Satellite Data Aids Rapid Response, Food Security for Kenya’s Farmers
Kenya’s farmers have faced unprecedented challenges in the past months. Heavy rains and the region’s worst locust outbreak in 70 years have damaged croplands and put agricultural communities in a precarious position, even without the backdrop of a pandemic. According to the UN Environment Programme, climate change is already bringing hotter, wetter conditions across east Africa — exacerbating flooding and creating perfect conditions for swarming locusts. Adapting to these climate hazards is a serious challenge for the country’s food supply
However, USAID and NASA are coming together to help tackle these challenges head-on, working with local agencies using satellite data to keep an eye on Kenya’s farmlands.
SERVIR, a joint initiative of USAID and NASA, helps communities around the world address environmental challenges with free and open data available from Earth-observing satellites. SERVIR Eastern and Southern Africa (SERVIR-E&SA), based in Nairobi’s Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development, has worked directly with local governments and organizations since 2008. Recognizing that climate change is already reshaping weather patterns and environmental conditions, SERVIR-E&SA promotes adaptation and resilience through trainings and collaboratively developed tools and services.
To this end, the team at SERVIR-E&SA developed a satellite-based crop forecasting system to support the Digital Food Balance Sheet program. Led by Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Livestock, and Co-operatives (MoAFLC), the program provides vital information for agricultural management decisions based on the expected volume of end-of-season harvests.
How is it possible to estimate these harvests from space? First, SERVIR-E&SA uses satellite images to measure the total area planted with a given crop, creating a baseline for potential crop production. Second, weather and climate data is fed into the Regional Hydrological Extremes Assessment Service (RHEAS), modeling software used to estimate how seasonal weather forecasts might affect harvests and available water resources. By using historical data to understand how conditions such as temperature and rainfall have impacted previous harvests, RHEAS is able to process seasonal forecasts. This results in informed predictions about harvests in the near future. The model is updated on a biweekly basis, ensuring yield forecasts include as much satellite and ground data as possible. This greatly reduces uncertainty in end-of-season yield as time progresses.
Incorporating these biweekly updates into food balance sheets enables government agencies and other organizations to respond more quickly and effectively to climate hazards in farming communities. Forecast-based early action helps provide targeted food aid and financial assistance, minimizing the impact of catastrophic events such as locust swarms, flooding or drought. With this information, Kenya’s government has more lead time to anticipate shortages and plan measures to mitigate potential losses and target aid.
This type of satellite-based monitoring comes with other benefits. Earth observations allow much more rapid and efficient coverage on the country level, saving time and effort. Reduced reliance on in-person visits to farms also allows MoALFC to minimize potential COVID-19 transmission and reduce operating costs — freeing up funds for resilience efforts such as crop insurance, which helps smallholder farmers reduce climate risk while providing food security.
By integrating applied research from SERVIR-E&SA, Kenya’s farming sector now has a greater overall capacity to anticipate and respond to potential threats, while saving time and money and reducing disease exposure. In a region heavily dependent on agriculture, being proactive doesn’t just help avoid economic losses and logistical hassles — it can help save lives and secure livelihoods.