GIS In Agriculture

By Chelal Evans Kimutai

It wasn't until I was approached by a friend, after learning I was a Geospatial Engineer, many would call us surveyors, that my interest in "GIS & agriculture" was aroused. It was at this time that many questions raced my mind and many visits were made to my lecturers.

My friend, is a farmer. A business man dealing in food. He has about 7 acres; 2 acres and 5 acres in Athi River and Kitengela respectively. In these parcels of land, he faithfully does his chili and he's flourishing to say the least. With the demand surpassing his supply, he wants to expand his chili business to large acres of land.

Now, wait a minute. Why Chili? What criteria did he use to come to the conclusion that Chili will do as well as it did in the previous parcels of land? Might there be certain crops that would do much better than chili in that area? What if they were? He's a business man, can he maximize the land, grow other crops and make double the profits?

All these musings did not leave me, and at that time, I had no answer. I planned to perform a topographical survey that will assist him in planning but that is as far as it could go. Then it hit me. A lightning bolt: Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Almost every bit of food we eat is grown and gathered on farms. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 40% of the global workforce is in agriculture. That's 1.3 billion people! That means agriculture is the world's largest provider of jobs. Safe to say, agriculture feeds the globe. This being the case, humans have learned how to change the environment to most effectively grow crops. We've also learned to produce more crops with less land.

Agriculture has its fair share of challenges - managing of future crop production, increasing yields, managing soils at the same time respecting the environment, protecting the crops from diseases and pests, coping with the changing climate and needs of today: GIS can play a vital part in tackling these challenges.

Admitting GIS has still yet to be taken up in en masse in agriculture, there is, however, massive potential having seen the growth in importance of GIS and Digital Mapping over the past decades.

For the most part of human history, agricultural planning has largely been a system of guesswork. Even when a large set of data has been acquired for a particular piece of land, there are variable factors that we cannot account for and we go with the best fit - as is evident with my friend. GIS can take the guesswork out of the crop planting management.

GIS can analyze soil data combined with historical farming practices to determine what the best crops to plant are, where they should go, and how to maintain soil nutrition levels to best benefit the plants as one can be able to map and project current and future fluctuations in precipitation, temperature, crop output and more. GIS can be the solution to my friend, and others, who want to grow a certain crop and in a certain region to make knowledgeable decisions with the information it conveys. Not only does GIS assist farmers in knowing the suitability of crops in various environments, it also monitors the health of individual crops in fields and adapts to differences in soil types, sunlight and slope. Using the findings one can accurately estimate variable yields across any field and maximize crop production. The use of GIS saves time and increases office efficiency as it gives farmers an easy way to access information about their crops season by season.

With the growing population and many prime agricultural lands being converted to commercial areas - that is why I salute my friend - the little pieces of land we have left, let us maximize the production and help Kenya meet the future demands in crop production. Accompany GIS with you on this set mission.

Remember your fields aren't the same, so why treat them like they are? Use GIS.