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Remote sensing for smallholding — With eyes on sticks

Arfat, my tomtom driver this early morning, has agreed to take me down the coastal road out of Cox’s Bazar towards a place called Inani Beach.  It is still dark, the heavy air smells of a lit fireplace with a touch of Indian subcontinent spice.  In the headlights in front of us, scarlet crabs are making a run for their lives as the tomtom approaches.  We hit none.

In two days, we will visit CIMMYT’s STARS team.  The visit will be to both Dhaka main office and Barisal field office.  I have tried to read up a bit on the specifics of the STARS work in Bangladesh. What characterizes Bangladesh’s farming, what are the true farmer challenges, how much is subsistence and how much is for market.  Which risks do farmers run during the season?  We hope to learn a bit more about the factors around the actual farming process that aim at getting good yields: the financial system, the logistics system, and perhaps also the legal system.  And to what extent do farmers need to be aware of these systems or become more familiar with them. Today’s farmers need their eyes to be on sticks.

On the actual farming process, crop monitoring will take place in STARS Bangladesh, just like on our sites in Africa.  The team is carefully monitoring a number of test sites, with both proven and novel technology.  Trying to assess whether surface freshwater is available for irrigation, they seek to determine where and in which quantity.  A special thermal camera is used for this.  All that technology forms the eyes on sticks of our team.

Extra irrigation may help some farmers start a second growing season, which can boost income, given that otherwise their lands remain fallow for a number of months.  If we can construct evidence for irrigation potential, this may be key to securing collaboration with other parties of interest: micro-investment firms, farm inputs firms for seeds, fertilizers and irrigation pumps, and farmers who provide pumping services.  The evidence may help to make them agree that the propositions made are viable and indicate a manageable risk and a potential for positive outcome.  These stakeholders too, will be having their eyes on sticks.

The team led by Urs and Zia, involves a handful of dedicated and hard-working professionals and is making an intensive effort to bring satellite, UAV and field data together, to build that evidence base.  They are squeezing every bit of information out of the collected data.

It is encouraging to see the energy, dedication and pride in the eyes of the farmers with whom they work.  Every CIMMYT field visit draws a crowd, with the farmers in a central position, patiently answering questions on their practices, and keen to see results coming out of the work.  Their eyes on a stick, no doubt.

And the crabs?  Well, on the return journey, they had taken possession of the entire beach, now that the Bangladesh weekend was over.  All were next to their sandy hole, anxiously scanning for what was possibly about to happen, indeed, with their eyes …