Jean de Dieu Niyibizi, president of the Twihangire Imirimo Cooperative, in Rwanda is clear: open data helped make big improvements for his village and surrounding farms.
“In 2006 we were getting just 600 kg of maize per hectare,” says Jean. “By 2011 we were getting 4 tons, and we’re hoping to get 5 tons by next year,” he adds. This picture of progress includes other advances. Homes now have tin roofs, replacing leaking thatch. Dirt roads have been paved. The village now has drying sheds for maize and many farmers get around by motorbike, rather than on foot or by cart. Much of this was made possible as more farmers and their families were linked to digital communications and accessed open data.
The knowledge needed to make changes to their lives comes via the Internet, made available to them by the local business development centre. “We have discovered new markets, developed new crops and improved our incomes,” says Jean. “And because we’ve been able to develop business plans, the banks are more willing to provide us with credit.” Paul Barera, at the agency behind the business development centre, points to the impact of the Internet.
“They’re doing their own research and development and using ICT in a very entrepreneurial way,” he says. Not long ago, the main crops were maize and beans. Now, thanks to information from the Web, they are growing tomatoes and developing a smallscale pig industry. They have also learned about new techniques in storage, and disease and pest control.
This small, yet important, example proves that greater access to open data brings tangible results and empowers rural communities around the world to improve their lifestyles. It can be a real boon for farmers, as illustrated in Rwanda. But the struggle remains: how to fully realise the benefits of burgeoning free data.
For one organisation the key is working with governments to make agricultural and nutritionally relevant data openly available, accessible and usable. The European based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, better known as CTA, states that, “climate change and population growth affect rural communities that are dependent on agriculture. Reliable, up-to-date, easily accessible data is important for making decisions to deal with these challenges.”
The organisation is convinced the quantity of relevant data that can support development is steadily increasing. Satellite images and the exponential growth of mobile communications help extend access to open data. CTA Director, Michael Hailu, points to this potential, estimated to be worth trillions of dollars a year.
“As a knowledge broker with experience across African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, CTA is uniquely positioned to promote awareness of the benefits of open data based on its knowledge of tangible experiences in various contexts,” he says, and adds, “While others have focused on research information, CTA tries to look at a broad range of data that can benefit smallholder farmers and agribusinesses.”
“CTA has been like a godfather to us,” says Jethro Greene, director of the Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN). “It has funded many of our activities since the early days, and we would never have achieved what we have without CTA’s support.” The network set out to focus on helping small-scale farmers. It was the right place to start according to Jethro, as ninety per cent of farmers in the Caribbean have under five acres.
“Improving marketing is now a key thrust of our work,” he says and is particularly proud of their success improving farmers’ profits from variety of root crops.
A decade ago, farmers were getting much less for their dasheen and banana crops. Then open data on crop care, fertilizer use and market prices provided by the network helped increase smallholder incomes. Jethro is sure access and training on technology and open data sources means farmers’ organisations across the Caribbean are more efficiently managed and better led, helping most farmers to improve productivity and incomes.
Chris Addison, Senior Programme Coordinator Knowledge Management says, “Since the term ‘data revolution’ was first coined in May 2013, CTA has been working to develop open data initiatives that benefit smallholder farmers and agribusinesses. This is because we do believe that open data offers significant potential to benefit rural communities. This could be done via satellite and meteorological data or nutritional value of crops.”
But the CTA remains realistic about its ongoing mission. While progress has been made, there is still plenty to do in bringing the power of open data to planners and agricultural communities. There are still significant challenges in the countries CTA operates in.
Statistical surveys are expensive, capacity is limited, methods and tools are not fully developed, and key agricultural and rural development actors are not yet fully engaged. As a result, data is often inaccurate, outdated, incomplete or inaccessible. In many cases the enabling factors include improved cataloguing and better communication and access to relevant data resources.
Key to enabling access to these resources is the adoption of clear open data policies, platforms and data standards that facilitate sharing and use of information across different contexts and between countries.