Satellites warn African farmers of pest infestations

Researchers from the United Kingdom (U.K.) have developed an early warning system to prevent the crops of African farmers from being devastated. The Pest Risk Information Service (Prise) combines temperature data and weather forecasts with computer models and then sends farmers a mobile phone alert so that they can take precautions. It is hoped that the system will boost yields and increase farm incomes by up to 20 percent.

Prise is being used in Kenya, Ghana, and Zambia and will be rolled out soon in other parts of the world. Prise is an upgrade of a highly successful U.K. Aid scheme run by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International development charity (CABI). It uses a network of so called "plant doctors" and clinics to advise farmers when pests or diseases destroy their crops.

Satellites can provide accurate land temperature information, which is one of the most important drivers of pest infestations. This, combined with weather data and computer models, can be used to give farmers enough time to spray pesticide and take other precautions. The ‘doctors’ draw on a database using an app to help them to diagnose the issue and then prescribe the right pesticide and other measures. So far, the scheme has helped 18.3 million farmers, in thirty-four countries across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. On average, farm incomes and yields are 13 percent higher for those using the service.

Professor Charlotte Watts, chief scientific adviser for the U.K.'s Department for International Development, which funds the plant doctor scheme, says a new initiative with CABI and the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) will use the network to prevent, rather than just mitigate infestations. She says the idea is to use satellite data collected by the UKSA to develop a system that is able to predict when pest infestations will strike a week or more in advance. Early indications are that the system is working, says Professor Watts, "Farmers are completely dependent on crops and the predictability of having a good yield to survive and also to send their kids to school. So, if we can reduce the impact of pests, if we can enable them to get better yields - which we are already seeing - it will mean that we can help them move out of poverty."