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Satellite Data Helping Farmers in Africa, Asia

Joseph Messina

Michigan State University’s Joe Messina, professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Science, and associate dean for Research in the College of Social Science, is known in many quarters for his work using geographic information to map tsetse fly habitat in Africa. Using geographic information systems (GIS) (computer systems that help researchers gather, organize, and display geographic data) and remote sensing (extracting information without being in direct contact with the subject, often using satellites or drones), Messina has been very successful in identifying actual and potential tsetse fly habitat, giving governments the information they need to curtail the spread of the parasites that cause sleeping sickness.

Messina is more than the “tsetse fly guy,” however, as he and his graduate students continue to work with governments, communities, and researchers around the world, applying geographic data to important local issues—from agricultural resilience in the face of climate change in Southeast Asia to determining whether a community should build a new hospital in southeast Michigan. Their work illustrates how a constellation of relationships and partnerships propels research forward.

Precision Agriculture for Smallholder Systems in Africa

As Messina defines the term, smallholder farmers are those who are primarily subsistence farmers. Though they may produce a small cash crop, they are primarily farming to feed their families. In Malawi, Messina has a project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that seeks to help farmers make better informed decisions to increase productivity.

“The project is taking something that’s super high-tech, basically drone-based and satellite-based remote sensing, and converting it into information that would be useful for a poor farmer in Africa,” Messina said.

For this project, he is partnering with an agronomist and an economist. His responsibility is to collect geographic data and determine where and when to apply various agricultural strategies to maximize farm productivity. His partners will use that information and make recommendations based on what should be done from an agricultural point of view and what can be done from the economic perspective. Each of these is critical. Farmers not only need good data, they need good agricultural advice that is also economically feasible. As Messina explains, it’s one thing to say: “‘Oh, you have to put on a whole bunch of fertilizer,’ but, if farmers don’t have enough money to buy fertilizer, you’re not helping.”

Messina hopes to streamline the process so that recommendations can be made in real time, rather than retrospectively. He expects that they will figure out a way to automate the process of collecting the data and converting it into a limited set of actionable information.

“I am trying to make this actionable information as opposed to an after-action response or report,” Messina said. “Why did a crop fail? I don’t really care about that. I want to know how can I make the crop better. Now.”

The proposed system will help farmers maximize crop yields with information they can act on immediately. Because most shareholder farmers do not have the capacity to access the information they will provide, Messina anticipates that partnering with Malawi’s Extension Planning Area (EPA) officers will facilitate communications with those small shareholders on their rural farms, and allow the research data and critical information to reach those who will most benefit from it.

Predicting Critical Climate Changes that Affect Crop Productivity in Asia

In Southeast Asia, Messina and his researchers have set up weather stations on small shareholder farms in order to get a more granular look at local weather. The sites were chosen because they sit on the margins of climate regions. The idea is that climate change will have a significant impact on what grows where in the long run, but at the margins the effects of climate change may come sooner.

To illustrate, he points to apple orchards in Michigan, where apples will comfortably grow for the next hundred years, even with the worst climate change projections.

“The issue is that in a lot of places, though, what we’re growing might change,” he said. “Again, using Michigan as an example, we might see wine grapes moving up into the U.P. But it’s marginal for wine grapes right now. I’m interested in these places in Africa, for example, or Southeast Asia where it’s marginal for the primary crop.”

Corn is grown everywhere, he said, because of the caloric yield per acre. In a lot of places, however, there is barely enough rainfall to support a corn crop year after year.

“If you’re in a place where the rainfall is at the low end, a little shift, which might be in that realm of reasonable for climate change in the near term, will make a big difference,” he explained.

The weather stations will help Messina and his lab understand the local-scale drivers and perhaps allow researchers to find ways to mitigate the effects of climate change.

  • excerpted from “The Engaged Scholar;” written by Matt Forster, University Outreach and Engagement
    Photograph courtesy of MSU Communications and Brand Strategy
    Map Image courtesy of Joseph P. Messina

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