AWS Public Sector Blog

How African leaders use open data to fight deforestation and illegal mining

In Africa, where nearly 500 million people live in extreme poverty, scientific data is critical to helping the nation’s leaders tackle issues like water scarcity and climate change. A collaboration between nonprofit Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) and Amazon is helping them access the data they need.

DE Africa operates a free and user-friendly Earth observation (EO) data service that provides African policymakers with insights into a range of challenges, from natural resource management to the impacts of climate change. The service has already helped Ghanaian officials identify and tackle illegal mining, and provided decision-ready insights on flooding and drought in Tanzania and Nigeria.

DE Africa is working in partnership with the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI), a program that hosts climate-relevant datasets through the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud, including weather observations, forecasts, climate projection data, and satellite imagery. The datasets are free for anyone to access, and are providing innovators and researchers around the world with the data, tools, and technical expertise they need to inform their sustainability research. ASDI supports DE Africa by storing petabytes of satellite data in the Cape Town region, at no cost to the project. This helps African nations track changes across the continent in unprecedented detail.

In its first two years of activity, DE Africa and the satellite data have already helped African leaders confront significant challenges. In Zanzibar, Tanzania, government officials and the State University of Zanzibar are using the satellite data to monitor how coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and human activity are contributing to the degradation of mangroves on the island, which has many impacts, including the loss of fish along the shoreline. Local communities rely on the mangroves to stabilize the shorelines, protect the land and people from natural disasters, and to provide habitats for marine life. The data hosted by ASDI has helped the government take protective measures, and the project is featured in an episode of AWS’s new Climate Next docuseries.

In another example, Ghana’s government agencies are using DE Africa-provided satellite imagery and analysis tools to identify deforestation in the Apamprama Forest Reserve. Situated just north of Juaso in central Ghana, the reserve is frequently a site of unregulated mining that can cause flooding, aquifer contamination, and destruction of the vegetation, as well as displacement of populations.

Ghanaian researchers leveraged EO data provided through DE Africa’s Open Data Cube, as well as vegetation change and detection tools, to identify areas of significant deforestation that could be attributed to unregulated mining. The country’s authorities have used the information to take firm steps to address illegal mining.

DE Africa has also facilitated access to decision-ready data used to rapidly assess the impact of the 2021 Table Mountain Fire in Cape Town and the forest fires affecting Mount Kenya National Park. In the latter case, researchers drew notable insight from satellite imagery and the Normalized Burn Ratio (NBR), which assesses vegetation to better understand fire extent and severity of burnt area. Widely known as the “Fire Continent,” Africa’s fires are responsible for 70% of burnt areas across the world, threatening the continuity of African forests and contributing to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. To advise policy and decision making, governments are looking to the data to more effectively help monitor and manage these challenges.

DE Africa’s unique approach and early successes herald a new wave of EO-based policymaking on the African continent. According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), DE Africa’s delivery of decision-ready EO data to African stakeholders may result in benefits amounting to $2 billion per year by 2024. WEF analysts expect socioeconomic benefits to derive from three main sources: a growing EO industry within Africa, increased agricultural productivity, and more effective regulation of gold mining, leading to reductions in environmental damage and tax evasion.

Nowhere is the need to achieve sustainable development greater than in Africa, and both DE Africa and the ASDI stand committed to the cause.

Watch how Digital Earth Africa is helping Zanzibar fight the effects of climate change and protect the island’s mangrove habitat as part of AWS’s new documentary series, Climate Next.

Learn more about ASDI on its webpage.

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Ana Pinheiro Privette

Ana Pinheiro Privette

Dr. Ana Pinheiro Privette is the Head for Sustainability for AWS Impact Computing, and the Global Lead for the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI). ASDI seeks to accelerate sustainability research and innovation by minimizing the cost and time required to acquire and analyze large sustainability datasets. Ana was trained as an environmental engineer and as an earth scientist at the New University of Lisbon (Portugal) and at MIT. She spent most of her career as a research scientist at NASA and NOAA. Later, Ana worked on the US National Climate Assessment (NCA) focusing on bringing more transparency and traceability of the data sources supporting this climate report, and led projects for the White House climate portfolio, including the Obama Climate Data Initiative (CDI) and the Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP).