2020 in Review – GMES & Africa Project

The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security and Africa (GMES & Africa) Support Programme is the result of the long-standing cooperation between Africa and Europe in the area of space science & technology, which is one of the key priorities of the long-term EU-Africa Joint Strategy. The GMES & Africa Support Programme is administered by the African Union Commission through the Human Resource, Science and Technology (HRST) Commission. The pan-African programme aims at improving the capacity of African policy-makers, planners, scientists, businessmen and private citizens to design, implement, and monitor national, regional and continental policies, and to promote sustainable management of natural resources through the use of earth observation data and derived information.

In line with Space in Africa’s 2020 in Review series, we had a chat with Dr Tidiane Ouattara, the GMES and Africa Coordinator and Space Science Expert at the African Union Commission on what the programme has been up to in 2020 and what to look forward to in 2021. 

What are the milestones achieved by the GMES and Africa project in 2020 across all the consortiums?

Thank you, and let me begin by extending the season’s greetings to you and your team on behalf of the GMES and Africa Support Programme.

Indeed the year 2020 has been momentous, notwithstanding the loss and challenges imposed by COVID-19 on lives, livelihoods and the conduct of normal business. So COVID certainly was a global issue and the fact that consortia were able to sustain, consolidate and innovate their achievements is remarkable. In terms of data, infrastructure and services, we saw the development and operationalization of some regional geo-portals designed to share information, data and products.

In West Africa, we have a Regional Flood Event Database and an android-based mobile application which has helped in reporting and assessing heavy flooding this year, in addition to ocean forecasting and tools for tracking accidents at sea.  One of the first apps for navigation has been created to facilitate navigation on the Congo River, with a second app for automatic reception and processing of spatial data. Wetland managers have access to baseline data produced for measuring changes in the ecological character of wetlands, enabling them to protect livelihoods for communities who depend on these wetlands. Satellite receiving and processing stations installed in various countries remain beneficial for meteorological and environmental applications across the continent. 

Agriculture and rangeland seasonal monitoring and assessment mechanisms on seasonal crop conditions continue to contribute to food security and nutrition in East and Central Africa. A potential fishing zones service is deployed for the Mediterranean Sea, whilst an integrated vessel tracking tool assists in monitoring illegal fishing and smuggling in the SADC region.

The training portfolio within consortia increased in 2020, with the Digital Learning Platform and the use of open-source software. More postgraduate science students were sponsored at the level of Masters and PhD, whilst linkages were created with African universities to expose academia to knowledge sharing and opportunities provided for internship and youth empowerment in Africa. Engaging and raising the awareness of beneficiaries and end-users have seen record hikes over the past twelve months, with an uptake in the utilization of digital communications tools by consortia, including social media and other new media channels.

So 2020 has been an unusual year, but one which saw the consolidation of milestones, and innovation across GMES and Africa consortia. 

What are the success stories from this project and the impact experienced by the general public across Africa?

The mobilization of an entire continent to escalate awareness on EO and how it can address socio-economic developmental issues is a major feat. Across Africa, GMES and Africa have galvanized actors and stakeholders in Space and natural resource management towards the common objective of harnessing the benefits of EO to improve living conditions in the continent. Through a strategic partnership with the European Commission, we have facilitated grants for the development of products and services, generation of data and information and provision of training and awareness-raising for capacity building and decision making across the continent. These results are being catalyzed through the active involvement and participation of academia, the private sector and young people in Africa, one cardinal difference GMES and Africa is designed to make. The programme has made a truly continental reach and impact, with the full participation of two consortia led by the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Science (NARSS) and the Observatory of Sahara and Sahel (OSS) in the Northern African region.

The results on the ground where the projects are implemented are astounding. EO data and infrastructure availed by the programme will remain long-lasting assets for the next generation of African scientists and researchers. A numerous set of tools are being utilized to leverage the development of agriculture, communication, transportation and civil security, among a host of areas. These will create a lasting impact on fishing, wetlands, forestry, seasonal flood monitoring, coastal management, navigation, early warning, maritime security, scientific research, and several other fields. This is why we have sustained the interest of both partners and beneficiaries for the second phase of GMES and Africa for which planning and preparations are underway.

How much impact does the pandemic have on the project implementation and how were you able to mitigate this?

To say that COVID-19 has a tremendous impact on the implementation of GMES and Africa will be an understatement. However, the fact is that this is a global pandemic hitting hard at every nook and cranny in the world. As an EO programme, our model of implementation is largely operational with real-time engagement and information sharing. We also have a huge monitoring and evaluation task, which is continuous and requires regular, physical missions on the ground to inspect infrastructure, products, services and tools and how they are deployed to benefit end-users. The pandemic also came as we began wrapping up phase 1 of the programme. Therefore, with much of these activities halted, you can imagine how the pandemic has drastically restrained our normal operations.

But as a scientific programme of the African Union Commission, innovation would dictate that we apply creativity to ensure continuity and minimize the impact of the restrictions imposed by COVID. So we reached out to consortia in strategizing on how to sustain if not augment delivery, with a technical revision of the work plan to prioritize activities and develop joint tools and channels for effective reporting and monitoring. At the level of the consortia, it was equally challenging to continue delivering practical results and we had to provide extra technical and expert support in planning and recalibrating precise, measurable and achievable outputs. We went virtual with most of the joint activities, except where a physical mission was extremely necessary and critical, and done in observance of the necessary COVID-19 safety protocols. Whilst innovating on implementation, we also had to be faithful to contractual agreements and obligations we owe to both partners and beneficiaries.

You recently launched the GMES & Africa Digital Learning Platform, how is the adoption coming along?

Indeed, the Digital Learning Platform or DLP focuses on the development of skills and expertise in Earth Observation (EO) applications in Africa. It also represents an innovation in support of the aspirations of Agenda 2063, which advocates harnessing space sciences, technologies, infrastructure and applications for Africa’s sustainable development. So, target beneficiaries at the centre of the DLP idea are experts in the field, and also young people, who embody Africa’s future and deserve opportunities for learning and skills development. As we speak, the AUC Chairperson is championing an initiative focused on creating direct opportunities for young people, to actively and meaningfully drive the realization of Agenda 2063. It is called the One Million by 2021 Initiative, which is promoting opportunities in Employment, Entrepreneurship, Education and Engagement for the continent’s youth. 

The DLP came in handy during this period of COVID-19 setbacks. It allowed us to quickly pivot and deliver the training activities online. As a result, we have accomplished all the 2020 planned activities on training and further facilitated consortia to conduct their courses also. Close to 600 users are registered on the DLP and 5 pieces of training have been conducted on the platform already. There are over 103 courses in Data & Infrastructure, Service Design, Development & Delivery, Earth Observation Services Communication, and Management. The training are virtual, specialized and self-paced, making the experience quite convenient for beneficiaries. It is equally inspiring that Consortia are using the continental DLP, and where necessary developing at their level, complimentary Learning Management Systems.

What are the plans for 2021? What are the new milestones you are set to achieve on the GMES and Africa project in the coming year?

2021 is crucial in the implementation cycle of GMES and Africa. Phase 1 will be concluded and the stage will be set for phase 2. Therefore, we will be fine-tuning the markers to consolidate the gains made at the grassroots level, which are indeed numerous. This will also involve restitution missions to cover any existing gaps that would have been created by the extended duration of the pandemic. But the programmatic milestones are indeed on course, with plans for a continental Forum as well as service workshops. To cap this all, we will be documenting and sharing integrated accounts of the impact of GMES and Africa through the compilation of success stories in an expository video. The intent is to showcase how and to what extent GMES and Africa have been beneficial, and the impact it has made on the lives of end-users and beneficiaries. As usual, 2021 has a lot in store.

So, the GMES & Africa Forum will be coming back next year?

Sure, it was initially scheduled for this year but had to be shifted in view of the pandemic. But it is in the plans for next year, as the biggest networking event of the programme. The Forum is not only a requirement per the implementation agreement but a key avenue for catalyzing the achievements of GMES and Africa and expanding the frontiers of its potential through a mega convergence of stakeholders.  It is vital for strengthening communication and exchange between EO technical experts and various end-users, for presenting the status of the GMES and Africa and its implementation at continental, regional and national levels; for building on success stories in EO, and for mapping out new and potential partnerships.  We are very optimistic that it will be possible to hold it next year in traditional fashion, but with innovation and added value.