Satellite technology to help boost food security in East Africa

New and novel techniques in satellite analysis will be used by scientists at the University of Leeds to help farmers in Kenya respond to global warming and environmental degradation.

As with many countries, Kenya struggles to feed itself, with an estimated 4.4 million people facing high levels of acute food insecurity. 

Global hunger is being exacerbated by climate change.

The scientists are part of a UK government investment to use British science, technology and innovation to tackle global hunger.

Long-term solutions to stop food crises

At a major summit on global food security on Monday 20th November, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said almost one billion people across the world regularly do not have enough to eat and as a result, millions face hunger and starvation. 

Over 45 million children under five suffer acute malnutrition. 

He said: “We need a fundamental shift in the way we approach food security, with a focus on long-term solutions to stop food crises before they start.   

“And we need to harness the full power of science and technology to ensure supplies are resilient to threats like conflict, drought and floods. 

“That’s why the UK is working to deliver lasting solutions.”   

British science, technology and innovation are already playing a vital role in helping to beat global hunger and as part of a package of future investment in international aid and development, he announced the launch of the UK Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Science Centre to “drive cutting-edge research on flood-tolerant rice, disease-resistant wheat and much more.” 

He said: “These innovations will reach millions across the poorest countries, as well as improving UK crop yields and driving down food prices.” 

One of the projects to get UK government funding through the UK-CGIAR initiative is iSPARK, a research project conducted jointly by the University of Leeds and two African research institutes: the Alliance Biodiversity-CIAT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

The project will focus on safeguarding food security in western Kenya and apply the lessons learned to the rest of the nation and beyond.   

Big data analysis

The research will seek to unlock fresh insight into how agriculture in Kenya can become more productive by bringing together two big datasets. 

One will involve information from databases of on-the-ground interventions by Kenya-based agricultural advisers who have worked with farmers and rural communities on a range of topics from plant varieties, to planting techniques and times for irrigation.

Those databases hold details of agricultural practices designed and trialled with thousands of farmers across the region.  

The other large dataset will be high-resolution satellite images of the food-growing regions in Kenya. 

Those images, captured by specialist cameras on board the satellites, will reveal information about the state of the health of crops.   

Bringing the two datasets together will allow scientists to assess the effectiveness of the different interventions and to identify links and correlations that had so far gone unnoticed.

They hope to develop new analytic techniques by applying machine learning to interrogate a large quantity of data.

Novel approaches

With the results from that big data analysis, the researchers will select three interventions to roll out across the region and then across Kenya.   

Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at Leeds and one of the lead researchers in the project, said: “We are capitalising on the agricultural databases that have developed over the years and provide a rich resource around the interventions that have been trialled with millions of farmers and smallholders.   

“The databases are a living laboratory and have catalogued new and novel approaches to growing crops. 

“We are coupling that information with Leeds’ expertise in Earth observation, monitoring what is happening on Earth from space.   

“We hope to develop new and novel techniques that will enable us to see how effective these different interventions at the farm scale may have been.”   

Among the outputs of the research will be new metrics for evaluating how sustainable new agricultural interventions are and how resilient they are to changing environmental conditions. 

One of the concerns with the dash for climate-smart agriculture is that it could exacerbate inequalities in access to agricultural innovation for women and younger people. 

Metrics need to be developed to ensure that does not happen.

About CGIAR  

CGIAR has worked around the world for 50 years transforming food production, lifting millions of people out of hunger and poverty.   

CGIAR has worked with the University on other food security projects including iFEED, a decision-making tool to help policymakers, and ClimBeR, which models how climate change will affect food production.


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking at the opening of the Global Food Security Summit in London, 20 November 2023. Photo by FCDO UK.