Collecting and analysing data, and presenting information that smallholders can understand and act on will be key to advancing agriculture in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Farming associations and agri-enterprises already provide members and customers with information and advice on crops, markets and finance. The contact systems farm groups and businesses have in place could be leveraged to deliver tailored information to smallholders.
In November 2017, CTA convened a special-interest group of partners to discuss first, what kinds of information members and customers of farm groups and agri-businesses currently receive and, secondly, what would be needed to leverage the existing communication channels to enhance smallholder production and resilience.
Great opportunities, surmountable challenges
Timely, actionable information can help farmers make better decisions and, ultimately, raise their standard of living. The data revolution is driving a boom in government and private-sector data services that are beginning to offer farmers the information they need when they need it. Such information can guide farmers’ choices, helping them foresee problems and minimise risks, switch to more productive farming practices and, as a result, achieve a better standard of living.
Farmers are not the only ones who can benefit from the data revolution. Farming associations are there to support their members. This means the more they know about their members, who they are, where they are, what challenges they face and what they need, the better the support they can give. Likewise, the more agri-enterprises know about their customers, the more value they can add to the services they provide.
CTA invited partners, who are working in various ways to enhance the use of data in smallholder agriculture, to contribute to discussions. Agriterra, Agricord and SBC4D work to strengthen cooperatives and agri-agencies. Women in Business Development Inc., the Caribbean Agri-Business Association (CABA) and Malawi Meteorological Services are interested in agri-data-driven services. Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation and Wageningen University & Research undertake research, and the Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative supports the proactive sharing of open data about agriculture and nutrition. The group pinpointed three areas where farmer organisations and agri-enterprises are already providing services:
- Agro-climatic forecasts, agronomic recommendations, soil-water status reports, pest and disease detection
- Early warnings of threats
Trade and markets
- Information on supply, demand, prices, competition, customers, certification, tracking, traceability
- Information on inputs, value chain actors, networks, expertise, resources
- Banking, insurance, credit, money transfer, microfinance.
Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions
Farmer organisations like the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) accumulate valuable data. SACAU shared its experiences of registering and profiling farmers with the discussion group by video. Ishmael Sunga’s presentation noted that organisations such as his could capitalise on the information they have about farms and farmers by finding partners to deliver tailor-made services. Farmers are willing to share their data when they understand that it enhances the voice and power of SACAU.
SACAU found that:
- Registering farmers can be costly and time-consuming
- Registering farmers is not easily done remotely but requires a ‘last-mile’ effort – someone to collect data face-to-face and explain the benefits of sharing data
- Dealing with ethical and privacy issues needs a great deal of care
- Getting accurate data means asking the right questions
- Registering farmers is not likely to happen without public investment in collecting data.
Realising the promise of the data revolution for agriculture in African, Caribbean and Pacific regions is a challenge. But it can be done. It means adapting the models that work in developed countries to take advantage of what is known to work in these regions. It means helping these regions to develop skills in transforming raw data into useful, farmer-friendly information. It means avoiding exploiting farmers’ local knowledge and building trust. Not least, it means putting in place policies and guidelines that make it clear who owns data and what it can be used for.
The special-interest group considered that addressing the following ‘hot issues’ could generate useful returns:
- Putting in place data policies and systems in farmer associations and business groups to optimise services and support advocacy;
- Developing value propositions for data-driven products and services to attract investors, and build trust and confidence;
- Integrating feedback loops to ensure services are tailored to farmers’ needs;
- Finding ways to validate certification and traceability data to meet standards that open markets, satisfy consumers and provide trade opportunities;
- Building trust among farmers and their organisations and suppliers to establish good relationships and ethical ownership of data;
- Registering and profiling farmers, agri-producers, customers and other value chain actors cost-effectivelyBuilding capacity all along value chains to upscale agri-data services.
Enabling agri-data services
The crucial enabling factors for agri-data services are:
- Robust international, national and sectoral data regulations;
- National and institutional policies and ethics that regulate open data;
- Accessible ICT infrastructure along with the capacity to manage it;
- Individual and organisational skills to understand, use and share data;
- Clear communication channels among the various actors;
- Systems to profile and register farmers.