Can tech save our degraded lands?

Despite the profound impact on our environment and communities, land degradation and desertification often escape the spotlight. As we commemorate World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on 17 June, this blog explores how digital technologies are being harnessed to tackle this critical challenge.

According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), up to 40% of the Earth’s land area is already degraded, and the number keeps growing. Every second, an area equivalent to four football fields worth of land becomes degraded, totaling about 100 million hectares per year. This is a problem of enormous proportions for a world where 95% of the food production depends on healthy land.

The crisis of land degradation

Unsustainable agriculture practices, overgrazing, and deforestation are some of the major causes for land degradation, desertification and drought. These issues have been exacerbated by climate change, which increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, putting additional pressure on our soils.

Besides being an essential ingredient of our food production, healthy soils and forests also act as important carbon sinks, making them crucial in the context of climate change. The Amazon, which holds over half of the world’s remaining rainforest, is estimated to retain 123 billion tonnes of carbon.

Contrary to popular belief, most carbon is stored in soil, which, when degraded, releases it back into the atmosphere, worsening the climate problem. This vicious circle needs to be broken to slow the acceleration of climate change.

Innovation for land degradation neutrality

It’s estimated that 85% of people affected by drought live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). They’re also less likely to have the capacity to prepare for the challenges that drought and land degradation bring. Digital technology holds promise in tackling this and empowering vulnerable communities to adapt to and build resilience against them.

For example, innovations in sustainable land management or regenerative agriculture practices can help smallholder farmers in LMICs protect and revive their lands. This not only enhances their own climate resilience, but also helps bolster global environmental efforts. Advanced technologies such as satellite imagery and drones prove invaluable for accurately mapping and tracking areas for conservation and restoration, while camera traps paired with artificial intelligence can be used to spot forest fires and alert authorities. Similarly, digital platforms can help bridge the gap for smallholder farmers, giving them access to information to help them adopt more sustainable agricultural practices.

Through the GSMA Innovation Fund for Climate Resilience and Adaptation, we’re supporting innovators across Africa and Asia test and scale these much needed solutions. This includes:

  • In regions like northern Sri Lanka, where the population has been suffering from prolonged periods of drought and rising temperatures, a lack of information and data can lead to harmful agricultural practices. This can involve excessive use of chemicals, overwatering, and cultivating unsuitable crops, resulting in soil degradation.
A man crouches beside pipes with gauges attached, holding a device. In the background, there is a large pile of coconuts, indicative of the area's agricultural activity. The scene seems to be outdoors, possibly inspecting equipment crucial for preventing land degradation in the region.

The start-up SenzAgro, one of our newest Innovation Fund grantees, has developed a digital platform to tackle this problem. It offers vital insights on regenerative agriculture practices, including timely weather information and soil health conditions, enabling farmers to take care of the land while improving their yields.

  • Soil testing and analysis play a crucial role in enhancing agricultural soil health. However, soil testing technology is costly and not easily accessible for most smallholder farmers.
A person is holding a handheld electronic device with a small display screen showing readings for temperature, pH, and electrical conductivity (EC). The device features two control buttons and a switch, and appears to be used for measuring land degradation in field conditions.

To address this, our grantee UjuziKilimo is helping farmers in Kenya to understand soil health through their Soil Pal device. It uses Internet of Things-powered sensors to give farmers information on their soil health, helping them to make climate-smart farming decisions in real time.

  • Trees are also vital to preserving soil fertility and avoiding erosion. Innovative forest management solutions can help track tree health and protect them from threats such as illegal logging or wildfires. We’re supporting innovators such as Sommalife in Ghana who are pioneering a software solution that digitises shea farming operations in communities with limited or no internet connection conditions, as well as J-Palm in Libera who use blockchain technology to transform sustainable palm oil supply chains.

Promising solutions like these have the potential to bolster the resilience of vulnerable communities in LMICs against drought, while contributing to our fight against land degradation. However, they’re often in early stages of development and need substantial support from both the public and private sector to scale up and achieve greater impact.

Looking ahead

So far, 131 countries have committed to setting Land Degradation Neutrality targets, assigning 450 million hectares of land to be restored by 2030 – an area larger than China. While these commitments hold significant promise, they must be effectively implemented if we’re to achieve land degradation neutrality globally within the decade.

Despite its importance, ‘Life on Land’ is one of the least funded of the sustainable development goals. There’s a pressing need to invest in innovative approaches for land restoration and conservation, developing tailored digital solutions and giving those that already exist a chance to scale. Not only would it help our planet, but it also presents a lucrative business opportunity, as every dollar invested in restoration is estimated to yield USD 30 in economic benefits. Mobile network operators and other private sector players can contribute to land degradation neutrality within their operations by embracing sustainable land management practices within their supply chains. As we look ahead, it’s crucial for stakeholders from both the private and public sectors to forge partnerships and collaborations in support of innovators at the forefront of creating a healthier life on land.

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This initiative was funded by UK International Development from the UK Government and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and is supported by the GSMA and its members.