The Ugandan badminton player who became an award-winning NASA scientist by accident

Mildred Europa Taylor July 20, 2022
Catherine Nakalembe won the 2020 Africa Food Prize. Photo: Africa Food Prize

Dr. Catherine Nakalembe was going about her normal duties when she received a phone call informing her that she had won the 2020 Africa Food Prize alongside Burkina Faso’s Dr. André Bationo. Nakalembe, a Ugandan researcher, was awarded for helping improve the lives of smallholder farmers by using satellite technology to harness data to guide agricultural decision-making.

“Her work in this area has helped prevent potentially disastrous impacts of crop failure. Her relentless efforts have also promoted the formulation of policies and programs that are directly impacting farmers against the impacts of food failure,” the Africa Food Prize said at the time.

“When I called my family, my sister thought I was being scammed,” Nakalembe told the BBC after former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had called to congratulate her on her win. “My mother said the same thing she always says whenever I achieve something: ‘Webale kusoma’ (‘thank you for studying hard’ in Luganda).”

Nakalembe had taken to environmental sciences after her educational journey changed course ahead of the university and she has since not regretted it. A badminton player from Uganda’s capital Kampala, she is today not only an Africa Food Prize Laureate but she is also a 2019 recipient of the Inaugural GEO Individual Excellence Award and a 2020 UMD Research Excellence Honoree. She is also the Africa Lead for NASA’s Food Security and Agriculture Program, NASA Harvest.

She has been applying satellite data in order to develop food security programs at the local and national levels. In other words, the Ugandan scientist relies on images taken from satellites above the Earth to help farmers and governments make better decisions and to study agriculture and weather patterns, she told the BBC. But her work also requires her to move to the field to see things physically and get a better picture of crops and their condition.

“From the air, you can see which area is built-up, bare, has vegetation or water. We are also able to tell what is cropland or what is forest. Because we have a 30-year record of what cropland looks like, we can tell what is healthy, what isn’t or which part has improved,” said Nakalembe, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s geographical sciences department in the U.S. 

Her work using satellites to boost farming has been helping communities that usually have food availability issues. Farmers are able to tell when to irrigate or how much fertilizer they should use thanks to remote sensing.

Governments also use her data to plan for disaster response, she told the BBC. The outlet said early research by Nakalembe helped 84,000 people in Karamoja in north-eastern Uganda “avoid the worst effects of a highly variable climate and a lack of rainfall.”

Raised in the capital, Kampala, Nakalembe’s mother operates a restaurant while her father is a mechanic. She got into her current profession by accident. Growing up, she played badminton with her siblings and her desire was to study sports science at the university. However, she did not get the required grades for a government grant so she turned her attention to environmental science at Makerere University.

To earn credits for her course, she applied to work with the Uganda Wildlife Authority where she found mapping and fieldwork at Mount Elgon very exciting. Nakalembe then headed to Johns Hopkins University for a masters in geography and environmental engineering.

Her mission was to gain knowledge and apply it back home. The Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland enabled her to get into remote sensing, but she said the most important thing was coming back to work in Uganda and around the continent.

Now, she hopes to get other Black women to follow in her footsteps.

“In the diaspora, I go to meetings and I am the only one who looks like this. It feels lonely when it is a new country or space.

“In East Africa, I meet a lot of people with whom we can share experiences and our struggles. I would like to see more black women in this group.”

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