1-1 BMGF and CABI case study illustration credit Philpott Design case study

–Updated March 2023–

Case study in summary: Environment – increasing soil health and crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, most farmers are smallholders and maximising the productivity of farmland is often the best way to increase food security. A lack of access to soil health and fertility data prevents these farmers from growing the most healthy crops, making it difficult to tackle poverty and hunger at scale.

We worked in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s digital farming services portfolio team and the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) to enable access to data in India and Sub-Saharan Africa. Introducing Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Re-usable (FAIR) data best practices to enable farmers, organisations and communities to use and innovate with data to make better decisions, more quickly

We developed a toolkit of 32 practical guides and additional materials with support from in-country teams. The foundation used it to assess new projects, including a Covid-19 response-related initiative, contributing to increases in locally-led agricultural transformation and a broader understanding of how to collect and share FAIR data among foundation programme officers and grantees.

Case study in detail

Since February 2019, alongside the foundation’s agriculture development officers and grantees, we have developed policies and learning materials to help mobilise the principles of findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR) data sharing in agronomy projects in Ethiopia and India. Identifying ways to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem will hopefully increase the access to and therefore the utility of data collected as part of agricultural projects funded partially and fully by the foundation.

Part of the project was to address the gaps in the understanding and practice of shared data – across non-governmental organisations (NGOs), researchers and governments – which was reducing the potential impact of the grants themselves. The ODI worked with CABI to identify areas where more support was needed and helped create learning materials to build understanding of good data-sharing practices and the potential benefits.

The work encourages grant applicants and project leads to build in the collection and sharing of FAIR data to help increase the potential impacts of projects, and to enable farmers, organisations and communities to use data to make better decisions, more quickly.

Gates Program Officers and grantees have already shown an increase in data literacy from the ODI’s training and 1:1 support. They have been able to apply their learning to safeguard personal data in an investment related to the Covid-19 response and an investment on management of locusts.

Key facts and figures

  • By 2030 the foundation aims for at least 50% of smallholder farmers in target geographical areas to have access to and benefit from digitally-enabled services.
  • Common gaps in knowledge and data practices were identified across 11 grants across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.
  • The data sharing toolkit was developed, tested and iterated using insights drawn from 73 interviews and 10 workshops.
  • The data sharing toolbox comprises:
    • 19 guides and checklists to help assessment of needs and risks related to data sharing, permissions and safeguarding
    • 7 eLearning modules and accompanying summary or ‘cheat’ sheets
    • 3 country profiles outlining the political, legislative and technological context for use of data in agricultural grant applications
    • 6 case studies demonstrating the valuable impact of FAIR, harmonised data sharing while reducing harmful impacts.

The project


As part of an initiative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development portfolio, the digital farming services portfolio team has been working together with CABI and the ODI to increase understanding of how access to FAIR data can support country-led inclusive agricultural transformation.

In Ethiopia, the initiative supported a coalition of stakeholders to develop and implement a soil and agronomy data-sharing policy. This started in April 2019, with research on relevant data sharing policies, data sharing initiatives and the Ethiopia agriculture data ecosystem, and involved facilitating engagement across the coalition to discuss, agree and trial training and implementation materials. The report: ‘Data Driven Agriculture for Ethiopia: The Coalition of the Willing’ outlines the membership, mission and achievements, including its role in transforming the soil and agronomy data sharing landscape of Ethiopia. The team also published the Soil and Agronomy Data Sharing Policy Brief.

In India, the team provided training and support around data sharing. This included helping a grantee improve the way they licensed data. The work helped to shift attitudes towards FAIR data, but there is further work to do around the quality and interoperability of the data collected.

Growth in productivity within the agricultural sector generates marketable surpluses and increased farm income that has been shown to spur significant additional growth in the rural non-farm economy. As part of its commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goals, the foundation aims for at least 50% of smallholder farmers in target geographical areas to have access to and benefit from digitally-enabled services by 2030.

The agriculture sector can benefit from data that enables farmers to decide how and when to fertilise, plant or harvest in order to achieve optimum crop yield or to avoid environmental obstacles.

Insights from data shared between farmers, researchers, businesses and policymakers can improve return on investments, service provision and development on a regional, national and even a global scale. Effective collaboration between a variety of stakeholders using high-quality data and evidence that can be trusted and reused, will make services more efficient across the agriculture value chain.

The ODI’s role

Building on findings from a 2018 pilot project, the ODI worked to understand the challenges grantees face when accessing, using and sharing data, and help them make data more FAIR. The team also reviewed the extent to which data is considered as part of the investment-making processes within the foundation. These insights were used to develop appropriate engagement strategies to help overcome some of the challenges.

CABI and the ODI ran interviews and workshops with project leads in Seattle, and with grantees in India and Ethiopia, to explore patterns beyond individual projects and establish common experiences and challenges. They identified the most common barriers to wider sharing and reuse of data including:

  • Policy – An unsuitable data policy environment in-country means no strategic direction, leading to inconsistent prioritisation of data.
  • Data sharing and access – Inconsistent or non-existent mechanisms, agreements and processes for accessing and sharing data means digitally enabled services are unable to rely on the data.
  • Data collection and stewarding – Without common standards across data sets to make them interoperable, and stewards to maintain the quality and accessibility, it becomes harder for data to be shared and used widely.
  • Data security and privacy – Difficulty recognising where data contains personal, commercial or sensitive elements, and where it does, what to do about this.
  • Trust – A lack of trust in data reuse and safeguarding in general, coupled with low understanding of the potential benefits results in limited levels of adoption.

Countries and communities have varying attitudes to decisions about what data to collect, who gets access and benefits from its reuse, what standards and policies to follow, and who participates. These decisions can be highly political and cultural and can depend on systems of government, the culture of institutions, levels of trust between actors, and customs around sharing and trade. It was clear that grantees, regional implementing partners, and local institutions need to feel comfortable sharing data, and be able to find, trust and reuse others’ data within the services they provide.

The ODI supported the creation, launch and dissemination of a Soil and Agronomy Data Sharing Policy for Ethiopia, which is currently in the process of being ratified by the Ethiopian government. It supports the policies, legal and regulatory frameworks relevant to the country or domain, and the community norms, also called the ‘enabling environment’, which helps people and organisations share and use data. The overarching objective in Ethiopia was to develop, or improve upon, national data policy and frameworks, as a precondition for significantly improving data sharing and access.

Once the policy has been established, stakeholders must be equipped with the necessary tools, skills and incentives to comply with the policy.

To help develop these skills, it was necessary to develop practical learning resources. We developed resources as part of a toolkit, including a series of explainers, guides and checklists to help programme officers and grantees consider:

  • when data might be shared, the different levels of sharing and openness available, and the ethical risks associated
  • whether or not to provide access to data, how to do so and how to ensure it is being done in a way that is FAIR, safeguarded and sustainable
  • when legal rights and permissions to access, use and share data should be considered as part of a grant proposal and as part of the ongoing project management
  • how to assess and mitigate risks associated with sharing personal, commercial or sensitive data
  • how best to assess the relevant context in-country when considering a project, grant or programme, alongside example country ‘profiles’.

In addition to this toolkit, a series of educational modules describe the key skills that enable the delivery of FAIR data within investments, and protect the rights of individuals while minimising risk and maximising utility of data. Personas created in the 2018 project were used to help map common agricultural data ecosystems and identify shared challenges across the region. The ODI’s Data Spectrum was modified and adapted to be relevant to the types of data collected across the agricultural sector.

Using a variety of data types and uses from generating geospatial data to creating sharing platforms and crop, pests and soil acidity analysis, it was possible to show proof of value, encourage learning from common challenges and build trust in data sharing within the sector.

The ODI, CABI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were able to create widely suitable resources that will enable improved decision making about what data to collect, who gets access to it, who benefits from its reuse, what standards and policies to follow, and who participates in them. Promoting understanding of the broader environment within which data is stewarded and visualising patterns beyond individual projects helps us to identify gaps and opportunities to strengthen policy, engagement or capacity-building across projects, grants and countries.

The toolkit will continue to be tested and iterated with more programmes and regions alongside continued support. All the outputs we produced are published under an open licence for anyone to use, share and provide feedback.

Who else was involved?

In 2017, the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative and the ODI researched the implementation of open data policies in agriculture programmes. That report identified a need for guidance on how to make data more open and accessible throughout a programme’s life-cycle. CABI, an international, inter-governmental, not-for-profit organisation,  worked together with the ODI, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and their grantees to build a picture of the challenges being faced. This partnership brings together the local relationships fostered by CABI and the foundation, and the ODI’s experience regarding access, use and sharing of data. We also worked with the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, and Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia in India.

Several challenges in Ethiopia were identified based on the pilot project in 2018 and conversations with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). GIZ already has strong relationships with government departments in Ethiopia and the prototypical national soil institute ESRI which were then built on.

What was challenging?

In-country networks, support and trust had to be developed while managing expectations. Overcoming differences in attitudes around data sharing in new environments was challenging and time consuming. A crucial part of this was the need for engagement with key stakeholders and decision makers in-country that could advocate and lead from within. Similarly, when dealing with existing processes and policies there were often delays, due to established approval processes and working within existing workflows. This could be improved by better understanding of partners’ workflows and processes. We also found that the absence of a dedicated person to engage with our project on the grantee side could lead to delays in the decision-making process.

A particular challenge when talking about complex ideas was developing a common understanding of programme activities and their benefits. It was also a challenge to establish a standardised language and priorities that were acceptable to all stakeholders. We addressed this through engagement to discuss perspectives and to agree terms to use.

The coronavirus pandemic meant we had to rethink our engagement strategy. The strategy was initially focused on face-to-face interactions involving travel and in-country meetings. As with the rest of the world, we had to change our plans, and move to virtual, online engagement, which took time to plan, test and get up and running. Remote working was a particular challenge in Ethiopia, due to the range of people involved, the country’s strong face-to-face work culture, and patchy access to technology. Overall, given the circumstances, the change worked well and we were about to provide stakeholders with a range of support in ways that worked for them.

The level of technology and skills available varied between projects and regions. This meant it was sometimes difficult to access existing knowledge and information, or to understand what was already available for teams in-country. This was combined with a need to collaborate on specific documents and presented challenges in how to best facilitate conversations and build on existing capabilities. To address this challenge we shared documents and delivered training in a way that included short ‘live’ engagement together with offline working. This meant teams and stakeholders had access to our team for advice and guidance, as well as the ability to continue learning when online interaction was not possible.

What went well?

Developing relationships with grantee programme officers in each project to help us understand the grant-making process, and ascertain where the issues around data arise. We then developed tools, and worked with the programme officers to test the tools in the context of grants they were managing.

The in-country work with grantees and stakeholders worked well in terms of sharing and accessing information, and developing relationships with the in-country teams. This work was separate to the work with the programme officers and was most successful once it was clear that the intention was to provide assistance rather than to act as teachers or to make changes. The greatest benefits were seen after adding in-country team members and adapting tools to work with in-country collaborators.

Workshops between the foundation, CABI and ODI, and with stakeholders in Ethiopia and India proved valuable in understanding existing tools and establishing clear objectives at the beginning of the project. These early workshops solely focussed on ensuring in-country stakeholders had the opportunity to express their needs and what they felt was necessary to address them given their experiences and context. This also provided the opportunity to draw on a multidisciplinary team for necessary expertise and open up training opportunities as widely as possible. Flexibility from the foundation meant it was possible for CABI and the ODI to add clear value to their wider strategic projects.

Covid-19 in fact prompted some healthy adjustments to collaboration and communication practices. Although it meant face-to-face engagement suffered, it also meant less time spent on aeroplanes, and more flexibility to work between conflicting commitments and time pressures.

What have we learned

It is key in a collaborative project to ensure roles are clear and that they are clearly communicated. Collaborative tools can be instrumental in this, and the practical capacity of stakeholders to engage with documents is important to consider. Covid-19 restrictions that meant digital collaboration tools were required more than usual, and actually helped communication and collaboration. There were limitations to in-country capacity which needed to be addressed by bringing in-country contractors into the team, and being flexible in how much digital collaboration needed to be ‘live’.

It is necessary to consider how feedback will be provided and received. Both on a practical and personal level it is important to manage expectations in relation to the feedback process and that the iterative process of developing these tools is seen as a part of a meaningful conversation. As part of this it is important to allow for the necessary time for project stakeholders to meaningfully engage with and contribute to the process.

Establishing dedicated in-country teams earlier would have benefitted the project, as well as giving more time to develop the informal relationships that prove useful to all aspects of work. Working remotely is challenging, in particular across national and regional boundaries, so that it would be wise to acknowledge this as a real element in achieving impact. This extends into communication in general, how tools, deadlines, roles and responsibilities are established and implemented. In future we would ensure the team has a common understanding of the unique enabling data environment in-country and agree ways of working based on this.