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The STARS Landscaping Study: a summary

Remote-sensing and spatial information systems are important components of the worldwide digital revolution in agriculture. However, there are significant barriers to adoption in low-income countries and this appears to be adversely affecting agricultural development. The STARS project aimed to understand and identify how to overcome these barriers through a coordinated set of activities focusing on improving the productivity of crop-based smallholder production systems and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia (SA).

One of these activities was the Landscaping Study which aimed to determine how remote sensing can support agricultural development and alleviate poverty. The starting point for the Landscaping Study was development of a framework for identifying opportunities for remote sensing. This was followed by a review of recent advances in remote sensing and geospatial technologies relevant to agricultural development. Ten major opportunities or interventions were subsequently identified.

  1. Produce a cartographic baseline and digital elevation model for Sub-Saharan Africa
  2. Establish online remote-sensing data services for Africa
  3. Improve soil and land resource assessment and monitoring
  4. Improve rainfall data for famine early warning
  5. Develop more effective administrative systems for land tenure
  6. Provide timely information on agricultural production for national decision-making
  7. Support the revolution in micro-scale irrigation
  8. Optimise large-scale irrigation
  9. Close the yield-gap in market-oriented family farming
  10. Support the development of index-based insurance

The first three opportunities focus on improving the infrastructure of information systems. Each leads to the provision of information for a broad range of users. A characteristic of each is that there are many applications and beneficiaries, none of which are sufficient on their own to justify the investment. However, the aggregate benefits are expected to far exceed the costs. The remaining opportunities relate to more narrowly defined applications and each can be viewed as an operational system to support a particular aspect of agricultural development and poverty alleviation. An analysis of each opportunity can be found in Section Four of the final report from the Landscaping Study.

Smallholder micro-irrigation has an important role to play in agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa (Source: Ashley Sparrow, Location: Niger River near Ségou, Mali).

A central message from the Landscaping Study is that information from remote sensing will only be of value to decision makers if it reduces the uncertainty and risks associated with their choices. This principle holds for all decision makers (i.e. smallholder farmers through to national policy makers and business leaders) and it has profound implications for those providing information services. In particular, understanding when and where to develop new information systems requires clarity about the decision making context as well as the risk appetite of the decision makers. It invariably requires an understanding of the biophysical, economic, social and cultural landscape in which the decision makers operate.

The conclusions from the Landscaping Study on how remote sensing can help smallholder farmers in the poorest of poor countries are positive but circumspect. Powerful economic, social and biophysical factors contribute to the persistent poverty traps throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Understanding these factors is important for determining where specific opportunities arise for remote sensing.