Big Data Needs to be Open Data

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Big data. We hear about it regularly, but for someone who is a bit of a techno-slug, who moves at a slow pace of adoption, I wonder sometimes just where all this big data comes from and how it might be used in this case to enhance resiliency of farmers.
Therefore, I was very interested in Dr. Debisi Araba‘s “Big Data—Dispatches from Nigeria,” presentation at the recent ICTforAg conference. Dr. Araba was a Senior Advisor to the former Nigerian Agriculture Minister, Dr. Akin Adesina, and is now the Africa Regional Director at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Dr. Araba outlined how the Nigerian Agriculture Ministry amassed data on every smallholder farmer. In the case of Nigeria, the big data was the result of rather low tech boots-on-the-ground.
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Nigerian agriculture: potential, unrealized
Like so many countries seeking to pull themselves up, Nigeria has great potential. Indeed the country was self-sufficient in food production before it came into its oil wealth. Today, Nigeria suffers from the burden of that potential unrealized. Its agricultural challenges are similar to many places—access to finance, land title, access to inputs, post-harvest losses, etc.
Since 2012, the government-run Growth Enhancement Support Scheme has sought to address smallholder use of inputs by providing poorer farmers access to subsidized inputs through an e-wallet system, while also addressing the issue of product adulteration—saw dust as fertilizer and grain as seed.
The goals of GESS are straightforward: to reach 20 million farmers with input support by the end of four years and change the role of government in inputs from direct procurement and distribution to that of a regulator of quality and catalyst for private sector participation.
Data Collection to the Rescue
Among the early challenges was the need to identify the intended smallholder farmers without the existence of any certifiably reliable database. In 2012, to amass the data required a small army of enumerators and was completed in a remarkably short period of time—700 enumerators registered more than 4 million smallholders in 3 months. In 2015, the scale was increased – 2500 enumerators were deployed and the database reached 14.5 million, and is now up to 16 million smallholder farmers.
The program appears on a path towards success (distribution of 55,000 metric tons of seeds and 1.3 million metric tons of fertilizer) and has a plan for sustainability. With each subsequent season, the database is expanded and through more rigorous data validation during enumeration and the use of technology such as the e-wallet system the database continues to be refined and validated.
The database now represents an invaluable source of information on the smallholder segment of the economy in Nigeria—big data for the government as well as NGOs, donors and the private sector.
So now what?
Unless this “big” data is accessible to all – NGOs, various government agencies, private concerns, the farmers themselves, it could become just another partial success where the full potential is unrealized.
The real impact, that even this techno slug can see, is when others can freely access the data. There has been a call to make access to this agriculture data open and free; a request that is to be applauded. As the government grapples with the idea and challenges of open access, we should be ready to assist.
The availability of this information on farmers as consumers will draw the interest of a wide variety of players who can now segment smallholders and better target them with goods and services; improving farmer resiliency and benefitting traders, suppliers, consumers, as well as farmers. Tally ho!
By William Kedrock, Managing Director, Inclusive Economic Growth at DAI