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Satellite data brings farming advice to remote areas

ChinaDaily 02-11

NTABAZINDUNA, Zimbabwe-Deep in rural western Zimbabwe, where tarred roads are nonexistent, Japhet Ngwenya used to spend every season worrying that the people who advise him on how to protect his crops from dry spells and pest invasions would not be able to reach him.

Ngwenya's farm-in Ntabazinduna, 40 kilometers north of Bulawayo-is so remote that he can go a year or more without seeing the agriculture extension officers who are sent by local charities to assist small-scale farmers like him.

"It has always been difficult to get expert advice. There are no proper access roads here and you drive this far at your car's peril," he said as he readied his fields for a crop of maize, tomatoes and cabbages.

Then, last year, two extension officers from the consortium Turning Matabeleland Green, or TMG, managed to make their way to Ngwenya's farm to show him their solution: climate and crop information collected by satellite and sent to farmers' phones.

Zimbabwe has been slow to embrace satellite-based systems for its agricultural sector, but now the country is seeing the benefits of using the technology to help farmers adapt to the impact of climate change, agricultural experts say.

More than 7 million people work as communal or small-scale farmers, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Many still rely on traditional weather-predicting systems and occasional visits by on-the-ground extension officers to get crucial information and advice.

But using satellite data, groups like TMG can access weather information that is more accurate than the general forecasts supplied by the meteorological department, said Lwazi Mlilo, an agronomist working with TMG.

And with mobile phone technology, they can get that information to farmers faster than they would by sending people out to hard-toreach farms, he added.

Mlilo showed Ngwenya how extension officers can look at the farmer's 27-hectare holding on Google Maps and combine that with satellite data available online to track everything from weather patterns to the health of crops.

"I can monitor the activity on your farm from my office. We do not need to come here to check the progress of your crops," he explained to the visibly awed farmer.

Experts might then advise farmers in the low-rainfall Matabeleland region on what seeds to plant and which techniques to use to keep their crops thriving, Mlilo said.

Reuters

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