Image credit: ODI/Caley Dewhurst

Enabling data access to transform agriculture in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa

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How a new toolkit, developed by the ODI for sharing data in India and Sub-Saharan Africa, promises to transform agriculture and secure food supplies for growing communities.

People to talk to about this

Since February 2019, the ODI has been working in collaboration with the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) on a two-year project to support country-led inclusive agricultural transformation by enabling access to data.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project’s goal was to create tools, guidelines and learning programmes that will support the management, sharing and governance of data across agricultural data ecosystems in Ethiopia and India.

As the project draws to a close, this article is to showcase the tools created and give a summary of the project rationale and our approach.

Project context

Across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, rapid population growth and climate change are  making a plentiful supply of food less stable. In those regions where the majority of farmers are small-holders, maximising the productivity of each farm can significantly increase the food supply and potentially transform whole economies. 

Data plays a major role in that transformation; the decisions farmers make depend on having access to accurate information about, for example, the best farming techniques or fertilisers to put on their land.

The problem is not usually an absence of data, however. The data that farmers and other agricultural decision makers need is often available, but they are unable to access it. There can be several reasons for this including:

  • No overall data sharing policy at government level which means there is no strategic direction or consistent prioritisation of data
  • Inconsistent or non-existent mechanisms, agreements and processes for accessing and sharing data
  • The absence of common standards and stewards to maintain the quality and accessibility of data 
  • Difficulty recognising where data contains personal, commercial or sensitive elements – and where it does, what to do about it
  • A lack of trust about how data will be used once it is shared
  • A general lack of understanding of the benefits that can come from open and shared data.

To help improve innovation in farming, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched an initiative to ensure that programme officers in India and Sub-Saharan Africa were considering data as part of project design when assessing the viability of farming schemes, so that farmers could access the information that they need. The Foundation believes that programme officers and grantees would make better investment decisions if they understood the value of data and data sharing.

Our approach

In order to help overcome the challenges faced by programme officers, the project team created a Data Sharing Toolkit for programme officers to increase understanding of good data-sharing practices and the potential benefits. The team also worked with a coalition of in-country stakeholders in Ethiopia, made up of senior officials and academics, and developed materials to support them in implementing the country’s soil data policy.

The project aimed to encourage grant applicants and project leads to collect and share FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) 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. In India, the team provided training and support around data sharing, which helped shift attitudes towards FAIR data.

Central to the development of the toolkit was working with programme officers in the countries where it would be used. These individuals have actively participated in developing the toolkit, by testing the tools through the process of assessing new projects.

Whilst the toolkit is tailored for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation programme officers, and their grantees and partners responsible for agricultural projects across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, it will be available for anyone to access, use and share under an open licence. Over time, it will be further tested, developed and adapted to take account of user feedback and reflect the changing circumstances in the countries where it is being used. This will support locally-led agricultural transformation by enabling access to data through digital services that will increase crop yields, increase the incomes of smallholder farmers (SHFs) and reduce poverty.

Feedback from our funder

When we started this, I wasn’t sure how far we could get and I am really, really pleased with what has been achieved to date which allows us to get close to mainstreaming a new approach to FAIR data access in AgDev.

Christian Witt, Senior Program Officer Soil Health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 

Learn more about the project

The Data Sharing Toolkit contains seven eLearning modules with supporting case studies, checklists, cheatsheets and guides. All the modules help demystify how to use, collect and share FAIR and safeguarded data.

The toolkit includes:

  • 7 eLearning modules and accompanying summary or ‘cheat’ sheets that describe the skills that enable the delivery of FAIR data within investments and protect the rights of individuals while minimising risk and maximising utility of data
  • 19 guides and checklists to help assessment of needs and risks related to data sharing, permissions and safeguarding
  • 3 country profiles outlining the political, legislative and technological context for agricultural grant applications
  • 6 case studies demonstrating the valuable impact of FAIR, harmonised data sharing while reducing harmful impacts

Read our blog to find out more about our work with CABI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and how we’re helping to support inclusive agricultural transformation by enabling access to data

The Data Sharing toolkit is a flexible online resource to help programme officers, grantees and national partners understand best practices in data management, access, sharing and reuse. It was created to help the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation make better investments in digital agriculture – ultimately improving decision making for more sustainable food systems around the world.

Watch this short video to find out more.

Why is data sharing important in agriculture?

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.

Increasingly, digital tools and services are being used to help farmers improve their processes – for example, they can provide diagnostics on soil health and crop nutrition, or training to inform farm planning. Used effectively, these systems can provide key insights, enabling farmers to move beyond subsistence farming, and can help optimise product and service offerings in support of smallholder farming – reducing poverty and hunger.

Looking to do something similar in your own sector?

The ODI works with many different types of organisations across different sectors to improve the way they access, use and share data.

The FAIR data toolkit has been developed and tailored for agricultural projects, but the concepts and ideas behind it can be applied to a variety of sectors. Please get in touch if you have any feedback on the toolkit or if you are working in a sector that could benefit from the development of these types of tools.

The ODI’s Principal Consultant, Deborah Yates, explains how the data sharing toolkit concept could also be tailored for other domains.’

Looking to do something similar in your sector? Talk to us