By Debisi Araba, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)’s Director for Africa 

The game of football, or soccer, as fans would agree, has evolved greatly over the last few decades. Approaches are more technical and goals are harder to come by. With improved athleticism and stamina, success in a game of football is determined, not just by a team’s formation and players, but by the team’s ability to respond – mid-game – to a dynamic opponent, score goals and win the game.

In football, like in agriculture, we face constantly shifting variables and challenges – but we must make progress nonetheless. We are in a race against time to develop solutions to feed the 2.5 billion people in Africa by 2050, while enhancing food systems to provide food for 7 billion others by then. But what if we could see the other team’s strategy and game plan? Big Data can help us do just that.

In our quest to increase income, food and nutrition security for farmers and rural communities across Africa – we have a new weapon at our fingertips. The digital revolution is happening as I speak. The CGIAR Big Data Convention, happening at CIAT’s headquarters in Cali, Colombia September 19-22, will bring together big players to discuss just this.

Almost everyone has a smartphone, feeding on large volumes of data to provide information as diverse as the weather forecast and the best Salsa club in Cali. The processing power of your typical modern mobile phone has greater processing power than Deep Blue, the IBM computer that famously defeated the Chess grandmaster and then world champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997.

Today, we can generate larger volumes of structured and unstructured data and – this is the critical bit – we can synthesize and analyze this data to provide previously unobtainable insights that improve decision making.

Let’s take for example, our work led by a soil scientist, Dr. Job Kihara. Job’s work mines data from multiple field trials, analyzing large data sets to find that, by adding micronutrients – like zinc and iron – to soils, farmers could increase their maize yield by 25 percent. That translates into additional food and income for the family. Critically, Job’s work is helping us better understand how to breathe life into previously unresponsive soils, making them productive.

The data can also be used to develop better, site-specific fertilizer blends, combining micro- and macronutrients in the right amounts, increasing yield and reducing environmental impacts. Other initiatives, like systems which register the information of individual farmers digitally in countries across Africa – a move championed by the African Development Bank – will make farmer-targeted interventions and services more efficient.

Information about farm size, location and crops grown, coupled with weather and commodity price information, will supply manufacturers and suppliers with market information, helping agro-dealers deliver site-specific inputs to farmers. The data collected will also help insurance and financial providers improve their services, making financially supporting smallholder farmers less risky, and promoting financial inclusion for the previously unbanked.

With augmented reality, we can train computer programs to identify threats virtually: a farmer could point their phone camera at a suspicious disease on a plant and receive the identity of the disease, and information about the right type of treatment to use, where to buy it and how to apply it, while informing neighboring farmers and extension agents of its presence.

Artificial Intelligence is playing a greater role in improving decision making models. At CIAT, for the last 30 years in Africa and 50 years globally, we have been working with partners – farmers, the commercial and private sector – to improve food and nutrition security – from healthier soils to healthier diets. We have a proud history of innovation and leveraging technologies for the benefit of farmers.

We are developing the Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS), which will analyze data to help families and governments anticipate the onset of food and nutrition crises and proactively respond. Using machine learning, computers will track complex and constantly changing data to “learn” and make predictions. NEWS would apply this technology to search for early signs of crop failures, drought, rising food prices – factors that can trigger malnutrition crises – and over time, become “smarter” and more accurate.

We must not forget the challenges. The quality, volume and frequency of data we have is low. Open and free data policies are lagging, stifling innovation and creating duplications among government agencies and research institutions. We need our digital technology playmakers to unleash the full potential of the data revolution and help us score more goals for agriculture.

But my vision is that agriculture will no longer be perceived as the last resort for the poor. It will be a vibrant business sector flooded with mostly private capital, helping farmers unlock their entrepreneurial potential. In our lifetime, Africa’s farmers should make informed choices about more nutritious diets and malnutrition will be eliminated. With the digital revolution, we are limited only by our imagination.

Photo credit: Joe Kageni, Dreamcatcher productions, 7th African Green Revolution Forum in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. 

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