Interview with Dr. Farah on climate mapping in Africa

Dr. Hussein Farah is the Director General of the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) based in Nairobi, Kenya.  It is an inter-governmental organization with 18 member states that provides geo-information for environment and resources management in eastern Africa.

Dr. Farah has a PhD in Water Resources Surveys from the University of Wageningen and the International Institute for Aerospace Surveys and Earth Sciences in The Netherlands.  He also holds a master’s in geography from the University of Waterloo, Canada and bachelor’s of science in surveying and photogrammerty from the University of Nairobi.  He has extensive experience in land surveying and mapping for environmental management.  Dr. Farah has lead the RCMRD for six years.

Q: What are the emerging issues in climate mapping and what kinds of technological advances have to occur in the coming years to meet new challenges?

A:

In developing countries, people take for granted that the data is and always will be available, and the capacity for information will always be there.  This is the assumption in the United States and Europe.  In Africa, there is a challenge just to get basic on-the-ground data.  In terms of geo-information, there are already advances but we do need to improve the accuracy of rainfall data, temperature data, land cover and land use.

The other emerging issue is that when we do have the data (whatever it is that we do have), how do we package it?  How do we share it?  It needs to be made available to the people who need it and will actually use it at all levels – local, national, international.  It needs to be made useful.  The RCMRD is working on data sharing and simple tools that will allow people to see data visualized and analyzed. Because of mobile phones, people can access data in real-time, so that is a medium that we want to make more use of.  There is an initiative from the World Bank called Open Data that is designed to do this.

Read about the World Bank Open Data Initiative - http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/

Q: How do you build technology capacity in Africa?

A:

Africa is behind in terms of having the technology to collect climate data (rainfall, temperature, etc.) What we are looking at is a lack of ground data.  RCMRD is working at two levels.  One of the [RCMRD] central mandates is short-term training.  The key is building human resource training and capacity.  For the people who are already in the field, government agencies and NGOs, we want to be able to share the little information that we have and apply it.

Q: What is your definition of sustainable development, and what is your vision for sustainable development in Africa?

A:

Sustainable development is a complex issue and people don’t agree on the definition.  The important thing is that communities and people have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods so that they can conserve and sustainably use the resources they have.  It means that in Africa people use resources sustainably for several reasons, and can move up from poverty.

It is important to develop the capacity to show people that the health of the environment is important to them, and to the world.  This can only happen if people’s livelihood improved, and they have an alternative to the destructive use of vegetation.

Q: What is the greatest challenge in natural resources management mapping?

A:

Mapping components have greatly improved, so the next challenge is to take the information that we have about socio-economic groups and layer that onto  our mapping information about land use, population density and other information.  However, there are challenges to collecting socio-economic data.  In my home country of Kenya, we take a national census every ten years, so the data is available, but it take a very long time to get that information down from the national level to the local level.  Distribution remains a challenge.

Q: On the RCMRD website under “Our Approach” it said that “RCMRD is now providing service on demand driven basis and in a business-like manner”.  What is the reason behind the shift to this model?

A:

In 2001, RCMRD underwent a restructuring where it moved away from what it was before – a government institution only providing information to a more demand driven model where member states ask for the information that they want.  RCMRD now has a business model and charges for its services.  The goal is to become less dependent on the government for funding; currently the government is supporting about 40% of the total budget.  This also helps the long-term sustainability of the RCMRD.

Q: Where is the trained work force in climate mapping going to come from in the future?

A:

Currently, the work force comes from the graduates of colleges and universities.  There is a big expansion of university education in Kenya.  The goal for individuals is to continue their education and to gain new tools and skills to keep their skills relevant.  We continue to train those who already have a skill set.  The problem in eastern Africa is not a human resource challenge, it is about the availability of jobs.  The number of students who graduate with a college degree but can’t find jobs is high.  There is also a lack of government financing to pay for data collecting in related areas (like the socio-economic data that I mentioned earlier).  This leads to a shrinking of the potential jobs that could be created by analyzing and applying that data.

Q: Are there any other key issues that you would like to share that have not been addressed?

A:

As I have mentioned, what I see is a challenge is having the institutional framework for better data collection that can lead to wider distribution and more efficient use.  Local people are more educated and aware of the issues they face than ever before, but we are not doing well at putting the relevant data in the hands of the farmer or the small business owner.  Furthermore, the decision makers in government are not using data efficiently to make their decisions.

For example, there was a serious drought last year and this year in eastern Africa.  The scientists had already predicted drought, and the information was distributed in August 2010.  However, that message was never translated to the local level so that they could prepare for drought.  This demonstrated what can happen when technology and scientific information can move faster than the communication channels.