“This is where the rubber hits the road,” said the World Bank’s Erick Fernandes, opening the first Big Data for Agriculture  Roadshow in East Africa  in Nairobi, on Wednesday May 24th.

Speaking to participants from government, the private sector and research organizations, the Roadshow – co-organized by CIAT and the World Bank Group (WBG) – is intended to raise awareness of the potential of big data to transform agriculture in East Africa.

The roadshow, which is now in Uganda, also expects to set in motion dynamic partnerships to implement big data approaches in the service of agriculture.

Big data really means a lot of data, he continued. But where the concept comes into its own is in the ‘analytics:’ when the data is used to make sense of the bigger picture; “When data can be read to provide insights and previously undetected patterns,” leading to better decision-making in agriculture.

As Boaz Waswa, Program Coordinator for CIAT Africa put it: “With advances in information and communication technologies, we can now organize our data in new ways to inform decisions. So how do we make agricultural data talk to us?”

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Helping make sense of it

Stewart Collins, CEO of the agricultural intelligence company aWhere, gave some key examples of how the power of big data is already being harnessed. It’s being used in applications to detect pests and diseases in the field, for example.

It’s providing feedback data to improve prediction models, so farmers can get timely climate or other information during the harvest season. Or, tracking extension outreach. “It’s not just about getting data out there. It’s helping people understand how to use it,” he said.

The recent worldwide diffusion of new technologies, combined with big data and analytics, is providing the opportunity for developing countries to leap frog intermediate development phases to provide farmers with greater access to timely, cost effective, and personally relevant information.

This information can range from best practices to markets prices, inputs to weather information and news of impending disasters. The Big Data Roadshow in East Africa is intended to simultaneously meet the following objectives:

  • Highlight big data opportunities for Africa showcasing successful initiatives
  • Catalyze ongoing efforts of the public and private sector to forge ahead with the creation of national agricultural data and information systems, which collect, analyze, and synthesize data to facilitate data-driven and near real time decision-making in the agricultural sector.
  • Explore opportunities for financial support from the donor community and the private sector for big data-related capacity enhancement and the required infrastructure.
  • Identify champion African countries that are most interested to further engage with WBG and CGIAR on a variety of big data initiatives.
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Daniel Jimenez, big data project leader at CIAT in Colombia.

At the same time, Daniel Jimenez, big data project leader at CIAT in Colombia, said the intention is to reach out to potential users and promote the “revolution in data-driven agronomy”.

Scientists envision routinely using advanced analyses of commercial data in their research. That includes breeders gathering feedback on the real-world performance of their varieties; agricultural support organizations helping farmers make informed decisions and become resilient to weather changes.

“The key to unleashing big data for agriculture is to ensure an open data platform backed by government policy and a dynamic partnerships between public, private, and academic institutions,” continued Fernandes, referring to the WBG’s Open Data Policy that has fostered major innovation through partnerships.

The challenges and opportunities revolve around progressive government policies that promote an open data culture and empower both the public and private sector to collaborate for mutual benefit. To realize the true potential of big data, it will be essential to enhance the capacity of government and private sector agencies.

According to Fernandes: “Empowering youth to play an innovative and cutting edge role in Big Data technology and applications domains could supercharge the dwindling role of youth in agriculture globally.”

Get involved:

  • Researchers have already applied Big Data analytics to agricultural and weather records in Colombia, revealing how climate variation impacts rice yields. These applications can be scaled out.
  • The tools work wherever data is available, and can be used to provide information to a wide range of people, from decision-makers at policy level, to farmers in their fields. Further research can hone these applications and improve the data, to aid the spread of the Big Data revolution further.

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