March 23, 2017

Guest Commentary – Data to Amplify Agricultural Development

By Rikin Gandhi, Chief Executive Officer, Digital Green

I recently moved back to the United States, and I can tell you most people here still think of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting when they think of farmers. The reality is that agriculture has always been at the forefront of technology, from new seed varieties to high-tech irrigation systems, to the efficient transport and logistics of output. A farmer now can buy a high-tech tractor that has more in common with the cockpit of a jet plane than a horse-drawn plow in most high and some middle-income countries. Many farmers hire companies to fly drones over their farms to analyze their fields, providing them with data about what to plant where. Information is readily available to them on plant health, cropping timetables, markets, competition, weather, consumer preferences, and myriad other topics that help them make informed decisions about managing their costs, time, land, and crops. Those of us in international development find the potential applications of translating these tools in developing countries very exciting for global food security, but we still have a long way to go to make information accessible and useful to farmers as they go about their daily lives.

Anil Kumar Singh, a 35-year-old man from Bihar, India grows vegetables on his family’s 1.5 acres of land. Most Indian smallholder farmers like him make decisions about what to grow based on the hearsay of their families and neighbors. When it comes to selling their vegetables, they have few options. They can take the offer of a buyer who comes to them, with limited or no negotiation or transparency on the price or the return. Or, they can spend a day cycling or walking to the market that is often miles away.  

How do we get Anil, and other farmers like him, access to useful data and technologies in a format they can use to inform trade-offs like these? Technology and data cannot make an impact on their own. They need to be paired with grassroots-level efforts to help inform farmers on the decisions they face on a routine basis.

What we know is that strong extension programs, combined with appropriate data and the ability to deliver it in a format useful to a farmer, can empower farmers to significantly improve their livelihood. In actuality, many systems are under-resourced, have infrequent contact with farmers and lack current information to help them advise their clients. Extension workers often do not have access to useful, timely data to help farmers make decisions.

There are numerous programs and initiatives out there addressing this issue. Through USAID’s Developing Local Extension Capacity project, Digital Green, in collaboration with International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), CARE International and others, is analyzing extension systems around the world to identify ways extension workers can use information and technology to better meet farmer needs. The program gathers and shares evidence for extension systems and the tools that best fit the local context.

Another example is the Global Open Data on Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative, which gathers data from over 430 partners from public and private sectors. The right interpretation of the data could be useful to a farmer in India. A well-trained extension worker with the right tools can make their organization a partner, upload relevant data, and filter through what exists to find what can be applied in his or her region. That worker can then use that information to provide advice to clients.

The solution is not simple. It’s critical to ensure that data is sufficiently localized, reliable, and actionable. And most importantly, information must align with the incentives and aspirations of organizations and individuals for them to be put it into use.

For Anil, he sells his vegetable produce through Digital Green’s shared transport to market service, called Loop. Through Loop, Anil receives data on the prices that peer farmers in his village realized during the previous day through an interactive voice service (IVR) on his mobile phone. Anil uses that information to decide what produce to harvest and which market Loop sells his produce at to maximize his return. Anil says, using Loop, he is selling more of his harvest and making more of a profit than he has in the past. The program works with extension workers to provide a new level of transparency for Anil and other smallholder farmers to make more informed decisions.

Even without the shiny gadgets of farmers in the developed world, smallholder farmers around the world can make better decisions for themselves and their families and enable them to see agriculture as a source of prosperity rather than a vocation of last resort. As part of a well-designed, people-based system, technology and data can have a significant impact in agricultural development, as it can affect the aspirations of farmers themselves. On a small scale, it can mean higher incomes and healthier families. On a large scale, it can mean more resilience, higher productivity, and better lives.



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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