Improving Food Security Through Capacity Building

Lilian Ndungu, Agriculture and Food Security Lead for SERVIR’s Eastern and Southern Africa hub, wears many hats. On any given day, she may go into the field in Kenya to collect data, consult with high-level government officials on the co-development of services that improve food security, or head into the office to work on advocacy, technical program development, and training programs.

More than half of the working population in the region works in agriculture in some capacity, mainly on small, family-run farms. Most of these farms are not irrigated and instead rely on rain, making them especially vulnerable to changes in climate and water availability.

With the right information, farmers and local governments can be proactive rather than reactive in their response to these challenges, and in doing so, improve food security. It is this information that Ndungu and SERVIR aim to provide. The Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) in Kenya, which hosts SERVIR’s Eastern and Southern Africa hub, helps bridge data and science with decision makers to support decision making processes that reduce risk.

“One project that has had an impact on food security in East Africa is our crop monitoring project,” Ndungu said. “Crop monitors are web-based portals that make it easy for non-technical people to access observational tools that incorporate satellite and ground data in order to make better agricultural decisions.”

Ndungu has lead the integration of these crop monitoring tools, developed by NASA Harvest researchers at the University of Maryland in close partnership with agricultural experts of the GEOGLAM Crop Monitor initiative, into crop monitor systems in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

The tools – which incorporate satellite data on vegetation conditions, soil moisture, rainfall, and land use – produce localized maps of where plants are growing and how healthy they are. They can also indicate where and to what extent drought conditions may become problematic.

While the crop monitors are a success story, getting to the point where tools and services like this are widely implemented and sustainable – which is the ultimate goal –takes time.

“It takes a high level of engagement. You cannot just call someone in the government today and then call again in six months and expect to have made progress,” Ndungu said. “But through consistent communication and consultation, often over several years, you end up co-creating something that meets their needs and the buy-in and commitment to make it happen.”

In some areas, the SERVIR Eastern and Southern Africa hub is also working to get satellite and crop health data incorporated into crop insurance programs. Rather than having to inspect farms in person, stakeholders can assess the health of farms – and quickly identify areas in need of financial assistance – without needing to send staff into the field. In Kenya, this little bit of automation has already reduced the cost of providing crop insurance by 70%.

The Lower Mekong Basin

Nearly 5,000 miles away, in Southeast Asia’s Lower Mekong Basin, food security and economic prosperity are largely contingent on a crop dubbed “white gold” by farmers: rice. In 2020 alone, the region – which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam – exported $6.8 billion worth of it.

“Rice is a very water-intensive crop. You need lots of water to grow it,” said Susantha Jayasinghe, Agriculture and Food Security Lead for SERVIR’s Mekong hub, hosted at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Thailand. “What we learned from the countries and agencies working closely on agriculture and food security in the region is that they didn’t have a good information system to monitor and forecast drought and water availability, so this is where we began.”

Working closely with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and other regional and national partners, SERVIR-Mekong brought together satellite imagery, ground-based measurements, and local expertise to produce water resource maps, drought forecasts, and other online data resources. These products help the MRC and other agencies prepare for and respond effectively to drought. They’re available at the regional level in several Lower Mekong countries and at the provincial level in Vietnam.