Drone images help farmers to predict crop yields in Malawi

On a hot and windy day in Kasungu, a drone operator prepares his flying machine for an important project. Joined by officers from the government’s Department of Agriculture and staff from three United Nations agencies, the operator steers the drone high into the clear blue sky. From its vantage point, the drone captures dozens of images of local crop fields.

After returning to the ground, the images are compared with data (ground truth data) which is collected in the crop fields by the agriculture officers using computer tablets. This activity called ground truthing. With ground truthing, the agriculture officers assess the performance of crops by comparing ground truth data to that of the images being taken by the drones. The information is then extrapolated to satellite imagery.

The activity being conducted at Kanyenda Irrigation crop field is part of a joint United Nations (UN) project on Using Satellite and UAV image analysis to map crops in Malawi. The UN agencies involved in the project are UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

“Malawi is a country prone to drought and the effects of climate change. This project is very important because it gives us accurate estimates of crop yield and crop health in the country”, says UNICEF Information Management Specialist Magda Biesada. “The technology being used in this project will provide the government with early warning signs that threaten food production. If we determine that crop production is going to be poor, we can put mitigate measures in place that will benefit farmers and hopefully improve the nutritional status of the local population, especially children.” About 85% of Malawi’s population live in the rural areas in poverty conditions. The majority rely on food from their own production.

Crop estimates for better planning

Friday Mwankhako, a government agricultural officer in Kasungu says mapping crop production helps farmers anticipate how much food they can expect to produce. “This new technology can help farmers plan ahead. They can be encouraged to engage in small businesses when they produce surpluses. In cases when their production hasn’t been so good, they can decide on a way forward,” says Mwankhako.

On top of using drones to map crop estimates, local people are using irrigation to mitigate against

drought. Irrigation farming is more dependable than regular farming because it doesn’t require steady rainfall. Agriculture officers at Kanyenda crop field also offer advice to communities on farming a broader range, which prevents reliance on one crop and increases diet diversification.

Mother of eight children, Dorothy Ntonga, is a local farmer and a member of the Kanyenda Irrigation Scheme committee. She is benefiting from the work being done at Kanyenda crop field and says learning about irrigation farming has been an eye-opener. “We have been taught to farm different crops such as tomatoes, various types of vegetables and maize. Now we have enough food to eat and we are able to sell maize and use the money for school fees.”

The UN working together as one

Malawi’s UN Resident Coordinator (RC) Maria Jose Torres says the use of satellite and drone images to map crop yields is a good example of how UN agencies are working together to benefit communities effected by unpredicted weather patterns.

“This project is all about changing lives for the better and the UN in Malawi is very invested in the agenda on leaving no one behind. Getting to farmers is one of our priorities,” says Torres. “We are trying to ensure that data is available for farmers so that they know whether or not to continue some of their farming practices, or if they require intervention. The project is also important to prepare for disasters so we can prevent rather than respond to emergencies.”