Better data, better farming – an alumna story by Stella Mutai
If it would be up to Stella Chelangat, many African ladies would study geospatial information sciences, a field she lovingly calls ‘geospatial’. Stella: “For me it’s the logical way towards the sustainable development goals. Our immediate challenge is to make the society understand the impact of geospatial.”It’s probably not the first thing a Kenyan child comes up with when asked what she wants to become later in life: 'geospatial information scientist'. Stella got introduced to the field through her father. “My father is a lecturer in geospatial information sciences at the university in Kenya, so I did know what it meant. Lucy Chepkosgei, who happened to be an alumni of ITC Twente, was also a great influence and support system . Along the way my interest for geospatial grew. It is very technical and I lóve the sciences.” This study is focused on reaching the sustainable development goals and that was exactly where Stella’s interest lay. “In the next five years I want be an expert in big data science and, more specifically, spatial mapping for the sustainable development goals: promote the use of earth observation in the development of in-season semi-automated baseline datasets derived from scalable machine learning tools and open data, both of which are needed for more accurate agriculture monitoring promoting food security in Africa.”Analysing rice growth in Sierra Leone Currently Stella works as a ‘Geographic Information System and Earth Observation Analytics consultant’ for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “It means that I’m specialized in working with data, mainly geographical data”, Stella explains. “If you’re a geoinformation scientist you’re able to analyse data, to quality check data that farmers have given us. Do the data match the information IFAD needs?” As a IFAD consultant, Stella presently works on projects in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Sudan, but also Brazil and many other countries.“We use drones, and at times we go to the field to collect the data together with the farmers, so that we can educate them how to collect the data. Explain them why collecting the correct data is important.” So why is it important then? Stella: “We use the data to check the crop health. Using the remote sensing we do an analysis of the crops. For instance in Sierra Leone, they plant rice (picture left): we look at the growth of rice the past five years and the changes that have occurred in the rice growth. After that we look at factors like climate change. From our analysis we are able to understand a particular decrease of crops in a particular area, and can advise farmers to use better fertilizer in specific areas.”Stella continues: “Last year the government of Sierra Leone partnered with us and together we addressed the education of local farmers, so that they too understand the importance of the use of geospatial data. The farmers totally appreciate our work. The information we get, we share it with them.” Farmers are cutting a lot of forest to find land to grow rice. We had to sit down with them and explain how the cutting of forest will reduce their access to water in the next five years. They will go back into drought. We did an analysis of how they used to cut down trees in 2018 and 2019 and the water reduced by 14%. So we advised them: if you cut down trees, be sure that you replant trees as well. It has really helped them. Right now there are more trees growing in that area. In the past they used to complain about a lack of water. Also we advised them concerning the use of pesticides.From Kenya to Twente“I came to the Netherlands because ITC is recognized as the best university in the world in the field of geospatial information science. Furthermore ITC has both the best technical facilities and the knowledge on how to implement geospatial information sciences towards sustainable development goals.” Before coming to the Netherlands, Stella did a bachelor in geospatial information sciences in Kenya. “I graduated in 2016 with my bachelors then in 2017 I got a full scholarship through Nuffic to come to ITC for my master’s degree.”In one word, Stella’s biggest takeaway from her studies in Twente is: “Research! What I learned from ITC, being an academic research center, is to get to center of any problem. My thesis was on forest fires, and that got me an award at the 4th AfriGeo Symposium in Nairobi. In my thesis I compare the ability of optical and radar in post fire analysis of burnt areas after a wildfire, in Australia and Spain.” (In the picture right, Stella is testing TopCon equipment.)Another takeaway for Stella was time. Stella: “The Dutch really value time. It was something I really had to grapple with. Never be late!” Furthermore Stella loved connecting with students from all over the world. “This intercultural sensitivity is very fundamental in where I am today. ITC taught me that knowledge is something that brings people from different cultures together. It gives you an avenue to become an important person in your society.”Mentoring other women For other women in academia, Stella is already an important role model. “During my studies I was one of the few girls studying geospatial: in my bachelors we were only three ladies and 42 men. The gender balance is still a big factor, especially in Africa. Geospatial is still a growing field in Africa, not many people understand it. Our immediate challenge is trying to make the society understand the impact of geospatial, especially with regard to the sustainable development goals.” So why should other women follow in her footsteps and chose this field? Stella: “Geospatial offers you a global platform. I can assure you the reason that I joined IFAD was the certificate I got at ITC. You can apply geospatial in all kinds of areas, not just in agriculture, but also in economics, energy, health.” In Kenya Stella has become a mentor to other women in her field. “We tell the women about the opportunities the Dutch offer in geospatial information sciences. More women should play a role in the achievement of the sustainable development goals.”Network of inspiration Stella is an active member of the Holland Alumni Network and thinks that it helps to build her career perspective. “You see more upcoming opportunities because people share ideas, vacancies, scholarship opportunities. We also have a WhatsApp-group with the alumni from Kenya – we keep in constant contact. But you also get a lot of inspiration from what people in other countries are doing, for instance Godlove Kirimbo, who was doing great work in Tanzania, reducing pesticides. Having a network of alumni creates a supportive and inspirational environment, helps your career and it gives you a home when you are away from home.”Stella in shortStella was born in Kenya, where she did her bachelor in geospatial information science from 2012-2016. From 2017-2019 she continued her master's in the same field at the University of Twente. Currently Stella works as a geospatial and remote sensing consultant with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)The most important takeaway from her studies in Twente are research skills. "What I learned from ITC, being an academic research center, is to get to the center of any problem." Stella's tip for future international students: “I would encourage young people from Africa to join the Dutch, because of the nice intercultural environment and the high level of the educational institutions."Find Stella on Linkedin and on the Holland Alumni Network.About ITC and ‘geo-spatial’Geo-spatial data is the major driver of today’s information society. More Big Geo Data than ever is being created by smart phones, satellites, and sensors. This data is used for an increasing number of scientific purposes that aim to benefit the world. It’s a matter of gathering, analyzing, distributing and visualizing the data to make it fit for specific use, for example in systems for improving agricultural practice or creating healthy cities. The technologies supporting these processes are at the core of geoinformatics. The ITC Faculty of the University of Twente is a leading international knowledge hub in geospatial sciences, with an emphasis on collaborative educational and research activities in geo-information science and earth observation (ITC was the abbreviation of the former name: ‘International Training Centre for Aerial Survey’). The focus is on fundamental and problem-solving research, with an eye to those complex global challenges where spatial information can make a real difference: issues of food security, water, energy, health, land and housing provision.During the last ten years 1965 alumni studied at ITC with a Nuffic scholarship (Orange Knowledge Programme and other programmes). The largest part of the students (1306) took a refresher course or a tailor made course; 628 students took a master’s degree and 23 people finished a PhD-degree. Most of the students at ITC come from Africa (125 people from Ethiopia, 90 from Kenya and 45 from Tanzania). Furthermore, 58% of the alumni are male and 42% female. The Orange Knowledge Programme - the successor of the Netherlands Fellowship Programme - is a € 220 m Dutch global development programme, available in 54 developing countries and managed by Nuffic, a Dutch non-profit organisation for internationalisation in education. Launched mid-2017, it aims to have provided tens of thousands with the possibility to change their future through education and training by mid-2022. The programme is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Information about scholarship opportunities under the Orange Knowledge Programme can be found www.studyinholland.nl/okp.