Using technology to regreen Africa and cool down the planet

In this guest post, Sander De Haas, landscape restoration and innovation expert at grassroots non-governmental organisation Justdiggit, details the role technology is playing in its work to re-green Africa

More than ever, we are out of balance with nature. The earth is warming, leading to water and food scarcity, poverty, loss of biodiversity and climate refugees.

Luckily there are ways to combat this – and it’s not too late to act. Ecosystem restoration can play a critical role in reducing the vulnerability of biodiversity to climate change. In fact, 37% of the climate problem can be solved by restoring land with the help of nature-based-solutions. Besides sequestering CO2 out of the air, applying nature-based-solutions also improves the livelihoods of both humans and animals.

By using simple, low-tech interventions it’s possible to retain more rainwater, increase soil moisture and bring back vegetation at very low costs and make an impact at landscape level. However, to deliver these activities at scale and speed and to make an impact at a global level, low-tech interventions must be augmented by high-tech innovations.

Put simply, to make a climate-based project successful it must use the right technology to ensure it can be monitored, measured and replicated across entire regions.

Using AI to re-green Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa already experiences one-third of the world’s droughts, and due to its dependence on rain-fed agriculture, is vulnerable to extreme weather. And yet, low-income countries in Africa are receiving as little as one-tenth of what they need for adaptation from international climate finance.

This is where restoring natural ecosystems can help to tackle desertification, improve soil health, minimise the number of climate refugees, improve local infrastructure and create jobs, all leading to a stronger local economy in Africa. Technology plays a vital role here – detailed and scalable monitoring is crucial to determine the impact and effectiveness of landscape restoration initiatives. Luckily recent advances in drone, satellite and mobile technologies provide great opportunities for this.

Justdiggit has finely tuned a blend of nature-based solutions and technology to properly combat climate change, working closely with partners such as data science and machine-learning organisation, Lynxx and VU University Amsterdam to develop a machine learning model to count, monitor and track trees on farmland in Africa. In Tanzania alone, Justdiggit and partners have brought back over 14 million trees in just five years.

The technology monitors land and collects data for factors including height of vegetation and number and density of trees over time. Lynxx and VU University use the same technology used by Facebook to identify objects in its users’ pictures to spot where trees are and aren’t growing via drone and satellite imagery.

To reach even more people and support them to regreen their land, a dedicated team from Justdiggit is now working on developing and launching a mobile application that will make it possible for 350 million farmers to regreen their land – without any need for the physical presence of NGOs such as Justdiggit.

This free and open-access app will have courses on regreening techniques and gamification elements to further encourage regreening, such as daily rankings and community competitions. Think Duolingo and Strava, but for land restoration. Data will play a major role in this digital regreening platform.

By utilising data we can measure and communicate each user’s impact and provide personalised advice on the restoration techniques that work for their land. Last year’s pilot programme shows very promising results: 69% of the participating farmers in Tanzania reported that just by using the app they immediately understood how the landscape restoration techniques work and how they can be applied to regreen their land.

Collaborating with innovative regreening companies towards one goal

By working in tandem with organisations towards one mission, we can support the wider NGO ecosystem and create lasting change for our planet. In fact, Restor, a global hub for nature restoration and conservation, is another example of a company that is doing great work in effectively tackling climate change.

The team is building a platform to make tree counting technology available for other restoration practitioners, and Justdiggit and Restor have teamed up to set up a crowd-sourcing campaign asking participants to manually tag trees on drone images to further improve the machine learning algorithms.

We’ve always known that helping the planet is not a mission for one person, company or country. The key to creating a regreening movement at scale is by making use of high-tech innovations to boost the uptake of low-tech regreening initiatives.

The time is right, with ongoing developments in satellite data, machine learning and growing smartphone penetration across both rural and urban areas. So, if we want to regreen and cool down the planet, we need to act swiftly, decisively and above all, together.

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