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Leveraging data to drive progress and development

AGRF 2020

In the words of the late Kofi Annan, “without good data, we’re flying blind.”

Nowhere is truer than in the agricultural sector. Good data can help to shape and inform agri-food systems, guide leadership decisions on crop production and investment, and provide clear pictures of food supply and demand. 

But despite recent and rapid advancements in digital technology, significant challenges remain in the leveraging of data for agricultural transformation.  

Addressing these challenges, Dr Shenggen Fan, Director General of IFPRI, set out the key areas were improvements are needed. These include underinvestment in R&D and infrastructure, with countries often overlooking research in favour of other agricultural developments. Policy coherence is lacking, while major data gaps exist on diets and nutrition. More reliable and credible data is also required to guide research-based options and strengthen accountability. 

But alongside these challenges and uncertainties, very clear opportunities exist. For example, it’s projected that over 50% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa will have a mobile phone by 2025. This rise in mobile penetration is making it easier to harvest big data and devise inclusive digital solutions. 

At the same time, institutions are also grasping the opportunity. The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture 2017-2022, for instance, is looking at the use of satellite weather data, among other things, to guide agricultural policies and priorities. 

Similarly, in the area of governance, data and digitalization provide opportunities to promote evidence-based leadership and action. Key examples include the CAADP Biennial Review and the AATS scorecard, which are helping African governments to assess agricultural performance and drive improvements. 

Currently, Africa is at a data crossroads. And as Dr Fan concluded, in order to progress we need to increase investments in multiple-win technologies and R&D, such as remote sensing technology on crop varieties. Only in this way will we ensure people have access to nutritious food crops and diets. And only in this way will we avoid food crises in the future. 

In Kenya, data is central to solving the national maize crisis. According to Hon. Prof. Hamadi Iddi Boga from the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, “the next war in Kenya will be about maize”. Such is the popularity of maize in Kenya, everyone tries to grow this staple crop regardless of the ecological zone or conditions. Poor rainfall can ruin a maize harvest, and the situation is fast becoming a major public challenge. 

“Currently the data is all over the place,” said Prof. Boga. “We have numbers people don’t believe and we’re having to make decisions based on fragmented information.” But through collaboration with McKenzie, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture is now working to develop a Digital Food Balance Sheet. The aim of this project is to improve the accuracy of information on crop deficits and surpluses, providing the Ministry with a clear picture of what is happening in the country. 

The African Continental Free Trade area is another example of where data can be applied to inform leadership decisions. “Africa is big,” reflected Ms Victoria Coleman, CEO of Atlas AI, “so we need a lot of data to see how developments such as Free trade zone will work.” 

Indeed, data can help leaders make decisions about where and how to operate. But as Coleman warned, survey data is frequent and noisy, with different sources giving different results, which can hinder rather than accelerate progress. 

To ensure accuracy, Atlas AI leverages satellite imagery to made accurate predictions and generate data for geographical areas. This technology can now create maps showing previously unimaginable agricultural estimates months before crops are harvested; from meter scale to country scale. 

It can also be applied to economic outcomes through local wealth and consumption estimates at village level across the entire continent.

With the case for increased and improved data firmly established, Mr Augustin Wambo Yamdjeu, Head of CAADP, NEPAD, echoed earlier comments on the biennial review scorecard. The scorecard, he said, is triggering action on the continent, with scores predicated on credible evidence of progress on the ground. 

But further public sector investment in data is required, he added. And countries cannot do this alone; they need to collaborate at continental level to drive change and progress in this area.

Joining the debate, Chris Shepherd-Pratt, Policy Chief, Bureau for Food Security, USAID, added that it’s all about data use. “Data is only valuable if it’s used,” he said. “So, countries need to be motivated to collect data, and this is something we need to think about.”

Ms Sessie Burns, Manager, CGIAR Platform for Big Data Inspire Challenge, concurred, concluding that data use will be critical to delivering actionable insights and partnerships now and in the future.