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Launch of the Food Security Portal for Africa South of the Sahara

September 22, 2015

The Food Security Portal for Africa South of the Sahara was officially launched in Brussels on 16 September 2015. The website, developed by the International Food Policy Research institute (IFPRI)  and financed by the European Commission, is part of a project designed to collect information for use by farmers, farmers’ organisations, policy-makers, researchers and investors. The launch also served as the starting point to discuss how the new data revolution can benefit smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Theo de Jager, President of the Pan African Farmers' Organisation (PAFO), a portal is “an open space around a doorway where people congregate, creating a feeling of anticipation before entering”. And this definition could certainly be applied to the launch meeting in Brussels. 

Participating institutions covered many regional farmers’ groups from across Africa, including Maghrebian and North African Farmers' Union (UMNAGRI), PAFO, Plateforme Régionale des Organisations Paysannes d'Afrique Centrale (PROPAC), Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et de Producteurs de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (ROPPA) and the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), as well as the ACP secretariat, CTA, the European Commission and IFPRI.

Launching the portal, Jean Pierre Halkin, Head of Unit for Rural Development, Food Security and Nutrition at the European Commission/EuropeAid, stressed the importance of accurate data to provide increased food security and resilience in the world’s poorest countries. In addition, he mentioned how the portal complements a project with UK partners and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called the National Information Platforms for Nutrition (NAPN), which aims to understand the impact of nutrition policies around the world and tackle undernutrition. 

The need for an interactive portal

Starting the discussion, Máximo Torero, Division Director of the Markets from IFPRI, introduced the portal and asked how it could be used to its full potential. In this respect, he highlighted the need to avoid publishing results in isolation, but always disseminate data accompanied by an explanation or interpretation. 

In his view, if the content offered by the portal matches users’ needs, it will form a community who can take part in discussions on the issues it covers. “Researchers focus analysis where data is available, not always on the most important agriculture issues”, said Torero. “The portal needs a dialogue with its user community to determine their needs for data.” 

In this respect, farmers’ organisations pinpointed factors such as weather, market prices and inputs as the most crucial areas where relevant and accurate data are needed. In more depth, these included relevant geographic and climatic information for each region, basic business information relating to fluctuating market prices and profit margins, and farm management advice including guidance on inputs, suppliers and processors. 

How can farmers’ organisations contribute to data-driven farming?

All farmers’ organisations recognised that dealing with large amounts of data represents both a challenge and an opportunity for many African countries. Finding ways to collect and analyse reliable and accurate information will be crucial to harness opportunities offered by the latest technological breakthroughs, including influencing policies and controlling risks. 

At the launch of the portal, farmers’ organisations debated the main problems and how they might contribute to data collection and analysis. Discussing the value of data-driven farming, de Jager emphasised that if there was “no flow of data, there would be no flow of finance for agriculture”. 

Focussing on farmers’ difficulties to access data, Abdelmajid Ezzar, President of UNMAGRI reiterated the need for regional observatories to bring together data from farmers’ organisations, as well as research and government institutions. For them, data are key to allow farmers to manage the risk associated with their decisions. 

Going beyond data

For PROPAC, the issue goes beyond access to data. Speaking for Southern African farmers, Celestin Nga felt farmers need more skills in data management. This organisation has tried to compile a database of all its members, which potentially could be used to share information among relevant groups, but has so far faced multiple technical problems. 

According to Ousseini Ouedraogo, Executive Secretary at ROPPA, the way forward in terms of data management requires international organisations to work closely with small-scale producers and farmers’ organisations, but crucially using their existing systems. 

Offering a potential solution for data gathering, SACAU’s CEO, Ishmael Sunga, emphasised how the link between widespread use of mobile phones and efficient data collection could pave the way for a new approach to farming in Africa. For this concept to be successful, however, accurate and detailed information about members involved in this data collection was needed as a starting point. With this in mind, SACAU is currently prioritising the creation of an up-to-date members’ database.



CTA’s bridging role

As organisers of the meeting, CTA presented a brief overview of their work in terms of data gathering and analysis. Senior coordinator Chris Addison looked at the benefits of open data for agriculture, examining the entire process, from data collection to management and finally communication. Using examples from mobile applications, Ben Addom continued the discussion about innovative ways to both collect and use data in farming. 

The main meeting was followed by a series of discussions with the regional groups, focussing on a number of issues raised during the event. At the end of the meeting, Director Michael Hailu pointed out that CTA is committed to help smallholder farmers turn their farms into profitable businesses, by taking advantage of the data revolution. “The challenge is how to make it happen.”

There is a need to build synergies between the farmers' organisations and research. CTA will support the Farmer’s Organisations in using and disseminating the information relevant to them but also to generate their own data through various strategies and products.