Satellites help farmers to find good grazing grounds

by Peter Hoefsloot
October 27, 2019

Pastoralists migrate to find suitable grazing grounds

Most pastoralists in Africa rely on three methods to make critical decisions on where to migrate with their herds during the dry season: previous experience or indigenous knowledge; sending scouts; and oral communication. These accuracy of these methods are critical and can mean the difference between survival and devastation in drought and non-drought years alike. With climate change, seasonal and spatial climate patterns are changing affecting making the use of indigenous knowledge and oral communication (which can also be based on indigenous knowledge and/or incorrect information) less and less reliable. As a result pastoralists are increasingly relying on scouts – which are expensive and slow. Numerous studies have shown that a large reductions in herd size quickly plunge pastoralist households– even previously self-sufficient ones– into chronic destitution and food insecurity. Ensuring that pastoralists are better able to manage drought risks is critical to the long-term development and economic growth of many countries.


Through the SAPARM Initiative, Project Concern International, in partnership with World Food Programme and the Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector (DRMFSS) of the Ministry of Agriculture is piloting the use custom grazing maps developed utilizing the Livelihoods, Early Assessment and Protection Initiative (LEAP) platform of Hoefsloot Spatial Solutions to help pastoralists make better migration decisions in the face of increasing drought risks. The project leverages existing early warning channels, which were primarily set up for the upward flow of information from the communities to the regional and national authorities. Reversing this flow, SAPARM returns information travels downward to the community. SAPARM is one example of how WFP is supporting the implementation of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) on the ground, by bringing agro-climate information directly to those who need it most: pastoralist households in remote, drought-prone regions.

How SAPARM works

The idea behind SAPARM is simple: to provide LEAP-generated satellite images of vegetation cover to pastoralists, to help them identify good grazing areas and make better decisions on where to take their herds during droughts. Through SAPARM, vegetation maps are distributed to pastoral clan leaders every ten days. The maps are based on publicly available satellite NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) images, with accuracy down to a 10 km2area. NDVI is a satellite-based technique which uses the visible and near infrared light reflected by vegetation to measure vegetation density and greenness.

Building on LEAP

SAPARM builds on an existing platform: Ethiopia’s national food security early warning system, known as LEAP (Livelihoods, Early Assessment and Protection). LEAP has been created in close cooperation with the government of Ethiopia to provide seasonal assessments of the number of drought affected people. The data in LEAP form the basis of the SAPARM maps.

SAPARM uses a participatory process with communities to identify specific grazing areas, digitizes those maps and overlays them with NDVI data based on the LEAP architecture. These maps are generated, updated and emailed automatically every 10 days and then shared with pastoralists to help them identify suitable grazing areas. These maps only include areas that have been identified through community participatory mapping exercises as traditional grazing grounds for that particular clan, to avoid conflict with other clans.Impact To Date: Saving Energy, Time and Money.

The potential for global impact

A year into the project, results are extremely encouraging: pastoralists not only use and trust the vegetation maps, it also seems that these maps are helping them reduce their livestock losses. Even though the ratio of maps to households was 1:120, 78% of those households said they used the maps for migration decision-making and the majority identified the maps as their most important resource for decision-making. Moreover there was a 47% drop in herd mortality.

There are an estimated 225 million pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Africa, representing about a quarter of the continent’s population. Yet there currently exists no system to provide them directly with reliable, easily understandable weather and rangeland information, tailored to their decision-making needs. While specific levels of access to information and dissemination mechanisms vary from country to country, pastoralists around the world share the common challenge of limited access to the most up-to-date and precise information on grazing conditions and locations. Successful integration of geo-spatial data within local communication networks could impact millions of people in Africa and beyond. PCI, in partnership with the Government of Ethiopia and WFP, is scaling-up the SAPARM project to other pastoral regions of Ethiopia with support from the US Agency for International Development and Google. As the project expands throughout the country, a priority is to ensure its full ownership by national and regional/district government authorities. This is key to ensuring the project’s effective scale-up and sustainability USAID currently support through our mission funded project in Oromia. We have also been invited to submit a proposal for a Phase 2 scaled effort in Afar – the Google funding will also support the Afar effort as well as a small pilot in Tanzania.