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Seeing is Believing – An Interview with Sibiry Traore

West African smallholder farmers are witnessing unpredictable changes in their land. Some are noticing that their soil is not as fertile as it used to be, and in some places, where there was once soil, there are now barren patches – useless for planting anything but uncertainty and fear for their future livelihoods.

When farming traditions come to you as easy as breathing, and when you know no other way of working the land, it is difficult to know what to do when yesterday’s wisdom no longer holds true. Many farmers are giving up, abandoning land that has been in their families for generations and heading to the cities in search of work.

Smallholder farmers need to know that something can be done to help them make the most of their changing landscapes. They need to know which fields will produce the highest crop yields. They need to know which piece of land can benefit from fertilizers. And they need to know it now. 

This is where the Seeing Is Believing – West Africa (SIBWA) Project, one of AGCommons’ five Quick Win Projects, can help make a difference. SIBWA has the technology and the expertise to provide smallholders farmers with simple maps that use very high resolution imagery (VHRI) to show them not just what’s on their land, but also, to a certain extent, what lies beneath it.

During a recent interview, SIBWA Project Leader Sibiry Traore talked enthusiastically about SIBWA’s work to date and his hopes for the future role of VHRI in West Africa.

How did the idea for the project come about?

As an ICRISAT scientist, I work with two projects that provided the seminal imagery and ideas that were developed into the SIBWA Project: the Soil Management Collaborative Research Support (SM SMCR) Program, a USAID-funded project that uses QuickBird imagery to monitor common practices and farmer compliance with carbon contracts; and a DMZ-funded project on the community scale management of agro biodiversity to handle variability and climate change.

Although we are doing pioneer work with these two projects, we never really looked at extending the technology beyond the scientific interest of the activities involved. It never occurred to us to provide the imagery more as a service, build some added-value maps and hand them over to local communities for them to decide what they want to do with them.

What are the goals of the project?

The goal of the project is to enhance productivity in smallholder settings, while the objective of the project is to demonstrate the value of very high resolution imagery (VHRI) to help smallholder farmers and their communities to develop a selection of turnkey products in selected communities. 

What role does ICRISAT play in the project?

ICRISAT is the implementing agency. We devised and conceived the project and the proposal and provide scientific oversight with regard to the type of activities to be implemented. We are also responsible for some of the lab work; mostly the image interpretation and some of the image processing, which requires specialized software and skills. All the field work, such as coordinating the rollout on the farms and also the field visit activities, is coordinated by Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER), Mali. The field staff comprises ICRISAT and IER interns, as well as collaborators from different partners in the other countries.

How many communities did you select?

Originally, we selected 10, but due to funding constraints and over-commitment, we scaled it down to six: three in Mali and one each in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger

How did you select these communities?

The first criterion was obviously the availability of the QuickBird imagery for all the sites. Such imagery is only available at a cost. Also, when you use this type of imagery, you have to ensure that it is acquired at the right time of the year to get the optimum information about the land. A secondary criterion was to sample a diversity of agro-ecological loans: West Africa is a very diverse region, so we needed to sample this in a representative way. A third criterion was to cover a diversity of ethnic backgrounds. In essence, each of the six sites that we work on is home to a completely different ethnic background.

Does that mean that you have a slightly different approach in each community?

We don’t really have a different approach, apart from the fact that in interacting with farmers, we will need to speak different languages. In fact, one add-on component of the project will be to create an interpretation matrix for the imagery into the six national languages we are dealing with.

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What was the smallholder farmers’ reaction to the maps?

We assessed the initial spatial awareness of the farmer groups, and then introduced the different maps we’d devised. At that stage, they were called photo maps, because they were devised to a large extent in the lab and without much field validation. Most of the farmers had never seen a map of their neighbourhood, or their farms, fields and landscapes. They were amazed by all the detail.

During the initial rollout phase, the farmers initiated the group formation: who was going to be exposed and who was not going to be exposed. I think it’s useful to give them the maps and the imagery and let them decide among themselves who needs to be involved.

Another thing that we noticed is that farmers are naturally spatially skilled. When you show them a map, although they’ve never seen that type of material before, they very easily recognize landscapes, the geography of farms, ridges, valleys, etc., and quickly zero in on their individual farms.

When will the first useable products be delivered?

By the end of November or early December 2009, we aim to have a refined set of maps of the six communities for the village chiefs, or local mayors or the local farmer associations. In addition, the participating farmers will receive a print out image of a zoomed-in area of their farms, showing their fields, individual trees inside the fields, and any stress areas, etc.

What are the practical applications of these maps to the smallholder farmers?

We are actually going to show the farmers which fields to farm to the greatest advantage. We will also show them where they might have areas of low/high fertility inside a field. The maps can, for example, provide them with a small set of recommendations in terms of fertilization. Each map, especially those that the farmers get, will provide them with a small interpretation map detailing such information. These types of information will be based on the field data and the results from the lab – from the image processing.

Can these images also help with land disputes?

Although this is an issue, it is fairly well-managed here in Mali, because the country has a relatively low rural density population on the average. Even high population densities are only somewhere in the order of 40 people per square kilometre. There might be some political land disputes that need to be addressed, but much of our work in our initial report was on other physical aspects, and we were thinking about map applications like fertilizer. The higher value of the project would be maps that ensure collective land tenure negotiations. I’m sure this is going to happen sooner or later. 

What would you like to see happening as a result of this project?

I would like to see VHRI being made available to all rural areas in Africa. That was my initial idea when we were developing the AGCommons proposal. I think we can convince both the imagery suppliers and the government to provide rural communities with that type of imagery. It doesn’t need to be overnight, but it can happen in a matter of a few years.  And we need to make sure that a mayor or a village chief or any kind of smallholder farmer can get access to that information. Some farmers living near towns can go to their local information center and log onto Google Earth and look up their farm and their house and other belongings.

We also want to bring the possibilities of VHRI to the attention of the different partners with whom we work. In Africa, more than 60% of the population is rural.  We cannot keep these populations out of that loop; they have to be provided with that information. Also, land tenure is an issue that we could address right now without waiting for possible conflicts to develop.  

I would also like to see the project leading to collaborative efforts with other partners, the government, and donors, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to invest in making that information available on a much larger basis. 

The next step is the value-added products at the local level. To have this happen, we would have to make sure that the interns and the extension services are available to turn that information into something of higher value. And having those maps in the hands of the local decision makers would be extremely useful. Imagery is not something for a specialist, it’s something for everyone. In many ways I don’t separate GIS from information sharing. GIS is just a small component of the ICT-KM paradigm.