The power of Geographic Information Systems for national dev’t

The world has changed dramatically over the last 30 years with the manufacturing and introduction of high speed trains, bigger and faster planes, fast internet, smart mobile phones, artificial intelligence, driverless and electric cars etc.

We have experienced tremendous technological advances in finding locations and features on earth as well. Google maps, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers and navigators invented by Brad Parkinson, Ivan Getting and Roger Easton allow drivers to navigate and easily find addresses that hitherto were very difficult to find.

Other notable advances in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is in precision mapping of agriculture farms and features on earth, use of centroids in military wars for drone bombing, tracking of burst water pipes, traffic control, maritime and aviation sectors. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has transformed the world over the past 20 years in many ways and Ghana can certainly capitalize on successful stories and best practices elsewhere to improve and increase the pace of our development.

GIS definition

GIS is a computer-based system for the collection, collation, analysis, storage, and dissemination of geographic information on features on the earth.  It allows attribute data to be related to their geographic location.

The data is made up of two types 1) spatial data which are coordinates or waypoints of features and locations on earth based on cardinal points and attribute data on features that are mapped.

The requisite software includes that of Environmental Sciences Research Institute (ESRI) ArcGIS suites and other open source softwares. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) receivers include that of Trimble, Garmin, Junos etc.

 Purpose, Relevance and Personal Experience

Spatial understanding and geodatabases provide better insight and input into development planning, support strategic thinking and execution of activities that support the citizenry to gain access to basic amenities and infrastructure. The purpose of this write-up is to provide policy makers, academia, donors projects, NGOs and other practitioners, a comprehensive narrative on GIS and the use of GPS in the development space and to inform policy.

This write up will also help in diffusing some of the myths and confusion around the use of GPS and GIS in projects and to lay out some of the sectoral challenges that can easily be solved by investing in GIS platforms in Ghana and why we should be passing on the knowledge to students in primary and secondary schools as it’s done if many countries.

Geospatial mapping can be very technical but I will endeavour to use very simple language so readers can understand it. There are many resources all over the world and in Ghana that readers can consult or visit to gain better insight to educate themselves and others including CERGIS at Legon, ESRI websites Free and Open software sites.

My personal experience with GIS started when I worked at TechnoServe from 2002 – 2009 on a USAID funded project implemented by Chemonics International in a consortium with other NGOs – TechnoServe, CARE, Sigma One etc. The Trade and Investment Project for a Competitive Export Economy(TIPCEE) was implemented from 2005 to 2009 and I served as the M&E Specialist with other colleagues. An international Agbiz consultant, Jean Michel Voisard, now working with RTI introduced me and my colleagues to the power of GIS and farm mapping in agriculture development.

I and my colleague Philip Boahen, now with AfDB, and later with Isaac Asare UNDP, Sudan) and Evans Amegashie (US) and TIPCEE colleagues worked together to map most of the pineapple, mango, citrus and other horticulture farms in Ghana using GPS receivers, downloading them and creating farm maps for all our partners including the pineapple association (SPEG), Mango Associations at Yilo Krobo and Kintampo in Brong East; we worked with private firms to establish their own systems; supported and collaborated with ADRA, GIZ-MOAP to map citrus and cashew farms, built the capacity of MoFA at the national, regional and district levels to utilize GIS mapping techniques. Through this, we trained over 250 agricultural extension agents and staff of NGOs and some have since gone ahead to obtain Masters in Geospatial science, worked with international firms and supported the Government at various levels to invest in GIS technology. Some of them include Dan Asare of Esoko, Rosemary Addico, Solidaridad, Joseph Kpamka of ADRA, Essoah Emmanuel, Certification Expert and many others.

I have since 2010 established a platform at USAID/Ghana and introduced the same to many cocoa sustainability programs in Ghana including Cocoa Abrabopa.

Empirical use in Ghana and the World

I believe most of us are familiar with google maps and use of these maps to identify locations and addresses of houses, offices and recreational centres, roads etc. Maps are very important in identifying boundaries, going on adventure, tracking and tracing roads and paths, connecting between cities and villages and locating important features on earth.

In Ghana, the most visible use of GIS is in Uber cars and on phones where drivers and clients use it to connect for services and to find locations. Another example is in the use of google maps to locate event places. The National Digital Address Systems (GhanaPostGPS) launched by the present NPP administration is another great application that is used to locate facilities. All houses have unique addresses for easy identification, planning and it is now a requirement for citizens in acquiring Ghana cards by the National Identification Authority (NIA) and Voter ID cards by the Electoral Commission.

In other sectors, the military including the Navy, Airforce and other forces use the GIS for navigation and precision combats. The aviation sector including airports also use GPS positions of airplanes to guide them in landing etc. For most us who have travelled abroad in planes such as KLM and Emirates for example, there is an air show and map that shows us the position of the plane on earth indicating whether you are closer to your destination or far from it.

In the agriculture sector, precision farming and traceability have depended largely on GIS and location of points on farms for application of pesticides, practices and tracing of harvested produce at the plot level. At TIPCEE and for most private firms, the use covered the following;

  • Establishment of a common address format (code) leading to traceability systems with independently verifiable audit trails
  • Development of production planning and monitoring systems on par with agro-industrial entities.
  • Better understanding of the production base (varieties, regional distribution, age of trees) and smallholder profiles (currently the exact number of smallholders cannot be approximated)
  • Understanding of the geographic distribution and progression of critical pathologies affecting the smallholder base (anthracnose, fruit fly, mites, seed weevil)
  • An adequate project monitoring database that will contribute to enhancing the efficiency of subsequent programs aiming to support smallholders especially distribution of inputs and planting material.

The world has been using GIS for a long time especially in wars, on the seas and in finding locations. The GPS tracking devices in cars have been common and now popular in most cities. Mapping of farms and siting of agribusiness firms has become popular not only with private sector NGOs but also public sector entities such as the Cocobod. GIS is used in the repair of underground water and oil pipes in oil rich countries and to correctly identify faults on electricity lines for repairs.

Sectoral Areas of importance


The mainstay of Ghana’s economy is the agricultural sector contributing about 19% to Ghana’s GDP in 2019 and employing over 50% of Ghanaians including all agriculture-related jobs. Management of smallholder nucleus and large farms require different management skills and technology. Elsewhere in the world, investments in innovative technologies including irrigation, use of machinery, precision farming, automated planting and harvesting etc on farms have increased productivity of crops with improved resource-use efficiency.

Geographic Information Systems and Farm Mapping allows accurate measurement of farm sizes. This can be achieved through ground mapping using GPS receivers, satellite imagery or by drones. There are a number of limitations especially with smaller annual crops, crops grown under shade, boundaries with obstacles and accuracy of GPS receivers. Accurate measurement and estimation of crop yield is enhanced if the farm size (denominator) is precise and accurate. In Ghana, most of the tree crops such as mango, citrus, cashew and cocoa have been mapped by donor projects, NGOs, MoFA and other government agencies. Cocobod and other company sustainability programs have invested in GIS mapping of cocoa farms in all the major growing areas.

GIS is used to

1)   obtain accurate measurement of farm sizes and estimate the yield of crops especially tree crops

2)   Identify the location of farms for buyers and enhance aggregation of sellers, in production areas,

3)   Trace exported produce and packed fruits to farms where they were produced. This is a requirement under EuroGAP and the cocoa industry has been discussing it over the years because of residue contamination and for the payment of cocoa premiums under certification

4)   Site of factories and processing centres so the distance from farms and out-growers will be reduced significantly and for easy aggregation

5)   Site irrigation facilities and equipment for redistribution of water to smallholder farms. For large scale farms GPS mapping of critical pipes and valves allows managers to have control about where troubled spots are and how to identify faults and resolve issues when the flow of water reduces,

6)   Control of diseases and pests by tracking the spread of pathogens, insect pests and crop diseases. Geo-referencing pheromones placed at vantage points on a mango farm can allow you to relate data on fruit fly counts to areas where the farm needs critical attention. Also it informs the spraying regime and programming of spray enabled drones to target specific areas in the control of pests and diseases. Spray gangs and providers can also use GIS farm maps or coordinates to locate infected farms for spraying.

7)   Locate market centres for producers and aggregators to reduce glut during overproduction and to link buyers to areas when there are shortages.

8)  The Statistics Research and Information Department(SRID) of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) and several extension agents were trained to collect geo-referenced data on crops and to correctly estimate farm sizes of major staples and tree crops in Ghana. Accurate estimation supports resource planning and allocation, siting of critical infrastructure such as storage centres, roads and other amenities.


Education is the bedrock and foundation of the economy and GIS can greatly enhance education outcomes if properly deployed. The quality of education is hinged on the availability of and access to education facilities such as schools, canteens, toilets and teacher bungalows. The state of our education facilities especially in the rural areas leaves much to be desired. Schools under trees, in bad wooden structures and dilapidated structures that leak and are without windows must be easily identifiable by the click of a button. And when they are repaired, reconstructed or a new one is built citizens should be able to track it. Pupils and students have to walk long distances to schools in most areas and siting of schools sometimes does not take into consideration the cluster of villages that will access these schools.

GIS mapping can be useful in the;

1)   Mapping of education infrastructure and ancillary facilities – A good education infrastructure GIS platform can be set up to take coordinates of all schools by level (Basic, Secondary, Tertiary), type (units, private or public) and state (functional, nature of school infrastructure and status – cement, wooden, broken, under trees). Platform can also capture schools with toilets for teachers, pupils, canteens. Pictures of these schools and attribute data

2)   Identification of schools without adequate Teaching and Learning Materials (TLMs) and the distribution of critical school items to areas that critically need them.

3)   The distribution of furniture, posting of teachers, stationery and other school items can easily be done if all schools are mapped and attribute data on number and status of items.

4)   Provision of adequate personnel especially support staff for easy targeting etc

5)   Siting of new schools looking at the proximity of older ones to a cluster of communities.

6)   GIS mapping of structures and demarcated boundaries of educational institutions.


Investing in the health of citizens ensures a healthy working population. As governments invest in health infrastructure from Community Health Planning Systems (CHPS) compounds to tertiary hospitals, we need to know where they are, their coverage, status, their attribute data. By relating it to district health information management systems (DHIMS), we are able to better understand and have a complete picture of our health system to better inform policy and decision-making.

GIS mapping of health sector is useful in the following areas

1)   Siting of health facilities – CHPS, health centers, hospitals etc, at areas that are needed noting their proximity and coverage per population density. This impact on the allocation of health personnel and challenges faced by health facilities can be addressed easily by a click of button. It allows underserved districts and communities that are without health facilities to be identified easily so they can be supported.

2)   Supply of medicines through a well-structured medical supply system that takes into consideration stock levels, usage, road system, location of facilities, and how to make sure that the necessary and critical medicines are available at the facilities throughout the year with no shortages.

3)   Provision of drugs and blood through a drone delivery system (e.g. Zipline). GIS location of facilities allows the drones to deliver the packages at precise locations.

Town planning and infrastructure mapping

1)   Government land and immovable assets: GIS allows us to correctly map out the size of government land, location and how it has been utilized. This prevents encroachment because duty bearers can monitor and prevent people from building on it. Surveying and mapping of government land is hinged on the utilization of cadastral technology and geodata.

2)   Our land tenure system is very complex in Africa and many donors are relying on GIS mapped plots to clearly demarcate land for families and for farming. This has reduced conflicts and even wars in many localities. Donors like USAID has a strong GIS unit in Washington and in many missions and actively promotes its use when the award projects that has objectives connected to the use of land and land rights.

3)   Private lands: Traditional authorities can supplement their land papers and gazetted parcels of land with GIS maps. Estate companies can use GIS mapping of sites to demarcate parcels and roads.

4)   GIS can be used to remap our roads and reclassify them into trunk, major, minor, feeder, footpaths etc. and to better understand the nature of roads, bad portions and Ghana has a lot of roads that are deplorable with potholes and GIS can enable us to identify bad spots, deploy a maintenance team to work on it. The power and more exciting part is to be able to identify the factors that result in the deterioration – river lines, streams, depressions, slopes, and be able to link it with traffic load and type of vehicles that use the roads.

5)   Town and country planning: GIS can be used to track infrastructure build up, utility lines, houses, siting of telecom cell sites, media houses and coverage etc.

Revenue Mobilization

Ghana has over the years struggled to collect property and land rates as required by law at the assemblies. Residential owners, factories, service centers, small businesses, markets, hotels and restaurants are not tracked adequately in the collection of rates for development at the local level. GIS mapping of these features and management of the attribute data collected and linked to pictures and coordinates will allow the assemblies to give codes to legends indicating those who are in good standing, defaulters and others who are owing a certain number of months so they can be targeted for collection. This is an efficient way of mobilizing resources for development at the local level. These funds can be fenced and earmarked for specific activities in the local area or suburbs so those who pay these rates can see the benefits. Monies collected can be used to provide boreholes, toilets, repair roads, provide street lights and support schools.

Tourism Promotion

Tourism is an avenue for raising revenues for the government and for local development. Ghana can boast of many exciting tourist sites and centres including animal sanctuaries, caves, ancestral sites, slave trade sites, parks, lakes, palaces. The coordinates of these tourist sites can be embedded in online maps specifically prepared and linked to major websites so tourists all over the globe can find and read about the tourist sites. Hotels, restaurants and roads linking tourists to sites can be mapped and linked or overlaid with sites and projected online. For instance, tourist sites in Akuapim area can be mapped and connected with the new and plush hotels, restaurants and wood carving industry sites and other artists in the Akuapim area for tourists on Ghana Tourism Authority websites.


We have seen recent diversions of goods and commodities including fuel oil by truck and tanker drivers and loss of cars including taxis by armed robbers. GPS tracking devices embedded in these cars are monitored at a centralized location and are able to visualize the movement of tracks and recipients and owners of goods and taxis will be able to see the specific locations of these cars wherever they are. At the point of offloading the tracker will be able to indicate stopover times and any diversions from the normal route given to the driver. This can be done for buses and other cargo vehicles as well. As we battle this pandemic, tracking buses and linking them with names of passengers is critical. VIP buses for instance could be embedded with GPS tracking devices and monitored at a central location to check over-speeding, any infections if one passenger contracts the disease and needs to be tracked.

Road accidents are on the ascendancy over the last few years with the consequent loss of precious lives. There are many accident prone spots that can be mapped out and measures put in place to reduce speeding or overtaking in such areas. A good historical data count of accidents in such areas before the measures and after can be superimposed on a Ghana map to warn travellers on such roads. – Tracking of cargo and buses, accidents

National Digital Address System (GhanaPostGPS)

Thanks to the present government especially Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia for initiating and getting this ground-breaking technology to find solutions to the address system in the country. Ghana Post working with private entities have created unique address codes for every 5m by 5m space in Ghana. This technology is revolutionary as it helps us to uniquely identify the housing address of every Ghanaian. This is helping us to identify loan seekers and applicants at the banks, used for GhanaCard and Voter’s ID cards and now going to be linked with driving license, National Health Insurance Card etc. This is powerful and we can see how many individuals are using this unique address codes for people to easily identify their offices and work place. I have seen many funeral posters having the GhanaPostGPS address codes so mourners can identify their villages and houses where the funeral is taking place. I believe by now every Ghanaian who went to register for a voter ID has his/her GhanaPostGPS address code.

Other applications and uses

As mentioned above GIS mapping of features with GPS and creation maps will bring tremendous benefits to the nation if it is embedded in Monitoring and Evaluation Systems at the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC), M&E Ministry under the Presidency, all Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), all the 254 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). Additionally, I expect the Ministry of Education and Health to incorporate and set up GIS units to specifically map out all education and health infrastructure. GIS should be included as a topic in primary schools’ social studies and geography lessons and all the way through SHS to the tertiary level.

In the Aviation sector, GIS is used to track location of planes, and to show the distance of planes to their destinations and direction. In the maritime sector, ships rely on GIS systems for navigation and to avoid obstacles and other ships. Most importers are nowadays able to enter tracking codes into online applications so they can track the location and movement of their imported or exported goods. In the Housing industry, GIS mapping of houses and areas allows us to track congestion and movement of persons from central areas in major cities to peri-urban areas and to map out settlements and estates. It provides a better understanding of rural and urban settlements and how sparse the housing units are located in areas and also to track encroachment of government land. In Land and natural resource management, GIS is important in tracing and protecting water courses for management, monitoring illegal mining by using drones to map out river courses and where miners have encroached, conservation of CREMAs, HIAs and protected forests, and to track deforestation and afforestation of forests and conserved areas and parks.


Over the past 20 years, the application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and GPS has increased in many countries as seen in the use of Garmin GPS as navigation tools including WAZE and google map in finding locations and directions. Most Ghanaians have been using Google Maps on their phones and come to appreciate the technology since Uber started operating in the country and when the Ghana Post GPS was launched. GIS is a powerful technology and has applications in every sector. It can transform our life, improve development and economy if we fully explore and deploy it well. Ghana has to quickly invest in it at the primary school level and make sure we have strong GIS units in all the Ministries. We can take steps to develop our own unique software applications and manufacture GPS receivers and devices. Now, most android phones have the functionality of locating features and picking coordinates. We must take advantage now or risk being left behind as the technology advances. I urge the M&E Ministry, the Ministry of Science and Technology to bring stakeholders such as CERSGIS, Donors and Esoko and other NGOs together so we can develop a national strategy for advancing GIS applications and utilization in the country.

The writer is the Ag. Economist, GIS user and Independent Consultant.


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