Data as Information in Africa and the U.S.

The United States has a well-established commercial agricultural industry in comparison to the continent of Africa. African farmers mostly rely on government-led initiatives (i.e. agricultural extension services), word of mouth, and recently developed digital technologies to improve agricultural productivity and share information. However, these digital technologies are not being utilized to reflect their potential. On the other hand, one way American farmers improve productivity is through sharing data to improve precision agriculture digital tools. This technology is seldom used in Africa, but has benefits for farmers where employed.

As detailed in one of our previous posts, agricultural information sharing in Africa is largely an effort of government initiatives. Agricultural extension services are the main program by which this occurs. Extension agents offer farmer support through information on market access, technology, and skills. However, these efforts are historically underfunded and widely inefficient. There are also more informal forms of information dissemination: farmer to farmer contact in the field, at the market, or in social settings (i.e. religious gatherings). Also, technology has grown in use in recent years, but its effectiveness is debatable.

The agricultural landscape in the United States is significantly different. For one, it is heavily controlled by food giants rather than smallholder, family farms. The only activity profitable for many American farmers is growing corn and soybeans to sell as animal feed to corporations; in fact, this practice now dominates American farming. While farmers do have systems to communicate with one another, corporations reign supreme on dictating the basics of farmer behavior.

Farmer data sharing has become an important component of improving precision agriculture in the United States. By tracking information such as yield monitor, soil sample, and imagery data, farmers advance the accuracy of digital tools that result in actionable decisions to improve practices that reduce risk and increase profitability. Digital technologies used include mobile applications, web platforms, and services that use ag-tech. Over 92% of farmers share their data with at least one person or service outside of their operation, with the expectation that value will be added to their crops. Agronomic consultants and seed sales representatives are typically where this information is shared.

Some American farmers are reluctant to share information with service providers due to a lack of legal and regulatory frameworks on the subject. This may lead farmers to forgo the adoption of precision or smart agriculture altogether. Some other challenges to adoption include concerns about data privacy, ownership, and equitable sharing of benefits of data collection. Moral questions have also been raised about access, cost, and scale of digitizing farms. These worries should be addressed to inform best practices of agricultural data collection and use.

In West Africa, precision agriculture and big data collection is considered “irrelevant” to some, suggesting this technology has not been substantially used in this region thus far. Specifically, collecting soil data for precision nutrient management is rare in West Africa, but digital mapping of soil fertility is happening within multiple countries in the area. There are many efforts to increase engagement in precision agriculture and data collection practices in this location, citing benefits such as increased productivity and greater food security.

The potential of big data analytics in African agriculture is developing, as it is in the United States, albeit more slowly. However, digital farmer information sharing platforms draw concerns among some smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka, so there may be similar expectations for the uptake of collecting and sharing data in developing countries. Despite this, adoption of data collections and sharing has a large potential to improve the African agricultural sector. In Uganda, around 7,000 farmers have used drone technology, a mechanism of precision agriculture, to collect data on crop yields and fence monitoring. This has resulted in positive benefits for farmers, such as improved crop insurance and better yields. For the entirety of Africa, adoption of precision agriculture could enable greater food security, as climate change and soil degradation worsen and new techniques for quickly adapting to new circumstances are needed.

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