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Nigeria’s inroads into space technology for agriculture

When one hears of space technology, one probably immediately thinks of Neil Armstrong or The Star Wars. But recent developments in the field have shown just how beneficial space technology through remote sensing can be for agriculture. …(from businessdayonline)

Perhaps the most common and widely known way in which space technology can be used for agriculture is through weather forecasting and climate change analytics. This information, which also ascertains the impact of erosion, floods and droughts, is useful to enable farmers increase productivity by adjusting their farming practices accordingly. The implications for food security – one major goal in African agriculture – are enormous.

Remote sensing – using aerial technologies to detect, classify and analyse soils, landforms and other objects on earth – can be used to acquire estimates of crop production as well as identify saline soils. Remote sensing can also be used to map out wastelands, monitor them and provide useful information on how these lands can be reclaimed. Satellites can be a useful source of information when it comes to the diversification and intensification of crops and correct planning of planting and husbandry projects. In the area of fisheries, fisheries zones can be mapped out based on the chemical composition and temperature of water bodies. Interpretation of these data will have useful commercial implications for fishermen.

In its most developed form, space technology can be used for precision agriculture – a high-tech way of generating data on optimal levels of soil input by using space and other biotechnologies. For example, informatics can provide insight on the levels of pesticides, fertilisers, weeds, etc in relation to the crop and soil requirements and characteristics. These can lead to near-accurate prescriptions on the best way to improve yield and effectively manage and maximise the soil.

In line with its National Space Policy, Nigeria has launched three earth observation remote sensing satellites NigeriaSat-1, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, which all can be used for agriculture. This was done with an aim to use space technology to alleviate poverty and “[promote] food security through [the] efficient exploitation and management of the nation’s natural resources.” Furthermore, in the Vision 20:2020 agenda, a special focus has been given to the “intensive use of satellite imagery to predict weather and/or climatic changes that affect agricultural production.”

But this has not been all rhetoric. So far, the Nigerian Space Agency (NASRDA) has developed several initiatives to use satellite technology for agricultural development, in collaboration with a host of national and international institutions. This has led to various developments on the agricultural front. These include: (i) The development of the Fadama Land Information Systems (FLIMS) to boost rice production in Nigeria: This project was conducted in collaboration with the Satellite Application Centre and the Centre for Industrial and Scientific Research located in South Africa; (ii) The development of models for cassava yield predictions which was achieved through the joint effort of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan; (iii) An assessment of environmental and other relevant factors for optimum and improved cocoa production conducted in partnership with Adekunle Ajasin University, Ondo State; (iv) The mapping out of nomads’ routes and grazing reserves across the country in a bid to resolve infringements and other social conflicts between the farmers and the nomads. The University of Ibadan has been a key partner in this project; (v) The implementation of the NigeriaSat-1 and other satellite data to assist farming systems – a joint effort involving National Cereal Research Institute as well as the IITA. These data have also been used to develop early warning systems for food security in the country with the help of the University of Nigeria Nsukka.

But, do all these projects translate into practical results for agriculture? According to Timiebi Aganaba, a Nigerian analyst with Euroconsult, a space consulting firm based in Montreal Canada, while there are many examples of successful projects in Nigeria where satellite technology has been used for food security, “the challenge is to move from pilot projects to operational services that can impact society in a practical way.”

In an interview with Aganaba, she shared the following thoughts: “India is a good example of a developing country that successfully uses space technology beyond the pilot phase for the development of agriculture. For example, following the success of the Crop Acreage and Production Estimates (CAPE) project, which used remote sensing data from satellite sensors to forecast acreage and yield of kharif rice and wheat grown in India, the methodologies developed were standardised for integration into the main system leading to pre-harvest acreage and production estimates being derived every season for up to eleven main crops and disseminated to the ministry of agriculture for use in policy decision making. I believe the steps Nigeria is taking in this regard are important steps which can be translated into practical benefits for the agricultural sector.”

Given the Indian emerging success story, it is evident that this challenge is not insurmountable for Nigeria. But as with any other bureaucratic institution in Nigeria, care must be taken to ensure that certain structures do not undermine institutional capacity to make timely decisions with great impact at the grassroots level. It is important for all key stakeholders to be brought together under an umbrella at this stage in order to effectively map out turf and strengths of each. Moving to the next level will also require a lot of funding and success will depend, in part, on how much funds are available and how effectively they are allocated for research and development. Furthermore, this endeavour should be closely aligned with the present presidential initiative – the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) – in order to effectively reach farming communities according to their needs, adequately exploit existing resources and technologies, and maximise the impact of these two programmes.

All in all, these inroads into space technology are a welcome development for Nigeria. It is hoped that through thorough planning and effective implementation, these developments will change millions of lives and livelihoods, conferring on Nigeria the status of a food secure and self-sustaining nation and, ultimately, a food basket of the continent.