Monday, September 3, 2018

FOSS4G : Leave no one behind

It is under the moto "to leave no one behind" that the free and open source software for geographical information (FOSS4G) community met in Dar Es Salaam last week. 

For me and many of my colleagues from the CGIAR it was our first time to join this community as we tagged onto this conference for our annual meeting of the GIS specialist also known as the CSI, no not crime scene investigation but consortium for spatial information! Many of us have actually started migrating to open source software for GIS some years ago, and we were quite exited to learn more about this community.

the stairs
For the FOSS4G crowd it was their first conference held on the African continent, and for many oversees participants a very first introduction to the developing world. A great effort was made to make the conference accessible to the local community in Tanzania and East African Region, with stipends and engaging the huge local tech community. Despite of that, the average participant was male and white, and no one could really apprehend that I am a white woman yet working and living in Nairobi.
Yet conference show cased many great East African tech initiatives and companies, from the humanitarian open street maps, to WeRobotics flying labs, showing that Africa does not lag behind when it comes to tech application with open source that solve local problems. 

Minister January Makamba
The conference was opened by January Makamba, minister in the government of the United Republic of Tanzania responsible for the environment and the Union. He had a great speech, which major message was “If geospatial tools and data do not serve humanity; then they are simply toys”. He made a great start putting African technology and development at the center of his speech. I even managed to shake his hand, pitch him my tool (and not my toy!) that helps local communities to make better livestock plans and raise his attention to ILRI work in Tanzania. It was a great moment.

Dar view from the ferry from Zanzibar

During the conference i attended many presentations from the non-academic world, from the geeks who develop the codes behind Qgis, to advanced web management for GIS or humanitarian open street maps. It was a big eye opener even if sometimes i felt like an alien in the world of hard core coders. 

In the up-coming weeks i will share some more insights from this conference so stay posted! 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Who is getting more milk and eggs in East Africa?

In the Western world, there is a strong trend towards veganism. In that debate, people often forget that small amount of animal sourced food such as milk, eggs or meat, can be the difference between a healthy and productive lives for children in poor families in the developing world.

This is why we are trying to understand what the links between the livestock sector and child nutrition are and try to quantify how much livestock ownership does contribute to improved child nutrition.
Preliminary result shows that owning a cattle or goat increases the chance by 8% for a child in a poor household and owning chicken increases the chance of egg consumption by 2%.

This is on-going research, and therefore some strange results are presented here and where discussed during this internal presentation. So keep posted about the up-coming improvements. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Never trust data blindly!

This week i am at the LD4D meeting in Naivasha. LD4D is a community of practice about creating evidence to enhance data driven decision making in the livestock sector.

I gave a presentation on the comparison of available free data that can give insight in livestock population and why they might be contradictive. Never trust data blindly.

And there was even a twitter about my presentation !

Neat insights from Catherine Pfeifer @ILRI on the challenges of interpreting #livestock demographic #data . Never take it at face value!
— Livestock Data for Decisions (@LD4D_community) February 20, 2018

Explaining the sub-herd concept which i explained in this post 

Remain posted to learn more about LD4D!

Friday, February 16, 2018

When GIS technology and satelite images transform how local governments take decisions

Today, I had a discussion about a contract with LocateIT a small but very innovative GIS and IT company in Kenya, who does is helping me with the online version of CLEANED, the ex-ante environmental simulation tool for intensifying livestock value chains.

But beyond the cloud computing and advanced R coding they are doing for me, I discovered that LocateIT is about to bring the digital revolution to rural Kenya. In close collaboration with the governor in Vihiga county, in Western Kenya, they are setting up an information system based on satellite images in collaboration with ESRI and Airbus, that can provide precise advice.

This initiative is novel from a GIS/technology perspective but also reflects the will of local Kenyan government to make better informed decision especially in the fields of agriculture.

Wanna know more? don't miss the article in the daily nation here. And be ready to hear more from this initiative! 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

An end of year reflection : what can we learn from pastoralists?

It has been a very busy end of the year, and i am just noticing that my blog remained silent for two moths and many of the interesting learning will only appear in 2018. But as the end of the the year approaches, it is time to reflect about 2017 first. It was a year that took me to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia twice for the CLEANED project that aims to assess environmental trade-off of intensifying livestock value chains in developing countries, to Somaliland where i have been setting up a GIS lab and working with the local government on the livestock sector, and to Northern Kenya.

So what did 2017 bring? for me it was the year where I engaged with pastoralists across Africa, in Burkina Faso, Somaliland and Kenya and discovered a fascinating world, where all the logic I know about was challenged.

Pastoralists have a very different way to see the world than the smallholders farmers I usually work with. And it might sound stupid, but because pastoralists are moving with their animals in very harsh environment, they are not really interested in accumulating "stuff" that is heavy to carry around and they are used to live with almost nothing. This is why many of the incentives that we usually use, such as money or in kind just do not work.

Pastoralists value their community and their animals. Therefore, working on the relationship with these communities and build up trust is the better incentive than some materialist item. Also, I have discovered that pastoralists have their own information sharing mechanism that they have developed and improved over centuries and nobody is waiting for any phone app to bring a revolution, they have the information they need. Also information is shared within relevant networks within clans, and there are good reasons why that information is not public : governments do not know how many pastoralists are crossing boarders (a concept that is nonexistent to many pastoralists) and therefore cannot tax animals going from one country to the next, others clans who might compete on ressource might not yet know where the good pastures are. So bringing digital products to this world might do more harm than good, and a better understanding of what information can be shared with whom is necessary before thinking of digital products.

Across all countries, pastoralism is under pressure. There is often conflict on land among pastoralist clans themselves, as in many places the number of livestock is above the carrying capacity of the land which has led to serious land degradation and a resulting lack of available feed and fodder. Also there are conflicts between pastoralist and crop farmers, on who has the right to use the land. Pastoralism is often seen as an old-fashioned lifestyle that is doomed. But especially, in Western Africa there is a strong movement to fight for the right for such a traditional lifestyle.

Meeting pastoralists and working with anthropologists this year have changed the way i look at agricultural intensification in Sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly, there is an urgent need to increase food production in Africa where population will double over the next 30 years. High potential area, where rain is abundant and soils are fertile, will have to play a big role in producing more food, also smallholder farmers in those area are keen intensifying there production that they believe will bring more income. But, in dry low potential areas it is less clear what intensification of production can bring, and people making use of these area have a right to choose their lifestyle, even if it goes against the mainstream thinking. Who are we to push pastoralists towards something they do not believe in for the sake of feeding the world?

Clearly, in the transition zone, between the high potential area and dry rangeland, conflict between the two world emerges. In those zones, land use planning and clear rules that regulate fair access to land and its biomass need to be implemented so that both pastoralists and non-pastoralist can co-habitate. Combined with efforts of land rehabilitation, and emerging opportunities outside of the agricultural sector that can offer jobs to those who do not want to remain a pastoralist, might support a productive and sustainable  traditional pastoral production that sustains a decent livelihood for those who choose to live in this way.

As we move to 2018, let's keep an open mind to those who go through life differently and learn to appreciate what they can teach us, the same way pastoralists have reshaped my understanding of agricultural intensification this year. I remain with thanking you for following this blog, that in the meanwhile has up to 2500 clicks a month, and wish you a happy new year!

Note that all pictures in this post are taken from here. They are made Gille Coulon, an award winning photographer. He has exhibited these pictures at the "centre culturel francais" in Ouagadougou, an exhibition that was lucky to see during one of my many visits in Burkina Faso.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Big Data made in Ethiopia

I just arrived in Burkina Faso on a long trip from Nairobi to Addis, then to Lome and finally to Ouagadougou. A long journey on Ethiopian Airline, which is not something i usually look forward to. But this time, i was positively surprised at the level of the in flight magazing Selmata that has a long article on Big Data, a quite astonishing topic for a country that for long was lagging behind in the tech scene.

The article is about Gro Inelligence, a company that i was not aware off, and is funded by Ethiopian (but interestingly with an office in Nairobi)

Gro intelligences addresses the challenge of the information gap in agriculture. From their website they sell themselves as follows : "We built Gro, a data product that enables the discovery and analysis of an unprecedented amount of data in the global agriculture industry. Gro collects and synthesizes trillions of data points from disparate and often times near impossible to use sources, allowing users to paint a clear, comprehensive, and timely picture of the factors influencing the agricultural commodity they are interested in."

Their products are mainly crop focused, there is no livestock related product. And as pointed out in the Selmata magazine, this type of near real time data without validation on the ground still has many issues. Yet it is an interesting player on the ground.

Wanna know more, just read the very well written article in Selmata!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A trip through Somaliland

Last week, i went to Sheikh in Somaliland to train students at ISTVS, the IGAD Sheikh technical veterinary school in GIS.

So it gave me in rare opportunity to travel from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland the Sheikh and discover a country that only few have seen.

Let me take you on my trip and show you the typical landscapes.

As you might already know, Somaliland went trough a terrible drought resulting in a famine. By time we arrived it had rained, and our driver told us that now he has enough feed for his animals. His English was too bad to discover how many animals he has lost. But looking at these empty landscapes, there is very little livestock, for a country that relies for 70% of its GDP on livestock.

the few livestock we have seen

including some camels
It was also the opportunity to cross validate what we had learned through past research on the ground. It was told many time that charcoal production leads to deforestation. We could not find the deforestation with satellite image, but now we have seen the charcoal on the ground.

charcoal sale
We also trained 11 students among which more than half were women. Wanna know more about this check on the virtual GIS lab that we have set up for ISTVS.

the computer lab

The trained students with the principal in the middle
After the training we went to Berbera, the port city with hope to see more about that booming livestock industry. But because there is a livestock export ban, very little is happening.

the empty livestock truck, there is no business because of the export ban
We also passed the Somaliland president on the way, in a huge convoy full of military.
What we think was the presidential car, part of a huge convoy
Yes, Somaliland is probably not the safest country in the world, but it does not feel as dangerous as Nairobi by night. Nevertheless, we got a an armed military body guard with us during the whole trip.

our personal armed body guard
 We hope he and the driver enjoyed the beach too.

On our way back to Hargeisa, we capture some of these fantastic Somali landscapes, thinking about how beautiful this country is, and its potential for tourism wouldn't it be a failed state...

I hope you have enjoyed this virtual trip ! And who knows, maybe one day...

Friday, October 13, 2017

Helping Somaliland is not just about food aid!

I am packing and about to leave to Somaliland, this time not as usual to Hargeisa, but on my way to Sheikh Veterinary school (ISTVS) where I will be teaching an introductory training to geographical information systems (GIS).

We have all recently seen the images from hungry pastoralists in the news, NGO fundraising and facebook campaigns. It is great that people support immediate food help to people who need it most, but it remains just a short term intervention that does not really allow this young country to develop.

This movie shows how the European Union has invested in the veterinary school i am going to in order to build up local skills and competences for the livestock sector, that represents at least 60% of Somalilands' GDP. Now you are probably wondering what GIS has to do with livestock? Many livestock diseases are depending on the biophysical context. Even in small countries like Somaliland not the same interventions are needed in all parts. Also livestock is moving, starting to plan land use, optimize the route and the veterinary post will become more and more important, but no one has the basic skills to do some simple geographical planning.
So we have been asked to give an introductory training next week. So remain posted, more about Somaliland will come soon.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Facilitators : the never mentionned factor of success

During the participatory stakeholder workshops in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Tanzania, workshops cannot be hold in English. So in many countries we had to rely on translators. For example, the participants in Burkina Faso spoke French, Jula and More, but there was no common language to all, so we really had to juggle to make sure that we have everyone on board and no one gets excluded because of language barriers.

Set up of the week
We have hired facilitators/reporters to work with smaller groups of participants, who speak the local language. It also means, that we had to trust the facilitators to do their job well, as we had little means to cross-check what is going on during the group discussions. For example, in Ethiopia the workshop was held in Tigrinay, which is spoken in Tigray but is not the national language, which in Amharic. So in Ethiopia even our national partner who helps us organize the workshop is not able to understand what is going on.
  all documentation is on poster so that power cuts do not disturb the training
A huge responsibility therefore weighs on the hired group facilitators/reporters. To make sure that they get the skill to do their job well, we implemented a two days training. The first day aimed at giving the facilitators the skills to "give everyone in their group to do the best of their thinking". This part of the training were based on Sam Kaner's book and approach, and we mainly focused on active listening. On the second day, we when through a "dry run" of the workshop, to show facilitators/reporters what their job is, what we expect from them, and which results we would like to reach.
training active listening in Ethiopia
During the workshop, facilitator/reporter were assigned to discussion groups in pairs, so that one can facilitate and the other take notes, as well as always being two in difficult situations.

drawing out techniques in French
After the workshops, facilitators and reporters wrote a report about what was discussed and what has happened in their groups in English or in French. This is often our only way get access to the information that was shared in many different languages.
Training in Burkina Faso
The facilitators/reporters did a fantastic job in all three countries : they had to learn new skills and understand their role in a very short time, handle difficult situation is their groups and remember to report everything with as many details as possible. They are key to our success and to the data we can collect.
facilitators at work in Burkina Faso
Let me take this opportunity to thank the three teams in all 3 countries for their enthusiasms to take up a challenging task and the great job that they have done to support us.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How to count animals in pastoral area?

During my last workshop in Burkina Faso, a stakeholder category were pastoralist, this are livestock keeper that at least part of the year have migrating animals. In Burkina Faso, i went to have a mint tea with representative of the Peul community, one of the pastoral communities in Burkina Faso, in order to understand how they think and how we can somehow figure out how many animals they have.

the peul community discussing during the workshop
Here is what i have learned :
Firstly Peuls will never about livestock numbers, this is a taboo as it is for western cultures to talk about salaries. This is out of fear to be taxed when crossing different countries with their cattle. It was therefore very difficult to ask them about livestock numbers.
However, they talk happily about what they define as troupeau. Though troupeau means herd in French, the word cannot be translated.

taken from
This is why:
A Peul household is complex, as it is generally composed of a head of household with several wives who has several children. Every child at its birth is given a female cattle, and all its offspring will belong to the child when he or she marries. As a result, every animal has a clearly defined owner within the household and women own livestock too. We will refer to all animals that belong to any of the household member as the overall household herd.
Transhumances routes in Western Africa
In order to manage risk, the head of the household split the overall household herd into different sub-herd, that the Peul refer to as troupeau, which will follow different transhumance routes with different herders (who can be a member of the family or hired). Also, different household may pool their different troupeaux to go on a transhumance route with the same herder. As part of a risk mitigation strategy, the Peul nowadays have what they call a “troupeau laitier” that is a troupeau of female animals that give milk and therefore do not go on transhumance. This allows part of the family, mainly women and children to live a sedentary life and live from the sale of milk.
Next to the dairy cows, the weak animals also remain at home, they will be fattened over a certain amount of months to be sold for meat. These animals are not considered as troupeau as they are very few and can be asked about the number of animals.
taken from

What does this implies?
  1. Most transhumant families have a non-transhumant troupeau that stays in Bama the whole year long, these are mostly lactating cows and therefore is also referred as troupeau laitier (the milking herd).
  2. Depending on the wealth of the household, there might be several other troupeaux somewhere on a transhumance route
  3. Herds observed in a given location on a transhumance route is likely to be only part of the overall herd of one household, but likely to be composed of troupeaux from different households
  4. Fattening animals are not considered to be part of a troupeau and can be asked about in terms of number of animals.
a scientist trying desperately to ask the right question!
And now imagine a scientist coming asking any one in this system about how many animal he or she owns?