Big Data Solving Ag Challenges in East Africa


How can Big Data play a role in the next Green Revolution in East Africa?  Late last month I had the opportunity to explore this question by joining a team of big data experts in a tour of East Africa.  My colleagues and I led engaging and interactive sessions on big data’s potential impact on East African agriculture, and addressed the overarching question: “How can Big Data help solve some of the most pressing issues around food security, productivity and poverty reduction?” 

Presentations by both local and international organizations provided evidence of the power of Big Data in action, and demonstrated that there are some fascinating solutions in the works.  Daniel Jimenez, Agronomy Scientist at CIAT, for example, presented on how farmer data can be used to provide new and exciting insights for rethinking traditional agronomic crop advice. Meanwhile, Talip Kilic, Senior Economist at the World Bank, demonstrated the value of using micro-satellites – such as Terra Bella and Planet Labs - to provide more accurate crop yield estimates. My presentation demonstrated the exciting potential of many ag information technologies coming out of the US and other countries where enormous ag tech investment has been happening (close to $5B in 2015) - such as weather analytics, predictive modeling and IoT – and translating that to the East African context. 

Attendees of the event included representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and its newly formed ICT group, and a collection of private companies and NGO’s incorporating data into their daily operations, in Nairobi.  In Uganda, both the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry & Fisheries (MAAIF) as well as the Uganda Bureau of Statistics were in attendance, alongside select donor and NGO groups and private companies. 

The discussions that ensued throughout the workshops highlighted the following common themes on Big Data in African Agriculture:

  • Contextual Definition of Big Data in East African Agriculture
    • While people understood the overall framework for Big Data, there was a desire for more context on application of Big Data in East African agriculture.
  • Data Policy
    • Policies surrounding data was a key topic, as government organizations are currently being challenged to evaluate the appropriateness of the policies in place to both protect the public and to allow for private sector innovation.
  • Open Data Access
    • Related to data policy, how do governments find the appropriate balance between making data open to the public vs. maintaining data internally?
  • Confidentiality
    • Also related to data policy, the confidentiality of data is a significant concern. This is an issue not just in East Africa but for farmers, governments and private companies worldwide and should always be addressed sooner than later.
  • Big Data vs. Small Data vs. Decision Data
    • In the context of African data sets, available data may not actually be “big.” Rather, the term Big Data is used as a catalyst to galvanize relevant organizations to better utilize what data are available for better decision making.
  • Data Gaps
    • The preponderance of data gaps was a key concern as there is a significant lack of data in many areas of the agricultural value chain.
  • Private Enterprise Engagement
    • The issue of how governments can best engage with the private sector is a common theme, considering the value of data in supporting innovation in the private sector.
Overall, it was a privilege to be part of the Roadshow and to continue to further the discussions surrounding the value of Big Data in African agriculture.  I look forward to seeing the continued progression toward the global adoption and utilization of new technologies to solve real world agricultural issues.  In the meantime, this event reinforced my belief that there is a genuine need for agricultural intelligence – as better agricultural data leads to better information and better insight that can improve global agriculture markets. 

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The Big Data Roadshow was organized by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) with support from the World Bank. The “Roadshow” consisted of one event each in Nairobi, Kenya and Kampala, Uganda with strong representation from government ministries, non-government organizations and private companies. 

Topics: agricultural development, Big Data

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