A team of the ITC Faculty of the University of Twente received a research grant of 7.5 million US$ from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help the world’s poorest people. The project called STARS, which stands for Spurring a Transformation for Agriculture through Remote Sensing, will identify how earth observation data products may help improve current information and decision support systems in the smallholder economies of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The project will be executed in close collaboration with research institutes in West and East Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, Mexico and the United States.
Agriculture remains the predominant occupation of the world’s poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but many struggle to produce crops consistently and sustainably year-by-year, and the large persistence of subsistence farming deters economic development at the household scale. Earth observation technology has become a regular tool in the large-scale agricultural production systems of industrialized and emergent countries; its use in context of African and Asian smallholder farmers comes, however, with substantial challenges.
Smallholder farmers often use small cropland plots with variable boundaries, they often grow multiple crops and crop varieties on the plot at the same time, and there is a rich variety of farm practices in place that add to the heterogeneous mosaic that African and Asian farmland often is. These conditions make it hard to discriminate cropping systems, crops and cropping practices from the skies, and this presents a fundamental barrier to accurate information, timely crop monitoring and forecasting, and improved agricultural advisories. In recent times, technological advances have brought us improved satellite image resolution, improved revisit frequency that allow better monitoring during the growing season, and improved spectral characteristics in those data products.
Led by the ITC Faculty of the University of Twente, a consortium of international research institutes will test a number of hypotheses about the use of earth observation data.
This should identify which farming stakeholders are best served with which information, and how that information should be provided to optimally inform decision-making. Stakeholders are not only farmers, but also the private sector that delivers farm inputs (for instance, seeds, fertilizers and tools) and governmental decision-makers, such as staff of ministries of agriculture and food security.
“Our research timeline first focuses on cropland delineation,” says ITC project lead Rolf de By, “as we need to know first where farming takes place. Next, we will seek to detect, always using remote sensing, which is the cropping system that the farmer applies on the delineated plots: are they pure maize systems, or is the farmer also growing beans? Subsequently, we will want to know about crop health and crop growth progress.”
In the STARS project, ITC collaborates with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, Australia), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, Mali and Nigeria), the University of Maryland (USA), and with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, Bangladesh and Mexico). These partners bring their own suite of local partners to the scene, giving a wide international collaboration network for joint work on the problem domain.
STARS, which will last for 20 months, will develop open data products to be used by the wider research community.