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Satellite services help African shepherds through Sahel

Today, when combining security and earth observation satellites, one can of course think of military tasks, such as the monitoring of troop movements. But, at least as much innovation is in services for African shepherds that prevent thirst, hunger and violence based on satellite images.

Satellite services help African shepherds through Sahel
Shepherds in Mali, Africa. Photo courtesy NSO

In the daily life of African shepherds in the Sahel, these services can make the difference between finding water and grass for their cattle in time, or not. Moreover, it’s being executed in such a way that they prevent bloody conflicts with farmers who fear the passage of herds across their land.

Shepherds in Mali

In the Sahel, both the temperature and the erosion of thunderstorms are increasing. The United Nations estimates that 80 per cent of the agricultural land worldwide, on which approximately fifty million people live, is degraded. Among other things, this means that nomadic herders must change their migratory routes. For centuries, they made agreements with arable farmers about land use in different seasons. Nowadays this fails. All kinds of phenomena increase frustration; people get in each other’s way much sooner. Every year, thousands of people die in conflicts between farmers and herders as a result of increasing water scarcity and usable land. The Geodata for Agriculture and Water program is an initiative of the Netherlands Space Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since its 2015 launch, more than one million small-scale farmers and herders have used satellite information services through 25 projects in fifteen African and Asian countries.

Reduce conflicts

Satellite services help African shepherds through Sahel
G4AW projects make much use of Sentinel satellites from the European Copernicus program. (image: ESA)

It’s implemented in satellite services that improve food security. This can at least reduce the reasons for conflicts. For example, herders used to send a scout by motorbike or by camel, in order to look for food for cattle. Now you just get a simple mobile telephone through a call center. In your own language, to hear in real-time, or to read by SMS, where or in which direction there’s enough water and crop. Along the same lines, the shepherd is told where they can come across arable land of other farmers, so that this can possibly be avoided. As a result, the risk of cattle mortality and human casualties has decreased considerably. Because the journey can be made in a timely and safe manner; due to climate change, this regularly means: over several hundreds of kilometers.

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Calibrate with local knowledge

No wonder then, that, in a short time, in Burkina Faso about 40,000 African shepherds managed to find their way to the G4AW MODHEM project (Mobile Data for Moving Herd Management). In Mali it’s the G4AW project STAMP (Sustainable Technology Adaptation for Mali’s Pastoralists). This means that around 60,000 shepherds are in contact with a call center with their mobile phone. The satellite technology is supplied by Dutch companies: Satelligence is responsible for MODHEM and Hoefsloot Spatial Solutions (HSS) for STAMP. Various sensors from space are deployed in STAMP. These are mainly from the European satellite Earth observation program Copernicus. HSS has perfected the resolution for this purpose: for surfaces of 10 by 10 meters there is daily information about the biomass quality and available surface water.

Expertise of local partners

Director Peter Hoefsloot has lived in Africa for many years, including the Sahel. “Participating in projects that promote peace and security here, is what I love to do most. Our added value is substantial there. Especially now that we are combining it with the expertise of local partners.” In this case, he refers to the Malian NGO Tassaght, which provides information services. They work with African shepherds who complement the satellite data with their local experiences and observations. If these shepherds know that this particular source usually dries up after five days, the satellite information is calibrated with that information. Partly because of this, the reliability of the service is praised by 98 per cent of users and they continue to use it. They only pay a low subscription price. Their milk production has increased by almost 10 per cent, while livestock mortality has fallen considerably.

From project to business

“This can keep the wick out of the powder keg for longer,” Hoefsloot adds. Safety and water are therefore two sides of the same coin in the Sahel. Lis Mullin Bernhardt, freshwater expert at the United Nations, emphasizes the value of STAMP, especially with regard to water. “Projects like these are an important addition to the UN’s, in managing freshwater ecosystems and helping communities affected by severe droughts. We view satellite images as a powerful tool.” From 2019 onwards, STAMP + will be operational in more Malian regions. The continuing project has the ambition to register 45,000 new users in 2020. What started in 2015 as a project that was 70 per cent funded by the Netherlands Space Office within the G4AW program, is now clearly on the way to more financial independence.

GARBAL

Today, it now goes under the brand name of GARBAL. By the end of 2021, the business case must be developed in such a way that it can support itself. For the time being, it’s done with private and public resources. This is mainly due to the unusual security risks in several regions where there is collaboration. Netherlands Development Organization SNV is working together with Orange Mali, a worldwide provider of mobile telephony. In Burkina Faso the sister project will be continued as MODHEM +. Here too, project expansion and privatization will strengthen the business case. Orange Burkina signed the contract in January 2020 to also establish the GARBAL brand name here. “In projects like these, there are only winners. Without one party making a profit at the expense of another,” says Adri Bakker, advisor at the Netherlands Space Office.

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Conference

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is organizing a conference on Peace & Security on 20 and 21 February 2020. The NSO is participating in a workshop and the G4AW projects STAMP and MODHEM will be presented there by SNV.

Source for this article: Orignal Dutch text by Frédérique Coumans, translated by Remco Takken Netherlands Space Office