The agricultural sector is crucial to South Africa’s socio-economic stability. The sector is sensitive to key issues including climate change, population growth, changes in consumer needs and shifts in the global economy and related markets. These factors are increasingly volatile, resulting in falling incentives to invest in agriculture and increasing uncertainty within the sector.
Monitoring crop coverage and health is therefore an important activity, but any solution needs to be cost effective. Using a satellite-based solution offers several key strengths, such as objectivity, wide area coverage and frequent data updates. Recent developments in the capabilities of satellite instruments support this approach, as they allow frequent, wide area observations to be made with improved spatial and spectral resolutions, enabling images of greater detail and better quality to be captured from space.
With funding from the UK Space Agency’s International Partnerships in Space Programme (IPSP), Airbus Defence and Space has built on these strengths by developing a set of crop monitoring tools called CropWatch, in partnership with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA).
South African National Space Agency
The underlying challenges in the agricultural market are both economic and societal. In South Africa the sector contributes only 3% to national GDP, which is far below its capacity. Nevertheless, its potential impact on empowerment and poverty relief is substantial because it is one of the most employment-intensive sectors – agriculture is responsible for approximately 7% of formal employment.
Consequently, there is significant interest in improving monitoring capabilities in the agricultural sector, but there are significant challenges due to the wide areas over which crops are produced and the variabilities within the growing cycles for different crops. Successful monitoring requires reliable, wide area observations during growing seasons that are frequent enough to adequately observe different trends and potential anomalies. In addition, for such monitoring to be sustainable, it has to be cost effective.
In partnership with SANSA, Airbus has developed CropWatch with the aim of stimulating both economic and societal benefits in South Africa (and more widely across southern Africa). The main goal was to develop and demonstrate a set of crop stress assessment tools that use satellite data and agronomical information to optimise the monitoring of field crop areas in both irrigated and dry-land production systems in South Africa.
CropWatch project activities included three key steps:
- Acquisition of optical satellite images of two areas of interest in South Africa taken at frequent repeated intervals (using imagery provided by DMCii).
- Implementation of an automated production workflow to enable routine generation of a range of biophysical
parameters – such as the moisture content of vegetation – from the satellite images.
- Development and implementation of an integrated model which combines the biophysical parameters (generated from satellite images) with complimentary, non-satellite datasets to enable crop stress to be modelled.
Throughout the project, partners engaged end-users from across the stakeholder community, from institutions to the commercial sector, to ensure the capabilities of the system were of real benefit and add value.
IPSP funding has enabled Airbus to develop an international partnership with SANSA and other South African stakeholders and provide support to SANSA in meeting its obligations to institutional stakeholders in policy making, policy monitoring and evidence gathering.
The results of the project should ultimately enhance the sustainability and resilience of the South African agri-business sector, and support improved food security and social stability in the country.
The funding has also enabled the partnership to build on existing Earth observation capabilities to develop commercially viable products and services, and to build on existing investments in industrial processing capabilities.
Outcomes & Future
The CropWatch project team has successfully developed and implemented an automated production workflow that can generate biophysical parameters from satellite data and use these in an integrated model that can generate crop condition maps and indicators.
The next step is to look at how to effectively distribute the CropWatch products, with customers likely to include government departments, agricultural businesses (such as banks and insurance companies) and financial institutions. The products are likely to be made available online, with a browser front-end and processing based in the UK and South Africa.