“This is supposed to be a very wet season now, but there isn't any rain.. and climate change is slowly becoming a very harsh reality,” stated then Deputy President of Kenya, William Ruto in January 2022 for PBS News.
The past five years have brought unprecedented below-average rainfall and drought to Eastern Africa. Low levels of rainfall weakened crop production and food security and perpetuated the vicious cycle that drives parts of this region into food security crises, compounded by a lack of systematic prediction and preparation. However, recent advancements in Earth observation technologies have enabled the forecasting of in-season conditions based on current crop conditions in the region, drawing investments from national and regional organizations to realize these benefits.
One such initiative is the AGRA-COMESA’s Regional Food Balance Sheet (RFBS) Dashboard. Every month, crop models and other data are aggregated and presented using interactive maps focusing on food balances, production, stock volumes, trade, price, and utilization.
The Regional Food Balance Sheet compiles total production estimates, and market information for maize and rice growing seasons in six countries throughout the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA): Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda.
Each country has unique agroecological conditions including seasonal precipitation, climate, and soil quality that affect production. The monthly reports produce crop yield forecasts and provide real-time information about crop conditions for the six ESA focus countries. AGRA’s Senior Program Officer, Mr. Protase Echessah, indicates his optimism for the RFBS: “The RFBS platform currently has over 200 active user accounts comprising government officials, development partners, and the private sector that are meant to use the platform to make informed and evidence-based policy and business decisions on food security, agriculture trade, and investments.”
The digital dashboard is free to sign up for and use.
NASA Harvest’s Contribution
The Harvest team is a data analytics contributor providing Earth Observations and Machine Learning-based yield estimates. As the data are aggregated into the dashboard, the team also compiles a monthly report which outlines the current regional conditions and presents the in-season yield forecast based on current conditions, area estimations, and anomalies based on historic five-year averages.
The yield forecast and yield anomalies then generate a condition category for each focus country for the given month: Exceptional, Favorable, Watch, or Poor, relative to historic trends following GEOGLAM Crop Monitor classifications of crop Conditions. Also included are Trends, which capture in-season changes in the forecast (Improving, Stable, or Declining). This information is then compiled into maps that visually indicate each country's conditions, yield forecast, and yield anomalies.
Crop condition plots are also created which bring together a variety of Earth Observation (EO) data products and provide valuable insights on in-season crop development and current crop conditions such as climate, environmental, and vegetative variables. The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) plots are especially indicative of crop productivity throughout the growing season and can determine how current year productivity compares to the previous year, the five-year mean, and the ten year min/max values.
Further environmental and vegetation conditions plots such as precipitation, Evaporative Stress Index (EVI), soil moisture, and temperature analyze the factors that influence the productivity and yield production at the end of each growing season.
These reports are developed with and for critical end-users, including decision-makers at national institutions (e.g, Ministries of Agriculture), regional research and development organizations, and the private sector. The monthly reports can support policy and food-balance decisions since they provide near-real-time, in-season forecast information in context, allowing stakeholders to better determine the next steps in preparing for shortages or surpluses.
These forecasts can then be transformed into action plans to prepare farmers, businesses, and institutions for success. “There is great opportunity and desire for African governments to understand better the current and projected food status of their nations,” emphasized Mr. Echessah, in order to support decision-making for food security and the well-being of their citizens and their economy.
Climate change and warmer global temperatures cause more sporadic and extreme rainy seasons, dry seasons, and environmental conditions that decrease crop productivity. Many maize yield forecasts for regions in Kenya and Tanzania declined with poor crop conditions in June and July of 2022. While yields vary from season to season, overall production has been declining, largely driven by extreme climatic events, including flooding and droughts linked to climate change.
According to the World Bank, 60-year historical trends have shown that Sub-Saharan Africa is much farther behind in crop yield outputs than the rest of the world–and would need to increase production by 3 fold to meet future food needs. The RFBS can play a key role in forecasting and responding to food crop shortages, giving policymakers and leaders critical, in-season data to devise strategies that solve the issue of food insecurity in the six focus countries and on a global scale in the future and will need to rely more and more on integrated data generation approaches to fill critical data gaps.