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Precision advocacy for open data in agriculture and nutrition

Web Foundation · June 16, 2016

Short on the heels of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition’s (GODAN) recent announcement of its 2016 Summit, Web Foundation Africa Research Manager François van Schalkwyk, reflects on GODAN’s activities in 2015.


It has often occurred to me that perspective is the biggest benefit of travelling at 33,000 feet. I am en route to the first African edition of the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) in Durban South Africa, at the invitation of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition.

Kilometres below, the rural Eastern Cape slowly morphing into a more verdant KwaZulu-Natal – both regions pocked by pitiless histories, both characterised by hill-top homesteads. Not yet familiar with the potential of drones in the agricultural sector, I wonder whether these small homesteads are more connected than they were ten or fifteen years ago. Do cell-phone networks and Wi-Fi bring the dotted homesteads of these agricultural communities closer together?

Back on terra firma, I hasten past sugar cane and light industry as I geolocate the underground parking lot at the Durban International Convention Centre, only to discover that the convention centre is reserved for separate banking and World Aids Day gatherings. (I wonder how many African farmers have been blighted by the pandemic.) GFIA Africa, I discover from the security guard, is in the Exhibition Centre. Makes sense – space for the tractors, pumps and a six-tonne grain silo developed in Brazil specifically for African smallholder farmers that I pass as I make my way into the plenary. Plenary concluded, I attend a break-away session in which local teams pitch their post-hackathon master plans, struggle with a coffee with the kick of a mule, and finally sneak away to catch up on work.

On my way back via the conference centre, as I am about to descend via the escalator, the same security guard from the morning blows my cover. “Leaving already?” he enquires. Engaged, I smile sheepishly. He closes in: “What is going on at that agriculture event across the road?” And so Ernest and I strike up a conversation. Ernest is curious about the activities in the Exhibition Hall because he and his family own a parcel of land, given to them by the king, near Matatiele. I presume “them” means Ernest and his two sisters – both his parents are deceased. They keep a few head of cattle and horses, but the land lies fallow. He tells me he would like to plant runner beans and other cash crops. But, living in the city on a security guard’s wages, he can’t afford the seed.

It occurs to me just how disconnected Ernest is from the GFIA – a security guard at an AIDS conference, confined to a city 400 kilometres from home, who yearns to farm. Without finance, both productive land and the latest innovations are beyond his reach. Without produce to grow and sell, no amount of innovation by Brazilian silo companies, Swiss robotics firms and home grown start-ups will connect Ernest to the land.

Perhaps GODAN has a unique role to play here? Perhaps the availability of more open data in agriculture and nutrition, spurred by GODAN’s advocacy efforts, will act as a resource to attract new entrants into the field. And not only highly technical individuals or companies that are able to reuse data in innovative ways, but also those who have the ability to connect farmers like Ernest to those innovations.

I am not an advocate for GODAN (nor a detractor) but, as someone who claims to do research on open data, I have attended several GODAN congregations during the course of 2015. The first was in Ottawa at the 3rd International Open Data Conference. The session was successfully oversubscribed and consisted of a volley of presentations by partners and panellists. Next was the Africa Open Data Conference in Dar es Salaam. The furious energy of the GODAN event on the day of the pre-event was followed by a more composed panel during the main conference. At the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico City towards the end of October, I missed the GODAN lightning talks. In The Hague, at a GODAN workshop hosted by the Dutch government, the format was, for the first time in my experience, less presentation-style with more engagement and discussion between participants. Fervour seemed to be replaced by focus. Admittedly, this was the only event that I attended where GODAN wasn’t part of a bigger global or continental gathering. In Durban, at GFIA Africa, the panel format returned, although GODAN also participated in the open data in agriculture hackathon through its sponsorship of one of the prizes.

My overarching impression from these GODAN events is of an initiative in its inception phase, finding its voice, and resolutely recruiting partners to make that voice as representative as possible. What was consistently missing at GODAN’s gatherings, however, was the voice of farmers.

At all of these GODAN events and currently dominating the GODAN partner web page, are many technical and social intermediaries active in agriculture and nutrition. It occurs to me that these intermediaries hold the most promise of being able to use open data and to connect Ernest to the finance and knowledge he needs to make his land productive. Perhaps it is these intermediary organisations that will be the key nodes connecting partners to each other but also to those currently not represented.

I’ve learnt many things about agriculture during the past year, including an approach to farming called “precision agriculture”. There is no question of GODAN’s commitment or the intensity of its advocacy efforts on the ground. But I hope the next phase encompasses a high-altitude perspective for precision advocacy. If GODAN succeeds in liberating the productive potential of open data in agriculture and nutrition, I suspect that it will be because it made the right types of connections.

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