Catherine Nakalembe is one of Africa’s own ‘Hidden figures’. The Ugandan native is a well-acclaimed remote sensing scientist whose foundation can be traced back to Makerere University. She has gone on to excel on an international scale by focusing her work on the problems pertinent to Africa by applying satellite remote sensing and machine learning to food security and climate change issues. She obtained her masters in Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University before moving onto her PhD in Geographical Science at the University of Maryland (UMD) which now serves as her research base. Her work spans 9 academic publications, 11 African countries and she has been honoured as an ESRI Women Stars of Geospatial Science; first Individual Excellence Award by the Group on Earth Observations in 2019; as a 2020 UMD Research Excellence Honoree and recently with the Africa Food Prize. FemInStyle Africa was treated to Nakalembe’s wit and charisma using a virtual interview.
Q. In simple terms, can you explain exactly what you do?
I am an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Maryland as well as the current lead for the NASAHarvest Africa Program which is set up to use and develop methods to advance satellite data to improve agriculture. This includes crop status, rainfall variability, irrigation planning, crop recommendation and soil moisture monitoring. Through such collaborative initiatives, we have been able to offer support in countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Mali. This stems from the realization that organizations in Africa are yet to develop the capacity and data systems to tackle food insecurity issues. For this reason, our work also entails training institutional extension agents on data accessibility, availability and infield data collection.
Q. How do we ensure that people at the ground level like farmers are aware, included and understand the technology?
Satellites offer a broad view of the Earth surface so it is difficult to focus on individual farms. For now, our work is on a regional scale. We train ministries on how to use the data and how to access it. Our extension agents are our greatest asset because as local individuals on the ground, they can interact with farmers for further reporting that contextualizes our satellite data. Our work has a trickle-down effect because agriculture is affected by so many different factors from trade and market performance or conflict to storage capacity or transport infrastructure and often their effect on crop production is evident on satellite images. There’s a clear need for interagency collaboration to ensure mechanisms that make data actionable.
Q. Why is agriculture your chosen focus? How did you become aware of the need or gap for this approach?
Although I also apply remote sensing in other fields such as natural disaster management, I got into agriculture by chance. I had no idea what I wanted to do for my PhD and my advisor at the time suggested collaborative research in Uganda. I liked the thought of getting to return once in a while to do fieldwork in my home country. After seeing the lack of guidance for smallholder farmers in regions like Karamoja as well as seeing my parents who are casual subsistence farmers share in this frustration; it makes me happy to be able to apply my knowledge and capabilities to solve problems back home. For example, I have assisted with developing risk-informed financing because my line of work does not just stop at being a data analyst. I have inadvertently become an agronomist by understanding agricultural practices; a market analyst by observing production drivers as well as a meteorologist through climate observations. There is still so much to learn and I enjoy it.
Q. You’ve managed to create an active career in research. Why do you think research is not presented as a worthy career path in Africa?
I think there is a lack of appreciation and acceptance that is ingrained in our culture. There’s no clear understanding of the extent and depth of research, it is often just thought of as academics and we are pushed to go into industry as soon as possible to make money. Personally, I have had the privilege of interacting with policy and decision-makers in a way that makes my work very applicable and relevant. There is a disconnect between Research-Academic institutions and decision-makers due to the lack of collaboration in Africa. Research helps to assess efficiency; our systems and processes must be tried, tested and trusted for Africa to progress. Attitude and institutional linkages are why we lack in research but how do you improve if you can’t acknowledge the bad?
Q. Do you have any advice for people wanting to venture into research-based careers?
You have to have passion and the curiosity to learn because the more I learn, the more I realize just how much I don’t know. For me it started with a love for computers and then data and ultimately map-making; there’s always new satellites or data or software to learn about. Whatever your chosen niche is, it should be close to your heart. Look around you, identify the lack, problems and gaps. It will be something simple that you can build on or make better. I have heard of many stories of Africans striving to solve everyday problems that we overlook because they are our ‘norm’.
Q. Do you consider yourself a part of the Africa Brain drain?
No. I have always been surrounded by a supportive research group that has allowed me creative control of the scope of my research. It seems like such a minor thing but having people give you a chance and believe in you encourages the passion to figure it out and make it work. I appreciated the simple gesture and support to do a project in my home country. I have been sure to use these tools I have been exposed to back home and as such have found ways to still be impactful in Africa. I am of the strong belief that we all have an obligation to want to do better for our homes.
Q. What are your thoughts on the AFCTA and how do you think this will affect the agricultural sector?
A bigger trading block is great. Countries like Ghana are ready to benefit from such agreements, however, it has also uncovered our lack mainly in the infrastructure to support this endeavour. Concerning agriculture, it’s not enough for there to be an open market and for me to use science to tell a farmer when and how to plant when they don’t have access to seeds and even with the harvest there is no capacity for storage or transportation facilities which leads to spoilt food and thus a net food loss. There are physical things that need to be fixed for the AFCTA to be effective. There’s an urgent need for research institutions to support and equip staff because efficiency boils down to manpower.
Q. What has been the highlight of your career?
Receiving the Africa Food Prize was an amazing surprise. It’s the gesture of recognition that proves my work has not been in vain and it’s even more special because it is for work I have done in my home. My own perception of our work has changed because this prize has allowed us to raise awareness and initiate conversations that have exposed us to alternative views and opinions as well as people wanting to collaborate and now I am trying to find ways to keep the momentum going.
Q. You are a migrant researcher. How was the transition for you in America?
I think being an academic and under the guise of a university environment has shielded me from a lot of social pressures and issues. I have always been a bit of a book worm and having facilities like unlimited access to Wi-Fi, the library and gyms were great for me. I’ve also kept very busy; at some point, I had two jobs to afford rent and food. Being able to go home every August and touch base during my fieldwork also made the transition much smoother.
Q. You wear many hats; director, professor, author, wife and mother. How do you manage it all?
The growing interest has been overwhelming. I don’t want to disappoint anyone because the demand has grown and I have students that I mentor and advise as well as so many other people wanting to work together across Africa. My husband has been my greatest support, particularly with our 3-year-old twins. I try to exercise patience and use measures like avoiding work on weekends for a good balance.