Dr. Catherine Nakalembe never pictured herself working with satellites at NASA, leave alone being 2020 Africa Food Prize Laureate.
Dr. Nakalembe has focused her attention on traveling throughout Africa, training Africa’s government departments on developing food security programs. She is also actively helping Karamoja farmers in the semi-arid area of Uganda predict weather patterns.
Raised in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, by a mechanic father and a mother who operates a restaurant, Dr. Nakalembe never imagined that she would one day work with satellites in her wildest dreams.
Her initial academic goal was to pursue a degree in sport science because she played badminton with her sisters. However, her goal failed to materialize when she could not secure a government grant after failing to meet the grades threshold. Consequently, she opted to pursue environmental science at Makerere University.
To earn credits for her course, she applied together with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, where she did her first Mount Elgon mapping.
She later went on to Johns Hopkins University for a masters in geography and environmental engineering. She then did her Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland.
At NASA, she heads the Africa Section of the food and agriculture program. Her position gives her access to a 30-year record of what crop-land looks like, helping her distinguish healthy from unhealthy crops.
Using data gathered on the ground by researchers or sent by farmers, Dr.Nakalembe can distinguish crop types and map how crops thrive compared to similar crops in other regions. This helps inform decisions like when to apply fertilizer or when to irrigate.
Combining satellite estimates of rainfall and temperature, she can tell when it is going to rain. She then promptly advises the farmers on the action to take, whether to prepare their fields or to wait and avoid wasting their seeds.
Dr. Nakalembe’s early research enabled 84,000 residents of Karamoja to mitigate the adverse effects of a highly variable climate characterized by lack of rainfall.
She is also an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s geographical sciences department in the US.
She says that her personal statement has always been “to gain knowledge and apply it back home.” She has lived up to this, showing her humanitarian trait.
Moreover, Dr. Nakalembe says that her work and research can benefit a farmer in Uganda, or anywhere in the continent, using just a hoe and working for long hours.
The hard-working researcher also provides mentorship to young black women to venture into the discipline of environmental science. Her passion for mentorship was driven by the fact that few women in her field of work.
Additionally, she has liaised with the local government to develop a program that provides income to families dependent entirely on agriculture during the dry season.
2020 Africa Food Prize Laureate
Speaking to BBC News, Dr. Nakalembe is yet to come to terms with the latest honor. The congratulatory message was delivered to her by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo through a phone call.
When she informed her mother of the milestone achievement, she told her in Luganda ‘Webale kusoma’, which translates to ‘thank you for studying hard.’
She was awarded the prize following her work that combines satellite data and data gathered to make helpful predictions used in agriculture.