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Developing countries use space technology to combat food insecurity

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UNCTAD fosters South-South cooperation to build developing countries’ know-how on using satellite data to monitor crop conditions for better agricultural productivity.

More developing countries are tapping into science, technology and innovation solutions to monitor crops more efficiently to counter increasing challenges stemming from climate change.

On 28 May, 24 participants from 12 countries -- Afghanistan, Algeria, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Africa, Syria, Thailand, Turkey and Zambia -- completed a two-month online workshop on the application of a crop monitoring system using satellite data.

The system is provided by the CropWatch Innovative Cooperation Programme (CropWatch-ICP), an initiative that resulted from discussions during the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD).

Food security is increasingly at risk due to climate change. In the equatorial tropics, every 1°C rise in mean temperature causes a 10% drop in crop yields.

"We see the impact of accelerated climate change in forms such as droughts and cyclones and it has almost become a norm. Using space technology to monitor crops has become a national emergency mission," said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD's director of technology and logistics.

Hands-on technical assistance

During the online workshop, participants learned the theory, methodology and application of the CropWatch system.

"This was a completely new area and we learned a lot from this programme," said Arty Gungoosingh Bunwaree, a senior research scientist at the Food and Agricultural Research and Extension Institute in Mauritius.

Rakiya Baba Maaji, assistant director at the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency, said: "We have always wanted to use space technologies but the push was not there. But with this programme, we were able to make a good presentation to our boss and we are excited about the next steps."

Using the CropWatch system as well as their acquired knowledge and skills, participants from six of the countries have already submitted their analyses and data of their own countries to the global CropWatch bulletin, which provides an overview of the status of crops and agroclimatic conditions in each country.

"I am so happy to see that some countries have already contributed to the bulletin," Ms. Sirimanne said.

Customization for unique challenges

The programme's partners, UNCTAD, the Alliance of International Science Organizations (ANSO) and the Aerospace Information Research Institute (AIR) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), are now looking to the next steps - virtual field missions and CropWatch customization for technology transfer.

"This is a programme developed for countries' specific needs. It is the customization of the CropWatch system to each country's needs that adds an enormous amount of value," Ms. Sirimanne said.

"I have learned that CropWatch is an effective tool to monitor crops. We now want to include other crops such as cereals, potatoes and olives to reflect the local needs," said Djamel Mansour, an engineer at the Algerian Space Agency.

"Our office is very interested in the customization of the CropWatch platform as there is no need to make an additional investment in the infrastructure while enhancing our ability to monitor crops, in our case rice," said Jatuporn Nontasiri, a senior statistician at the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.

The lecturers and specialists in the CropWatch team are now aiming to have more countries provide their inputs for the next August CropWatch bulletin by continuing to offer support and training to the participants.