Published on Digital Development

The sky is not the limit: Satellites in support of smallholder farming (part 2)

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Don't miss part 1 of this blog postThe sky is not the limit: Satellites in support of smallholder farming.


The World Bank recently published a paper on Harnessing Digital Technologies to Improve Food System Outcomes. It points out that new and expanding technologies have not always realized their full potential in rural areas, where access to digital technology is hampered by low connectivity and coverage, higher installation and maintenance cost and other factors. Satellite Earth Observation can address some of those gaps. The increasing availability of free and open imagery through the European Copernicus program opens the field to non-specialized users and are a real game changer for developing countries. Improved processing and analytical capabilities ensure that the data becomes actionable for decision making.

In a previous blog, we acknowledged the challenges facing the use of satellite technology for development. In this blog, we explore the enormous opportunities that satellite data can provide in three selected areas: agricultural productivity; water management; and sustainable land management.

Enhanced agricultural productivity

Agricultural productivity is one of the cornerstones of agricultural development. Satellite data can be used to map the distribution, status and dynamics of agricultural production in relation to land and water resources.

Agricultural production is characterized by three variables: extent (land utilization), timing (cropping intensity), and quantity (crop yield) (Credits: EO4SD-agriculture, eLEAF for ESA/World Bank, 2019)
Figure 1 Agricultural production is characterized by three variables: extent (land utilization), timing (cropping intensity), and quantity (crop yield) (Credits: EO4SD-agriculture, eLEAF for ESA/World Bank, 2019)

A nice example of a database that helps us to better understand the spatial and temporal variations of agricultural production is FAO’s WaPOR database, which provides trends on production and water use for Africa and the Near East. It is possible to build free apps on the platform. For example the PlantVillage app helps western Kenyan farmers diagnose plant diseases using satellite data.

Sen2Agri is an open source software system processing high resolution satellite images for agricultural purposes, including the mapping of cropland, crop type and vegetation status, capable of national scale monitoring.

Satellite information on crop production helps us better target activities related to the supply of inputs and advice, provide a timely response to mitigate drivers of decreasing food production, and evaluate the impact of project interventions and policies.  It allows us to recognize opportunities for improvement, such as selecting good management practices, and to identify factors limiting agricultural production. Satellite derived land characteristics in combination with crop requirements can also show agricultural potential and opportunities for new investments.

Improved water management

Among the biggest challenges and opportunities in agriculture is the good management of water. Climate change increasingly affects the frequency and intensity of rainfall, resulting in more droughts and floods. Satellite data improves planning and decision making with information on crop water requirements and flood frequency. An example is the GEF-funded IW: LEARN Flood and Drought Portal that assesses risks and impact.

Satellite information helps extension staff increase productivity and reduce water consumption, Telangana, India. Credit: eLEAF, 2017
Satellite information helps extension staff increase productivity and reduce water consumption, Telangana, India. Credit: eLEAF, 2017

Irrigated agriculture plays a large role in increasing food production: Currently, irrigated agriculture produces 40% of all food while only occupying 20% of the cropland. Knowledge of the loss of water by actual evapotranspiration is a powerful tool in water resource management and provides a better understanding of the implications of climate change. It can also be used to track progress of SDG target 6.4 with indicators on water stress and water use efficiency.

The Department of Water and Sanitation in South Africa uses the ESA-funded OWASIS water auditing tool developed by Hydrologic and eLEAF to check farmers’ compliance with water allocation. Satellite information can also be used to optimize water management on-farm (increase irrigation performance) and off-farm (improved water distribution). In South Africa, 50% of the farmers that use FruitLook – a satellite based service with weekly satellite based updates from eLEAF on crop growth and water status  - save more than 10% water. The World Bank Group’s Agriculture Observatory uses a combination of ESA, NASA and other satellite platforms in combination with ground stations to provide real time weather data at high spatial resolution to stakeholders throughout the entire agricultural value chain.

Sustainable land management

About 40% of the world’s degraded land is in areas with a high incidence of poverty. Sustainable Land Management, which integrates land, water, biodiversity, and environmental management to sustainably meet rising food demand, is an area that satellite data can contribute to.  

Satellite Earth Observation provides data on land cover and vegetation dynamics that improve understanding of land degradation and deforestation and answer questions such as: What was the land cover prior to the introduction of commodities such as oil palm? The Global Forest Change map shows forest cover gain and loss for the entire world from 2000-2018. Recently, satellite observations have provided real time data on forest fires across the planet to help mitigate the impacts.

For agriculture and natural habitat assessment, GeoVille’s includes cultivated area and crop type maps. The monitoring of land cover change during project implementation is important to safeguard natural areas and also to identify potential competition for land and water resources.

The Resilience Atlas of Conservation International provides maps of vegetation cover and biomass production (trends), which are used to identify regreening and degrading areas and focus project activities. Biomass production or Net Primary Productivity is a satellite derived indicator of carbon sequestration in vegetation.

Satellite earth observation provides continuous, consistent, and scalable information on agricultural production as well as the land and water resources.  Improved knowledge on what is happening in and around agricultural areas can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of agricultural investments. We are hoping that greater partnership between the space and development communities will help unlock the potential of satellite-based environmental information for sustainable development.

Acknowledgment: This blog was written based on experiences in the dedicated activity cluster on Agriculture and Rural Development under the European Space Agency’s Earth Observation for Sustainable Development (EO4SD) Initiative.

We hope to crowd-in some of the world’s best minds to participate in a global conversation on food and technology through the “What’s cooking? Rethinking farm and food policy in the digital age” blog series. We invite people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to join us and share their comments.

What's Cooking


Annemarie Klaasse

Remote sensing specialist

Erick Fernandes

Global Lead, Technology, Innovation, and Climate Smart Agriculture, World Bank

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