Assistant Research Professor Catherine Nakalembe of the Department of Geographical Sciences has been named as a 2020 Africa Food Prize Laureate. 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.
Nakalembe focuses her research and work on remote sensing and machine learning applications in smallholder agriculture, food security, early warning, and disaster assessment. She is the NASA Harvest Africa Program Director, working with national ministries and development partners in Eastern and West Africa. NASA Harvest, NASA's Food Security and Agriculture Program, is a multidisciplinary program commissioned by NASA and led by the University of Maryland to enhance the use of satellite data in decision-making related to food security and agriculture across the nation and world.
A proud Ugandan native, Nakalembe’s work started in Eastern Africa, with direct engagement with institutions in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. It has expanded through regional organizations to cover 11 countries in the region. In 2019, she started working in Mali. Her research highlighted the impacts of drought on land use in northeastern Uganda and led to a remote sensing project that supports more than 370,000 people in the region and saves the Ugandan government resources that would otherwise go toward emergency assistance. Nakalembe also revolutionized and repurposed remote sensing by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for use in agricultural monitoring, refugee settlement surveying and landslide mapping in Uganda.
Awarded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Africa Food Prize is the preeminent award recognizing an outstanding individual or institution that is 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 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. In addition to NASA Harvest, Nakalembe is also involved in the NASA SERVIR Applied Sciences Team, the NASA Land Cover and Land Use Change Program and the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM).
In her acceptance speech, Nakalembe thanked her colleagues at the University of Maryland who helped to build the NASA Harvest Africa program. In particular, she thanked her mentor, Professor Chris Justice, chair of the Department of Geographical Sciences. Justice served as Nakalembe’s Ph.D. Advisor. Nakalembe said that she is grateful to Justice “for taking a chance on me, allowing me to become a real geographer—to explore and curve my own path working back home in Africa.” 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.”
“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.
“Catherine is a wonderful role model, she has an enthusiasm which is well-tempered by knowing what is really needed and feasible. She has boundless energy, and as a mother of young twins, that has served her well. I’m happy to have helped Catherine launch a successful career and that she is part of our NASA-funded Harvest program at Maryland.”
Nakalembe formally accepted the award on September 11, 2020 virtually during the Africa Green Revolution Forum.
“As her work so directly feeds the hungry, empowers agricultural workers and businesses, and protects the environment, Professor Nakalembe truly embodies our college’s mission to Be the Solution to the world’s great challenges,” said Dean Greg Ball. “BSOS joins with the international academic community to congratulate Professor Nakalembe on this well-deserved award, and on her extraordinary work.”
Thanks and credit to authors Laura Ours and Catherine Nakalembe for highlighting this story on the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences website.