Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For innovating new ways to combat food insecurity in Africa

As climate change, supply chain struggles and geopolitical conflict push food insecurity fears to the brink, one of the most vulnerable regions is sub-Saharan Africa. Looking to better prepare communities in the area, Africa program director for NASA Harvest Catherine Nakalembe is exploring how data science could help local farmers build a more secure food supply.

In sub-Saharan Africa, traditional crop monitoring methods are too costly and complicated to deploy regularly. Nakalembe is helping to break the cost barrier by combining satellite images—which provide consistent, continuous monitoring—with on-the-ground data. Because satellites can’t tell the difference between maize and sorghum, researchers or farmers provide those details, along with information like which fertilizers were used, to help create maps that accurately reflect crop types. 

"This information is absolutely critical for programs that seek to enhance productivity, maximize resources like water and fertilizer, and inform life-saving decisions through early warning leading to early action," Nakalembe says in her TEDx Climate Change AI talk. 

Clear crop data drives more effective emergency response efforts, helping countries determine when, where, how much and what kind of aid to bring, she added. And when a bumper harvest is expected, the data can help inform markets and blunt swings in regional food prices.

Using this strategy, she has developed a food security and crop monitoring bulletin for Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and other parts of East Africa. Her efforts to improve the continent’s food security were honored with Uganda’s highest civilian award, the Golden Jubilee Medal in 2022.

Nakalembe plans to take her projects to the next level with automation, using machine learning to develop cropland maps (which are particularly useful in areas that aren’t accessible due to conflict). The payoff? Local governments are better equipped to respond to humanitarian emergencies—or prevent them entirely. "With the right tools at the right time, in the right place, decisions that save lives can be made," she said.

Q&A: Catherine Nakalembe on being second-guessed and the art of reinvention

How are young people changing the world of projects now? 
They’re using more and more tools to share their work and to make better work products.

What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now? 
Not being listened to, being second-guessed and undermined.

What are you obsessed with recommending right now?
The BBC radio show Science in Action and the BBC podcast CrowdScience.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self? 
Keep improving yourself. Continue to reinvent yourself.

What’s your project management superpower?