Leapfrogging: Key to Africa’s development?  

18Feb 2021
The Guardian
Leapfrogging: Key to Africa’s development?  

WHILE nations around the world grapple with how to best respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, many low-income countries in Africa now face a triple threat. In addition to the health and economic challenges posed by the virus, a locust infestation is decimating crops in East Africa-

-and putting the food security of millions of people in peril.

At a time when social distancing and travel restrictions challenge traditional responses, development specialists are increasingly relying on satellite data to monitor swarms, breeding grounds, and the environmental conditions that might lead to new invasion.

This is just one of the ways that data is being used to respond to various development challenges throughout the continent. Because satellite data is cheaper and easier to access than ever before, it has become a key tool that scientists can use to tackle a range of important development issues by combining geospatial data with other sources, such as population data and censuses.

In fact, a recent study on the status of Earth observation and geoinformation sciences in Africa found that, over the past 20 years, the continent has witnessed a steady advancement in space-based technologies that are “increasingly recognized as an essential tool for decision-making that can leapfrog African development.”

However, harnessing their potential requires data training and literacy on a massive scale — among university students, who will become the next generation of data scientists, as well as government officials looking to use data for improved decision-making. Today, universities across Africa are trying to fill that gap by ramping up their data science degrees and providing shorter 101 courses to policymakers and professionals in the development sector.

The field has already presented great opportunities for solving real-world issues. Now, universities need to collaborate with the end users to build data applications if they are to really solve challenges on the ground. Data literacy and capacity are currently the biggest barriers preventing policymakers from making data-driven decisions to improve policies and their outcomes.

Once policymakers have been sensitized to the potential of satellite data, then technical equipment and computing infrastructure, such as connectivity, can be addressed. This would make satellite data accessible for applications in development efforts ranging from agriculture to natural resource monitoring and management, he said. For example, satellites can be used to help countries remotely monitor their crops to create yield estimation and food balances, among other applications.

Agriculture and food security are one of the key areas where we do a number of activities that support countries in crop monitoring.

One way that universities are supporting the scale-up of the practical applications of satellite data for development is to offer more data science-focused programmes.  Historically, if one wanted to be a data scientist, they would either go study a statistics degree or they might do a computer science degree.

Solutions to these issues are already coming out of these programmes. The artificial intelligence lab at Makerere University, for example, has developed an application to help farmers diagnose plant diseases. Despite these achievements, many university data departments are challenged by a lack of awareness of what data science can do across Africa and a lack of coordination between different data centres.

The best way to ensure that solutions from universities have a real-world application is by facilitating early and efficient communication between nonprofit organisations and government agencies at the design stage and by setting up a feedback loop between organisations. Beyond the training of students, universities should also educate government officials on how to use data for policy and decision-making.

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