The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) shut down its activities in December 2020 at the end of its mandate. The administrative closure of the Centre was completed in November 2021.

The role of data in sustainable farming systems


John Corbett from agricultural intelligence company, aWhere, explains the importance of ensuring that all stakeholders in agricultural value chains are kept informed with up-to-date farming and weather data.

How should technology be harnessed to help agriculture adapt to the impacts of climate change, particularly in the most vulnerable developing countries?

It all starts with the farmer. From smallholder to commercial row-crop farmers, the education and awareness of the farmer on information services is the key. As farmers come to understand how the ‘science of agriculture’ will improve their profits, then they will leap forward in their willingness to leverage technology to help solve real problems. The increased weather variability associated with a warmer atmosphere is already challenging agriculture. From temperatures that are out of sync with growth stage requirements to highly variable and rainfall that is often too intense, climate change to a farmer is weather change. The agricultural value chain must be made more robust so that farmers have the inputs they need when they need them, just as the markets need to know what is producing well, where – and when – it will be harvested. Across the whole of the agricultural value chain only improved information can dampen the impact of variable weather.

Index-based insurance is becoming an increasingly popular approach to building agriculture’s resilience to climate change. What are the challenges and opportunities for such data-centred agricultural insurance schemes?

In my opinion, there are two critical impediments to the effective, sustainable utilisation of index-based insurance schemes. First and foremost, the client (farmer or rancher) must come to understand and trust that the data utilised by the insurer fairly reflects the risks and costs – this is a significant communication and education hurdle. Second, the insurer is facing a nearly impossible task of calculating that risk because the warmer atmosphere is presenting weather variability that has been far more impactful in the recent past (roughly over the last 5 years) than in the ‘statistical’ past – the last 30 years. My concern is that the insurers are far more exposed to loss than they realise as the frequency of weather-based agricultural impacts certainly appears to be far higher now than even a decade ago. This loss will lead to problems as the insurers will not generate enough profit to be sustainable. However, if the insurance is coherently bundled with other financial services, such as credit loans, and information services to balance the risk against the cost, it could be a commercially viable model. The difficulty lies in understanding the full extent of the risks.

aWhere is a partner in CTA’s Market-Led, User-Owned, ICT4Ag-Enabled Information Service (MUIIS) project. What is the key to ensuring that this project becomes self-sustaining and private sector stakeholders, like aWhere, continue to support it?

The key to sustainable information services is to solve a problem and simultaneously offer valuable services. MUIIS is working to provide a solution to reduce risk in agriculture by providing smallholder farmers with packaged weather alerts, agronomic tips, and crop insurance. This is a situation where educating the market – an expensive and time-consuming step – is a must and it is on-going. This project’s success depends upon clear and supportive customer service and the up-front intelligent marketing of the value of the service to address the risk of agricultural production. If this is done well farmers will be more aware of the benefits of insurance in the future and the business costs of gaining market share may be reduced in subsequent projects – and aWhere is keen to get involved.

There are significant gaps in the availability and quality of agricultural data. What are the main barriers to scaling out successful data collection techniques to more remote locations and how can these be overcome?

My positive appreciation of all the technology that collects and disseminates data and information is that the agricultural value chains in remote locations must be approached with a complete solution – a solution for all the key players in the specific agricultural value chain of interest. In other words, providing production information to farmers is great – it will help the production and profitability of farmers – but it is not sustainable if the input providers and the markets are not informed with aggregates of the same data received by the farmers. This is the symmetrical information trap. For example, with good applied science it is possible to boost cassava yields from 10 or 11 t/ha to nearly 30 t/ha, but there must be a market for the production boost to become sustainable otherwise the crop will rot! Markets and supply chain managers need to know how production is doing on the farm so that they can respond to farmers’ needs – as do the input providers. Value chains must be strengthened in concert – or the chain will break! 

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