Driving a data revolution in Africa

They say if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Or, in the words of the late Kofi Annan, “if you can’t see it, you can’t solve it”. Speaking on the use of geostatistical tools to measure development progress, Mr. Annan famously remarked, “without good data, we’re flying blind”.

Within African agriculture, a lack of timely, complete, and relevant data remains a major barrier to progress. Compared to other regions, Africa lags behind in collecting and making available the data that underpins well-functioning food systems.

Bridging this ‘agricultural data gap’ will be key to reducing hunger, poverty, and malnutrition on the continent, and as a subject is one that AGRF has addressed for several years running. But in the wake of COVID-19, it has never been more urgent or more relevant.

“COVID-19 has demonstrated the cracks in the system,” said Mr. Sean de Cleene, Member of the Executive Committee at The World Economic Forum. “It has brought to the fore the importance of data, and how we manage this data is absolutely critical.”

Good data helps to navigate volatility, ambiguity, and uncertainty. At the macrolevel, it shapes policy, informs investment, and underpins decision-making across the agri-food sector. On the ground, data provides information on pests, soil, weather, and markets, and helps improve resilience in the face of climate shocks and events.

In recent years we have seen massive improvements in the quantity and quality of data. As Richard Choularton, Director of Agriculture and Economic Growth at Tetra Tech, remarked, “we used to know what happened yesterday. Now we are starting to forecast what might happen six months from now” in terms of crop yields and trade flows. Indeed, the vast quantities of open data now available from satellites have enabled agricultural forecasting and the creation of early warning systems for plant and animal threats.

But data on its own is not a silver bullet. As Joanna Ruiter from Netherlands Space Office reflected, data has to be “actionable for farmers”. According to Ruiter, we need to leverage all the tech that’s available “so that it makes best sense for all stakeholders” and truly benefits those it was intended to benefit. Data has to be accurate, ownable, human-centric and relevant, much of which depends on the methods of collection and distribution.

While we “need to have more farmers connected in times such as this”, said Ruiter, it is important they receive targeted and integrated datasets that really deliver added value. We need to “bundle financial and agricultural services”, she added, to ensure data is meeting the genuine needs of farmers and the market.

Within Africa, Kenya is leading the way in data collection and sharing. With COVID-19 threatening to trigger food and economic crises, Kenya has been quick to collate a range of data on food production, processing, pricing, and pests. These efforts, said Prof. Hamadi Boga, from Kenya’s State Department for Agricultural Research, have helped to “ensure food is available and nothing in the food value chain is disrupted”. Coordinated public and private data collection, he said, “has reassured the country there is food, that prices are not sky-rocketing, and that plans are working”.

While the strengthening of digital systems in Kenya predates COVID-19, the creation of a ‘food security war-room’ to deal with data collation in response to the pandemic is likely to accelerate progress. Certainly, as Prof. Boga pointed out, the data-sharing protocols developed during this time will extend beyond COVID-19 to enhance the country’s digital agriculture platforms.

Data will also be critical in driving the continental free trade agenda. According to Mr. Ziad Hamoui of the Borderless Alliance, Africa “needs evidence-based initiatives to fall on the ears of leaders to help make more informed policies”. But currently, said Hamoui, “we have a lot of informal trade volumes moving across the continent, which makes it difficult to gather relevant and reliable data”. Meanwhile, formal trade flow information “is scattered in such a way that it doesn’t allow you to compare meaningfully” between different geographical areas.

What’s needed, he proposed, is “to gather all this scattered information into consolidated and more comprehensive dashboards so we can… monitor this [data] in real-time” and channel it into effective regional trade policies.

But only through partnerships and collaboration will Africa achieve the collection of meaningful and standardized data. Data that will positively impact food security, nutrition, trade, and agriculture, now and in years to come. As Mansoor Ahmed, Senior Adviser at FCDO, remarked, “the pathway to prosperity will be shaped by the choices we make and the data that shapes those choices”.

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