Satellite Imagery in the Agricultural Sector in Kenya: What Happens Next?

Sep 30, 2015 | All, Data & Tech Acceleration, Digital Financial Services

With the increasing need to improve the output from farmland and the quality of farm produce, many initiatives have been utilized to improve the agricultural sector. The initiatives normally encompass research on market access, provision of training to farmers, information dissemination to farmers among others.

All in all, most practitioners agree a need to improve the management of agricultural resources remains. In order for this to happen, one must be in a position to gather data about the environment and analyze the potential that the farmland has to offer. Satellite imagery and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) have slowly become a necessary tool for value chain producers. With the present technologies, the satellite imagery will continue to be an integral tool for supplementing present systems of farming and also provide invaluable data to be used to generate and enrich agricultural maps and resource data.  Moreover, this type of mapping exercise will generate data for distribution and possibly even credit scoring.

Most players in the agricultural field do not make use of satellite imagery. One Dr. John Mutunga from the Kenya National Farmers’ Federation (KENAFF), when queried about his use of satellite imagery commented: “We only use GPS when registering farmers”. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that KENAFF’s system of registering farmers includes GPS coordinates, which allow the federation to know the exact location of the farmland belonging to each farmer, farmer group, or household. So far KENAFF has managed to cover 44 of the 47 counties in Kenya and has a current outreach of 2.16 million households.

In an encounter with the agricultural input solution from iPROCURE, we noticed that upon registration of farmers by their agents, GPS locations were taken into consideration in the registration form. This meant that the agents visited each farmer at their farm and collected this information and they make use of the information when delivering the farm inputs to the farmer, right at the farm gate.

The above two scenarios are just but a simple representation of what satellite imagery can do for the farmer and companies wanting to sell to farmers. Specialized satellite imagery coupled with GPS tools can help the farmer gather invaluable data about his farm. Using satellite imagery, issues related to crop production can be detected which include:

  • Nutritional disorders of soil (particularly nitrogen deficiencies)
  • Missed fertilizer striping
  • Random wheel tracks and soil compaction from previous operations
  • Waterlogging and poor drainage
  • Sowing problems
  • Pest damage
  • Crop diseases (Rhizoctonia, Nematodes)
  • Consistent areas that are growing well

These crop-related issues may be particularly important to insurance providers as they could use a satellite image to map out areas of losses and quickly calculate claims to farmers when a particular crop fails or is affected by the natural factors in the environment. The satellite imagery could also be used to advise leadership on the optimal areas of infrastructural development and avoid the rich farmland.

Who is this information available to? That seems to be the big question. Many potential solutions (both technological and non-technological) in agriculture may not be considered viable unless they are accessible. The maps are also complicated in nature and a smallholder farmer earning less than USD 2.5 a day would perhaps need some special assistance in order to interpret and understand the images, as would farmer-facing organizations that want the data for commercial purposes. The images may also take some time to be analyzed in a meaningful way they are captured regularly from satellite devices. For example, the iSAT0.8 would display the impact of micro-variation on crop productivity. The iSAT5 has been designed to give new insights on crop health, while the iSAT30 can scan a whole farm or catchment area cheaply. Together, they can shed light on long term trends, as image capture is regular.

The studies on the farming regions thus need to be regular in order to make the information current and relevant. However, in this rapidly changing economy would the SHF who has been accustomed to using traditional and semi-traditional methods supported by some technological innovations dive into the satellite imagery realm to improve the management of his farmland? Furthermore, would digital financial service providers also make use of such data?


Oliver S. Otieno, the Program Data and Information Manager, AgriFin Accelerate Program, Mercy Corps.