Two-thirds of the world’s food needs are produced by smallholder farmers mostly in developing countries. Despite their immense contribution, these farmers are among the world’s poorest people. Unpredictable climatic conditions (e.g. floods and droughts), land tenure insecurity, pests and diseases, unproductive soils and lack of extension services/information on best farming practices are some of the many challenges they face. Smallholder farmers require relevant information of their farms in order to make better decisions and employ best farm practices. For example, deciding on the type of crop to cultivate, timing and rate of fertilizer application and whether or not supplemental irrigation is needed are essential decision making stages in the food production process. Provision of such information through a knowledge-based system can increase agricultural productivity in smallholder systems and improve livelihoods.
Remote Sensing technology has been a useful source of information for improving agricultural management in developed countries. The collection of vast amount of data through satellites, aircrafts and, recently, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in these regions permit the delivery of pertinent farm-level information such as crop conditions, soil moisture availability, crop area estimation and yield forecasting to farmers. These information improve agricultural management and lead to better yields and sustainable food production.
Despite its usefulness in other parts of the world, the potentials of RS technology have barely been harnessed in smallholder agricultural systems. This is partly attributable to the typical landscapes that exist in smallholder regions (i.e. small plots interspersed with vegetation), the cropping system practiced (e.g. intercropping whereby multiple crops are cultivated on the same land) and high variability in farm practices (e.g. variable planting and harvesting dates, fertilizer application, etc.). Additionally, unavailability of adequate satellite images over many smallholder farming areas due to persistent cloud cover and a few operating satellites (e.g. Landsat) have been a further limitation in harnessing the potentials of RS technology in these areas. But recent advances in space technology (e.g. the advent of UAVs), and the recent launch of a large number of satellites (Sentinels, Landsat 8, RapidEye, SPOT 6/7, WorldView 2/3), has presented an opportunity to reconsider the role of RS technology in improving agricultural management in smallholder farming systems for increased and sustainable food production.
In this regard, the project “Spurring a Transformation for Agriculture through Remote Sensing – STARS” was launched in 2014 to investigate how RS technology can improve agricultural management in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and ensure better livelihoods for smallholder farmers. STARS is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and implemented through a research consortium led by The Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) of the University of Twente in the Netherlands. The consortium is made up of international research institutions namely: (1) the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia; (2) the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Mali and Nigeria; (3) the University of Maryland, USA, in Tanzania and Uganda; and (4) the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Bangladesh and Mexico.
This portal summarizes the knowledge generated and lessons learned through the STARS project on the potential uses of RS technology in smallholder agricultural systems. This is a wide domain, and the knowledge generated and lessons learnt do not address systematically everything that can be learnt in it. However, the portal specifically aims at:
- Providing readers with a better understanding of why remote sensing technology has not been used widely in smallholder systems;
- Sharing remote sensing-based work streams that produce improved information for a number of regional use cases where the demand for such information has been identified for specific stakeholders;
- Elaborate on recent technological advancements in the field of remote sensing (e.g. the use of unmanned aerial vehicles) that can improve agricultural management in smallholder systems for increased productivity;
- Providing insight into the equipment and survey instruments that are required for crop performance monitoring, their usage and limitations;
- Provide readers with a better understanding of the essential treatments that are required for remote sensing data prior to information retrieval.
Although it is believed that such knowledge and experiences will be beneficial to all readers, the portal specifically addresses two types of target audience:
- Professionals, students and young scientists in research and educational institutions that focus on agriculture and remote sensing domains and will be interested in trying out and extending the knowledge and experiences learnt through the STARS project.
- Donor and Policy organizations, representing a continuum of organizations from those that provide only funding to those that define and execute policy. In-between these organizations are government agencies and other organizations with various levels of funding capacity such as international bodies but also donor governments and their aid infrastructure, which may include embassies.
It is assumed that the audience of this portal has basic understanding of principles in remote sensing, although an attempt has been made to explain concepts as much as possible. Where necessary, relevant links to external materials that provide detailed explanations are given.