In Africa and Asia, a staggering 80% of all food is produced by smallholder farmers. Yet, paradoxically, these same farmers also make up half of the world’s food-insecure population—the result of wide-ranging challenges, from volatile markets to climate change.
Better access to information—about financial services or farming techniques—has been hailed as a potential solution to this problem, with technology cited as a key enabler. But does more data necessarily lead to better outcomes?
This month, close to 500 experts on tech and agriculture convened for the third ICT For Ag conference, hosted by DAI, Abt Associates and FHI360, to debate this question and exchange best practices. In plenary and panel presentations, Souktel shared perspectives from its work across Africa and Asia, along with senior USAID staff and thought leaders from AECOM, RTI, and Palladium, and other implementers.
On a panel devoted to Data-Driven Business Models for Agriculture, Souktel’s US Director of Programs & Strategy, Maggie McDonough, joined Christopher Burns, USAID’s Senior Coordinator of Digital Development for Feed the Future. Discussion focused on a key pain point: While private businesses relentlessly use market data to fine-tune their relationships with consumers, USAID implementers are often afraid of data—and as a result, they fail to leverage it to enhance agriculture.
McDonough offered insights from Souktel’s work designing data strategies and analytics systems for USAID implementers—both in the agriculture sector and more broadly: “The first step is to define which data your organization or project actually needs. We work on 15 – 20 large USAID projects each year, and almost every one of them collects too much data, just for the sake of it. This becomes a major choke point for the project as a whole”.
McDonough added: “It’s crucial for the entire project team to think about which types of data capture what’s actually important. What level of detail is most useful for decision-making? We ask questions like these, and then help the project identify the data streams that are most critical–both internally for project management, and externally for donor impact reporting. Then we build a tech platform that’s customized to capture this data in a way that’s easy to use and understand”.
Burns, McDonough, and fellow panelists from organizations like the One Acre Fund noted that, across regions, most implementers aren’t set up to be data-driven. They lack the buy-in to manage and analyze data, and tend to view data as an afterthought in much of their work. Technology can help focus the “firehose” of project data into usable flows—through dashboards that aggregate data from multiple sources, or survey tools which simplify field data collection. However, in order for these digital solutions to produce results, implementers must be committed to prioritizing data—right from the start of a project life cycle.
We work across the globe, literally, to design & build digital solutions for the ag sector,” McDonough concluded. “Whether we’re working with mobile networks and banks on coconut value chains in the Pacific, or on mobile money services for farmers in Zimbabwe, the takeaway is the same: If a project team unites around the goal of being ‘data-first’ and data-driven, they see clear results–fast. In real time, they can tangibly measure changes in income levels, productivity, market access–and the overall well-being of farmers and communities. The transformation is truly amazing”.