through regular state of forests reports. This was in acknowledgement of the fact that without accurate data, monitoring the ecological, environmental and social aspects of wooded areas for conservation is not possible, Bwire admits.
An even bigger initiative is Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa). “DE Africa is empowering countries across Africa with Earth observations to enable climate adaptation and mitigation, greater food security, and sustainable development,” Kenneth Mubea, DE Africa’s capacity development lead tells Equal Times. Anyone, both in the private or public sector or civil society, can use the data generated, as long as it is for development purposes.
Its partners include the Nigeria-based African Region Institute for Geospatial Information Science and Technology (AFRIGIST), the Agriculture, Hydrology, Meteorology (AGRHYMET) research centre based in Niger, the Sahara and Sahel Observatory (OSS) based in Tunisia, and the RCMRD, amongst other regional bodies.
“We have created a huge impact, and stories by end users are abound. For example, we have supported the mapping mangroves initiative [in Zanzibar, Tanzania], the relocation of giraffes from a lake-flooded island in Lake Baringo, Kenya, and we are offering free training,” Mubea explains.
The platform offers online training to help users explore and visualise available datasets. This includes weekly sessions hosted in English and French where users are guided on the various uses and applications of Earth observation in their daily work.
A driver for development
The conference also highlighted some of the issues facing the widescale deployment of geospatial technologies in Africa. One is low investment. As well as a lack of familiarity with such technologies by those who hold the purse strings in government, there is also the issue of scarce resources and a lack of capacity to maintain and grow the use of these technologies.
A 2019 report by the Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC), a project on satellite imagery and Earth observation data in five African countries , gives a good sense of some of these challenges. For example, the report notes that it takes “4-6 months of discussions with stakeholders to establish an institutional framework and buy-in from key stakeholders to invest time and staff resources to adopting the ARDC”. But many other organisations and initiatives do not have the time or resources to dedicate to this consistent level of engagement and lobbying.
It also noted that, a significant amount of time needs to be invested in “getting users comfortable with the technology, so they fully understand what it is, what information it can provide, and how to access and use it”.
Another issue that can hamper the widespread use of geospatial technologies in Africa is the absence of regulations. One of the victims of this is Fahari Aviation, a subsidiary of Kenya Airways. While its drones were widely deployed in aerial mapping, agriculture, land survey, transport and aviation, the company found it difficult to expand beyond the Kenyan borders, owing to a lack of regulation in member countries of the East African Community (EAC), of which Kenya is a founder member. This is despite the fact that the company has partnered with global aerospace giant Boeing to introduce UAVs for aircraft inspection and maintenance.
“As we are all aware, data accuracy is a major issue across Africa and an obstacle to planning. This can be easily remedied by deploying Earth observation science. From experience we know that drone technology allows for unmatched accuracy,” says Fahari Aviation general manager Hawkins Musili. However, until better regulation and more money is put into the sector, its benefits will remain limited on the continent.