Here, senior consultant Deborah Yates describes the ODI's work with CABI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – enabling data access to support agricultural transformation in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia

Poverty in rural sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia is exacerbated by environmental, economic and social factors. These include the impact of climate change on productivity; systems and policies that fail to meet the needs of farmers; food systems that do not provide adequate nutrition; low profitability for smallholder farmers; and few opportunities and resources for women.

Increasing the incomes of smallholder farmers (SHFs), especially women SHFs, has proved to be more effective at reducing poverty than other investments, and therefore philanthropic funders are keen to invest in the smallholder sector in these geographical areas.

Since February 2019, we have been working in partnership with CABI, and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s digital farming services portfolio team, to support country-led inclusive agricultural transformation by enabling access to data. 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.

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 to reduce risk and improve farm-level decisions. To achieve this, grantees, regional implementing partners, and local institutions need to feel comfortable sharing data, and be able to find, trust and reuse others’ data, within those services.

Building on our 2018 pilot project findings, we have been working to understand the challenges people face when accessing, using and sharing data. We have also reviewed the extent to which data is considered as part of the investment-making processes within the foundation.

We used these insights to develop appropriate engagement strategies to help overcome some of the challenges. Highlights include working with local partners in India to develop and deliver training to improve data literacy and data management. We have also supported the creation, launch and dissemination of a Soil and Agronomy Data Sharing Policy for Ethiopia – which is in the process of being ratified. This supports the ‘enabling environment’ – that is, the policies, legal and regulatory frameworks relevant to the country or domain and the community norms – which helps people and organisations share and use data.

Drawing on our experience in-country, and working with a group of officers at the foundation, we have also been developing a toolbox to support program officers and grantees. The toolbox provides key resources that can help everyone deliver data that is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR data), while reducing harmful impacts, within grant-funded projects. The toolbox, which will ultimately be published under an open licence by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, contains eLearning modules, a set of checklists and guides to support implementation, and case studies to showcase real-world examples.

Our earlier work with Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, UK Department for International Development (now part of Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office), US Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation highlighted the opportunity for donor organisations to align on open data policy and the support provided to grantees to implement those policies. In this phase, our in-country engagement activities and the FAIR data toolbox take this a stage further, demonstrating what this type of support could look like.

As this phase of the project draws to a close we are testing and refining the guidance; reflecting on our learnings; identifying what has worked and what could be improved; and sharing this with the wider donor and agricultural development community. We look forward to being part of that conversation and future activity.

If you’re a philanthropic funder and would like to talk to us about our work, or about a collaboration please get in touch.

If you’re interested in accessing the FAIR data toolbox, please contact us and we will let you know when it is published.