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Technology

Tapping open data to boost agriculture productivity

Agriculture ministry plans to automate its data management system to make it possible for farmers and other stakeholders to receive timely or real-time data. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
Agriculture ministry plans to automate its data management system to make it possible for farmers and other stakeholders to receive timely or real-time data. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH  

Mary Wandia is a tech savvy farmer who started an agricultural enterprise two years ago after being retrenched at her job.

To ensure that her business venture is profitable, she relies heavily on information from the internet to guide her on best farming practices.

“But I never know who to believe. There are so many sites offering conflicting agricultural tips out there. So it’s difficult to determine who’s telling the truth,” she says.

Her experience is similar to many Kenyan farmers who due to lack of a central repository or portal for agricultural information, have been facing various challenges in their agricultural initiatives.

Wilfred Oluoch, data lead at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), notes that quality data for the sector is insufficient and hard to come by.

He states that this challenge makes it hard for farmers and other agriculture stakeholders - such as traders, processers, input providers, researchers and policy makers– to make optimal decisions that can boost profits in the sector and enhance food security.

“When you don’t have sufficient reliable information, then you end up making decisions that are largely based on intuition and not data. And this can lead to misleading conclusions,” he says.

To address this problem, head of agricultural statistics at the Ministry of Agriculture Tom Dienya told the Business Daily that the organisation plans to establish an open data portal that will provide relevant agricultural information to the public at no cost.

He added that the information will be provided in different user-friendly formats — graphics, charts, maps, pdf, excel sheets or word document— that people can choose from, depending on what they want to do with the data.

“Before we had a culture of hoarding information, but we are changing that now as we know that availing the data will boost performance of the entire agriculture sector,” he said.

“When players along the value chain - from farmers to processors - make losses, then we all lose as a country. So by opening the data, everyone gains.”

This initiative is in line with the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) movement that Kenyan joined in 2015.

With the launch of the new portal, expected later this year, Kenya is expected to take the lead among developing nations in the GODAN pact to make agricultural data accessible to the public.

The total contribution of agriculture to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is 31.5 per cent based on the 2018 Economic Survey.

But experts note that the figure could go higher with improved decision making based on easily accessible quality data for all agriculture stakeholders.

According to Mr Dienya, the open data portal has a huge potential of generating additional revenue schemes that are not yet fully tapped in the agricultural sector.

“We are seeing a big opportunity with the youth who are tech savvy and don’t therefore want to engage in hard-core agriculture labour.”

“These young people would be happy to use the data from the portal to come up with technological innovations or apps to address various challenges in the sector and generate income from them.”

He stated that such initiatives will also help the country to address it high unemployment rate.

But to fully harness benefits of open data and make it relevant to key stakeholders, Mr Dienya noted that data availed through the portal should be accurate and of high quality.

According to him, this goal can be achieved if all agricultural bodies consult and agree on guidelines to be followed when undertaking research, as well as determine organisations mandated to officially announce results once they are out.

“All stakeholders should work together so we can avoid the current situation where different bodies are churning out conflicting data that confuses the public.”

This approach has worked well in the health sector where key players usually work together to produce the Kenya Demographic and Health Surveys (KDHS) that is then officially announced by the health ministry.

Thereafter, this document serves as a one-stop-shop for credible information on all health indicators that are endorsed by both local and global institutions including the World Health Organisation.

“We need something similar to this for data on agricultural indicators.”

According to Mr Oluoch, data needs to be consistent and timely for it to be relied upon as an effective decision making tool.

“To avoid causing delays in decision making which can have detrimental effects on the country’s food security, the sector requires the right kind of information at the right time and in the right kind of format.”

With an aim of avoiding consistency gaps in agricultural data, Mr Dienya noted that data collection and reporting structures between the national and county governments should to be strengthened.

“We need some sort of legislative framework to ensure everyone is committed to this initiative. We shouldn’t have a situation where some counties collect data while others don’t as this will affect everyone.”

He further stated that the ministry plans to automate its data management system to make it possible for farmers and other stakeholders to receive timely or real-time data on key agricultural information such as commodity prices, seeds availability or places to get quality farm inputs, that they may be interested in.

The current manual data collection, compilation, analysis and reporting approaches have been largely responsible for delays in information.

“We are also getting into Big Data analytics through a centre that will be established at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro),” Mr Dienya said.

“This will enable us to analyse trends in the sector effectively and be able to make accurate predictions on weather patterns, disease outbreaks and other key matters.”

According to Mr Oluoch, a change in mindset is paramount for open data initiatives to thrive and become sustainable.

“We need to look at data as a public good that has impact when made available to as many people as possible, as opposed to just limiting it to a few individuals.”

To further enhance sustainability, he added that Kenya needs a national policy to guide implementation of open data initiatives in all government sectors and not just in agriculture.

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