In recognition of her extensive research leveraging Earth observation data and machine learning to improve food security and agricultural livelihoods across regions of Africa, Assistant Professor Catherine Nakalembe of the Department of Geographical Sciences was awarded the 2022 Al-Sumait Prize for African Development.

The award was established in 2013 by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences. 

“Research that leads to real-world impact is incredibly important—especially for addressing the grand challenges disproportionately affecting Africa, like health, food security, and education that Al-Sumait recognizes,” Nakalembe said. “Winning the Al-Sumait Prize is an incredible honor that recognizes the years of passionate work dedicated to addressing food insecurity in Africa. This prize tells me that my work with my colleagues—work that takes a contextual, collaborative approach to technology development—can and is making a real difference in people’s lives.”

Throughout her career, Nakalembe has addressed food insecurity in African regions and throughout the world by developing methods and building capacity for monitoring agriculture and early decision-making using satellite data. Nakalembe works to make a difference in regions of Africa on topics including smallholder agriculture, food security, early warning, and disaster assessment.

She is the NASA Harvest Africa Program Director, working with national ministries and development partners in Eastern and West Africa. NASA Harvest, NASA's Food Security and Agriculture Program, is a multidisciplinary program commissioned by NASA and led by the University of Maryland to enhance the use of satellite data in decision-making related to food security and agriculture across the nation and world.

“Catherine’s work has made a tremendous difference for many communities and many governments across the continent of Africa. She fearlessly and tirelessly addresses the pressing issue of food insecurity, and her work indeed has a global impact,” said Professor Tatiana Loboda, chair of the Department of Geographical Sciences. “Our department and the larger geographical sciences community respect her mission and her innovative work. This recognition is extremely well-deserved.”

Nakalembe’s pioneering research and engagement efforts have garnered her other internationally recognized awards, including the Uganda National Heroes Medal, the Africa Food Prize, and the Group on Earth Observations Individual Excellence Award.

Nakalembe fosters collaboration in many of her projects and activities.

“I am honored to represent the University of Maryland, NASA Harvest, and NASA SERVIR with this globally esteemed Al-Sumait prize. I will share the $1 million award with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation,” Nakalembe said. 

On a personal level, Nakalembe said she is humbled and encouraged by this prize.

“It reiterates that a spirit of service is worthwhile, no matter the obstacles. My goal has always been to use my skills and knowledge to empower others. This recognition tells me I'm on the right path. It energizes me to advocate even louder and think even bigger about leveraging knowledge to uplift lives across Africa and globally, to tap into the immense potential on the continent. Winning the Al-Sumait Prize is not the end; it’s just the beginning,” she said. “This honor connects me with an inspiring community of change-makers worldwide. Together we will keep taking bold action to create technologies that matter, innovations designed by people, for people.”

This article was originally published by the College of Behavioral & Social Sciences (BSOS).

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