NASA Harvest Africa Lead Catherine Nakalembe has been named a 2020 Africa Food Prize Laureate for her innovative contributions in food security across the continent of Africa. The Africa Food Prize represents global recognition of Nakalembe’s dedication to improving food security in some of the most vulnerable regions in the world through the enhanced use of Earth observation.
Awarded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Africa Food Prize is the preeminent award presented to outstanding individuals who are leading the effort to improve farming practices and outcomes in Africa. The $100,000 prize celebrates Africans who are taking control of Africa’s agriculture agenda. According to the organization’s website, the prize “puts a spotlight on bold initiatives and technical innovations that can be replicated across the continent to create a new era of food security and economic opportunity for all Africans.”
“What an honor it is for me to receive the 2020 Africa Food Prize,” Nakalembe said. “I was recognized because of bold ideas, and am honored by a bold organization, AGRA— a true alliance for Africa led by Africans, one that recognizes that data are a core pillar to transforming Africa’s Agriculture. “In a year when we are facing insurmountable challenges, data couldn’t be more relevant.”
Nakalembe focuses her research and work on using Earth observation data and machine learning applications in smallholder agriculture, food security, and risk assessments. As Harvest’s Africa Program Director, she uses remote sensing and machine learning applications to combat food insecurity throughout Africa, as well as developing early warning and disaster assessment techniques. She directly collaborates with national ministries in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, and Mali while working with various other nations through regional organizations.
A proud native Ugandan, Nakalembe’s early career research on drought in Uganda led to the creation of a project that supports more than 370,000 people, while saving the Ugandan government significant resources it would otherwise have to expend on emergency assistance. In addition, she has pioneered methodologies in using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in cropland monitoring, landslide mapping, and the monitoring of refugee resettlement throughout Uganda.
Nakalembe also organizes and leads training on remote sensing tools and data, works with national ministries on their agricultural decision-making processes, and heads initiatives to prevent potentially disastrous impacts of crop failure. Due in part to her efforts, policies and programs have been enacted that directly impact the lives of farmers and people most defenseless against the impacts of food scarcity.
Dr. Nakalembe has a unique ability to build trust among her colleagues, developing a shared vision that benefits all stakeholders involved. NASA Harvest partner Zara Khan of the data imaging company Planet speaks highly of Dr. Nakalembe’s ability to work across many different agricultural sectors saying, “While I could list her accolades as a scientist here, what truly makes Catherine stand out is her vision for the future. She sees the power of technology to empower and transform agriculture-based communities to be self-reliant. The right information at the right place and time has the power to make all of the difference for a farmer. Catherine's work demonstrates the potential to reduce variability and increase food security by integrating local stakeholders that are accountable for supporting and delivering last-mile solutions.” Nakalembe formally accepted the award virtually on September 11, 2020 during the Africa Green Revolution Forum.
In addition to NASA Harvest, Nakalembe is also a principal investigator for the NASA SERVIR Applied Sciences Team, the NASA Land Cover and Land Use Change Program (LCLUC) and the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM), where she continues to contribute her expertise and enthusiasm to bolstering food security worldwide.
Dr. Nakalembe received her PhD from the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences (UMD GEOG), where she studied under department Chair and NASA Harvest Chief Scientist, Chris Justice. “I’m so happy for Catherine, this prestigious award gives her and the topic of Food Security in Africa much-deserved recognition,” Justice said. “When she started her Ph.D. at Maryland, Catherine made it clear to me that she wanted to take the knowledge and expertise that she would gain to address the pressing needs of communities in Africa. She remains committed to that goal, bringing to her work a sustained passion and desire to make a real difference. This is an amazing accomplishment and sends a wonderful message to young, female African scientists that they are seen and heard.” Bradley Doorn, program manager of NASA Earth Applied Sciences Agriculture and Water Resources programs, adds that “This recognition is well-deserved for Catherine’s career of outstanding work,” said Bradley Doorn. “I’m thrilled to be her colleague and excited for our collaborations to come.”
Looking ahead, Nakalembe hopes to expand her work to more regions and to have a direct impact on more people. “My hope is one day no farmer should operate in the dark without guidance or sufficient information,” Nakalembe said. “That informed support from decision makers will be guaranteed. I thank AGRA for supporting bold steps toward this.”
For more on Dr. Catherine Nakalembe and the 2020 Africa Food Prize, visit NASA.gov.