Images from space could bolster the global economy – here’s how

(Robert Anasch, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Data collected from space can help countries tackle issues like water scarcity and food security.
  • Free and openly accessible earth observation data is already being used to predict crop yields and measure the impact of transport projects.
  • Satellites can map physical, economic and social changes when reliable data from other sources may not be consistently available.
  • Harnessing images in this way can help reduce water used to grow crops by as much as 33%.
  • This technology can support the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Using satellites to track changes in water, land, construction and vegetation can transform economies – and could unlock more than $2 billion a year of benefits for Africa alone.

This earth observation could be one of Africa’s most valuable assets, helping to tackle water scarcity, food security, coastal erosion and deforestation, according to a new Forum report.

The report, “Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges“, quantifies the potential impact of Digital Earth Africa, a project launched in 2019 to make global satellite imagery more accessible.

And it’s particularly useful for developing countries, according to a World Bank blog, since satellites can map physical, economic and social changes where reliable socio-economic and demographic data may not be consistently available.

a graph showing that even under conservative assumptions, by 2024 DE Africa socioeconomic benefits could exceed $2bn per year
How it adds up. Image: World Economic Forum report: Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges

By providing ready-to-use data for decision-makers in government and business, the programme could boost Africa’s earth observation industry by $500 million by 2024 while providing $900 million in annual gains in agricultural productivity. This includes water savings, improved crop yields, insurance benefits and reduced pesticide use.

Another $900 million could be saved through better regulation of gold mining – particularly by reducing environmental damage and tax evasion from illegal mining.

a chart showing that using satellite data to better manage how water is used could save Africa more than $880m a year, according to Digital Earth Africa.
Using satellite data to better manage how water is used could save Africa more than $880m a year, according to Digital Earth Africa. Image: World Economic Forum report: Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges

Building resilience

As the COVID-19 crisis evolves, ensuring earth observation data is widely available will help Africa monitor changes in people and the environment, while building resilience.

There are also “new opportunities for industry profitability and productivity in many sectors, such as land planning, agriculture and mineral exploration,” the Forum says.

Examples in the report include a trial in Salinas, California, where NASA has demonstrated that satellite images can reduce water used to grow lettuce and broccoli crops by up to 33%, relative to standard practice.

Digital Earth Africa uses openly accessible and freely available satellite observations to produce its “decision-ready” products.

To help bridge key social and economic inequalities, the Forum has called for more geospatial data to be integrated into business models and political decision-making. It is calling on governments, industry and entrepreneurs across Africa to drive this change.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.World Economic Forum | Centre for the Fourth Industrial R…

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

Fundamental force

The increasing availability of satellite data is one of the “fundamental forces” shaping economic development, according to the World Bank, which provides financial and technical support to developing countries.

One of its projects involves using satellite data to help developing countries make progress on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These include ending poverty and hunger and combatting climate change in the run up to 2030.

Satellite tools and measurements have led to innovations in areas such as predicting crop yields in small-holder farms in Uganda, measuring the impacts of transport projects in South Asia and India, access to electricity in rural areas, and mapping land cover and land use dynamics in Vietnam.

“Earth observation data provides valuable information about the nature, evolution and drivers of economic development,” according to the World Bank blog on innovations in satellite measurement.

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