G-8 Partners Africa To Address Food Security

Barack-Obama-12782369-2-402One of the things we are doing to fuel more private sector innovation and discovery is to make vast amounts of America’s data open and easy to access for the first time in history … And talented entrepreneurs are doing some pretty amazing things with it, said United States  President Barack Obama on Thursday, May 9, 2013, when he signed an executive order requiring that government data be made available in open, machine-readable formats.

The goal of  the new order is to make volumes of previously inaccessible or unmanageable data more easily available to entrepreneurs, researchers and other members of the public, a White House press release stated.

In the same spirit of sharing and making official data easily accessible to the public, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, opened the two-day G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture in Washington, DC. Held on Monday, April 29 and Tuesday, April 30, 2013, the Conference was, and still is, certainly one of the most significant global events in contemporary times.

“Data is quickly becoming one of the most important commodities in agriculture,” Secretary Vilsack noted in his opening speech, and encouraged the sharing of data to enhance its usefulness.

Secretary Vilsack also touted the U.S. Government’s leadership role in increasing open data for development impact and for global growth.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Special Assistant to the President, Todd Park, cheered the work of the Conference stating that, “by liberating data from the vaults of government and the private sector, we can accelerate the use of open agriculture and nutrition data to advance global food security while also fueling the growth of new businesses and jobs.”
Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who addressed the conference via video phone, highlighted the use of open genomic data to leapfrog the development of new agricultural products.

In all, about 400 food security specialists, data scientists, and technology experts gathered with policy makers from G-8 nations and delegates from the six African New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition countries, to work together to increase available information and launch G-8 country action plans to get more data open from both the public and private sectors.

Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Mozambique constitute the African New Alliance countries, while the G-8 nations comprise United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy and Russia.

Topics discussed at the two-day conference included Platforms and Technology for Releasing Open Data; Demand for Data for Science and for Policy in Africa; Open Data and Global Agricultural Statistics for Use by African Policy Makers; Delivering on the Value of Agriculturally Relevant Open Data Globally; and Open Data: Challenges for the Future.

The genesis of the Washington Conference can be traced to the May 2012 G-8 Summit, when leaders of the Group had committed to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the next phase of a shared commitment to achieving global food security.

The Camp David summit had declared on May 18, 2012 that, “in partnership with Africa’s people and leaders, our goals are to increase responsible domestic and foreign private investments in African agriculture, take innovations that can enhance agricultural productivity to scale, and reduce the risk borne by vulnerable economies and communities.

We recognize and will act upon the critical role played by smallholder farmers, especially women, in transforming agriculture and building thriving economies.”

The commitment under the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition included the pursuit of strategies to expand Africa’s potential for rapid and sustainable agricultural growth to raise 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years, by aligning the commitments of Africa’s leadership to drive effective country plans and policies for food security.

They had agreed, as part of that commitment, to “share relevant agricultural data available from G-8 countries with African partners and convene an international conference on Open Data for Agriculture”.

There was also the consent to develop options for the establishment of a global platform to make reliable agricultural and related information available to African farmers, researchers and policymakers, taking into account existing agricultural data systems.

The recognition that open access to publicly funded relevant agricultural data is critical to increasing global food security has become universal. The concept of open agriculture data fuses transparency and technology to improve food security worldwide.

Farmers, entrepreneurs, and researchers recognize the significance and potential of increasing access to information and are increasingly showing interest and the will to get involved.

As a result, hundreds of attendants from around the world graced the event in Washington while thousands more watched it on the Internet.

In the Multipurpose Room of the U.S. Embassy here in Accra, a live telecast of the event was witnessed on Tuesday, April 30th by dozens of invited guests including representatives from  the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Traditional Rulers, NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, researchers,  the news media, and academia, among other attendants.

The U.S. Embassy in Ghana, the   Ghana Open Data Initiative (GODI) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) jointly organized the Accra event. Prior to the show, a number of speakers took turns to introduce the subject to the audience.

Madam Jeanne L. Clark of the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy, Mr Peter Trenchard  of USAID, and Mr Eric Akumiah of GODI, all made introductory remarks on the critical correlation between  putting agricultural information in the hands of Ghanaian farmers and the attainment of the ultimate goal of food security.

Dr Samuel Kojo Dapaah, Chief Technical Advisor to the Minister of Food and Agriculture, said the Ministry’s policy on modernization of agriculture depends to a large extent on the availability of information. He urged closer collaboration amongst development partners to enable them to develop reliable data that would be put at the disposal of farmers and the scientific community.

The G-8 conference in Washington sought to obtain action from nations and relevant stakeholders to promote policies and invest in projects that would open access to publicly funded global agriculturally relevant data streams, making such data readily accessible to users in Africa and the rest of the world and, ultimately, supporting a sustainable increase in global food security.

From creating economic value to improving services to citizens, the ability of governments to publish open data is essential in today’s inter-dependent world. In the contemporary environment, the benefits in opening agricultural data to entrepreneurs, researchers, farmers, citizens and businesses are enormous.

Panel discussions at the conference included the constraints and political realities of data sharing, and the implementation of the Global Strategy to Improve Agriculture and Rural Statistics.

Panelists also addressed how governments and other policy makers may analyze, use, and deploy knowledge gained from open data and what the anticipated benefits may be for African countries.

The session also heard from a number of prominent and innovative thinkers, ideas about exploring the challenges facing African agriculture and how  the demand for the right kind of information to address those challenges can be met.

Mr Edwin A. Opare, Tech Lead and Open Data Evangelist, was one of Ghana’s delegates to the conference and one of other speakers who took the stage to showcase innovative ideas on how open data could be used to support global food security.
In his presentation at the conference, Mr Opare outlined a number of points including the importance of increasing publicity and awareness about the Ghana Open Data Initiative (GODI) project; making more data available on the data.gov.gh portal; providing and  increasing  mediums of access; promoting  access and participation via Mobile communication; sensitizing communities to understand and apply data; and connecting government with civil society, academia, entrepreneurs, and the media to drive innovation.

All this with the view to making agricultural data relevant to, and accessible by, interested stakeholders so they can make informed decisions.

Ghana with a current population of 25 million has an economy that is largely agrarian. The agricultural sector is the highest employer, engaging more than 50 per cent of the country’s workforce. The sector accounted for 29.9 per cent of GDP in 2010, 25.6 per cent in 2011, and 22.7 per cent in 2012.

Jimmy Wambua, an agricultural data analyst at M-Farm, a software solution and agri-business company  in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, was another delegate from Africa who was featured at the G-8 conference in Washington.
The M-Farm organisation set up a text-message based mobile phone application that provides rural farmers with real-time commodity price information through a SMS platform  to sell their goods online, as well as enable them to gain a better price by accessing prevailing market prices for their crops.

Hitherto, the farmers had been making losses by relying on the word of buyers to price their produce.
USAID contributed to the work of M-Farm with information capital – rather than through a grant or loan or other financial capital.

With the release of an open data set from the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNet), M-Farm now has access to ten years of historic data about market prices of crops, which show trends in crop price fluctuation, and enables better decision making on which crops to plant to yield the highest income.

The positive impacts of agricultural open data on the farming sector globally are enormous  – Risk reduction through better information on historical data which can be used to make future projections; ability to more effectively determine gaps in production, infrastructure and knowledge; as well as   increased access to finance, storage facilities, and access to markets.

In most African countries where the question of technology transfer or leveraging the value of scientific open data from the research laboratory to the field remains a key challenge in agricultural development, the building of new  international alliances to expand accessibility to open data would bring about better extension services, protection of crops from disease and improved crop varieties through improved communication between researchers and farmers using mobile phones.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to prosperity in Africa and all over the world, but for the past 50 years, crop yields have not grown at exactly the same rates around the world.

Most smallholder farming systems are much less productive and profitable than they could be. Farming is becoming a more time-critical and information-intense business.

A push towards higher productivity will require an information-based decision-making agricultural system. Farmers must be able to get information at the right time and place.
The discourse on mobile technologies in agriculture is, therefore, part of a wider debate on ICT and mobile technology in development, which has received significant attention over the last decade.

More significantly, the low ratio of agricultural extension worker to farmers in most African countries has made the use of ICT imperative, as it offers a unique opportunity to transfer knowledge/experiences across regional boundaries.
Challenges such as those posed by weak linkages between research, extension staff and farmers can be properly addressed through the application of ICT solutions.

Mobile phone adaptation as an initiative for the dissemination of useful data/information, is central to any future plans to revolutionise agriculture, maximize food production, and open up marketing channels whether in Africa or anywhere else around the world.

Making both the technology and the data available is an important step forward, but even more imperative is the need for governments and development partners to work out the modalities to make the technology more accessible, affordable and user-friendly.

The United Nations defines food security as “All people at all times having both physical and economic access to the basic food they need.” The quest for food security certainly offers the G-8 nations and Africa a new frontier for co-operation, another opportunity to work together in an alliance that is committed to lifting about 50 million people out of poverty (and food insecurity, for that matter) in the next decade.

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