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CGIAR Big Data Platform to invigorate agriculture in developing countries

New global initiative promises to invigorate agriculture, reducing risks, boosting resilience and improving incomes for the smallholding farmers across developing countries

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A new multimillion-dollar initiative plans to disrupt food production across the developing world, with an aim of making it more productive, efficient and resilient – all through the power of information.

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture will be jointly led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in partnership with tech giants including IBM and Amazon.

It will bring together thousands of experts, from crop scientists at universities and research organisations, to computer programmers at some of the world’s leading tech firms. They will collect, collate and analyse vast amounts of data on crops, weather, soils and more, with the aim of producing some of the most precise and reliable recommendations for farmers, governments and policymakers in developing countries.

The six-year initiative was officially launched on Monday in Hyderabad at the ICT4D Conference that is co-hosted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a member institute of the CGIAR.

“It's time for smallholder farmers to stop looking at the sky and praying for rain,” said Andy Jarvis, a research director at CIAT which jointly leads the initiative with the IFPRI.

“With enough data and enough analysts, we’ll be able to say if the rains will be late or on-time. We’ll be able to say which crops to plant, when to plant and how much fertiliser or water to use. We’ll be able to anticipate shocks, reduce risks and maximise opportunities for profitable and sustainable agriculture.”

Early efforts by CIAT to apply big data approaches in Colombia have proven successful. In 2013, a team of analysts ran studies using decades of data from the country’s meteorological office and rice growers’ federation. The resulting recommendations on sowing times are estimated to have saved farmers in the country’s Córdoba Department around US$ 1.3 million in input costs in a single season.

But such approaches have not yet reached the vast majority of smallholder farmers and policymakers in developing countries. The spread of smartphones and internet connectivity to many rural areas means many farmers are now better able to generate, share and receive important data to help guide agricultural decisions and investments.  

“There’s no reason for precision farming to be the preserve of the fortunate few anymore,” continued Jarvis. “While the data revolution has been a boon for farmers in richer countries, it needs to be democratised so that the world’s 500 million smallholders can benefit too – after all, they produce 70 percent of the world’s food.”

The Platform will focus on three key areas such as Organise, Convene and Inspire.

Organise – data on soils, climate, crops and more will be organised, standardised and made publicly available by the organisations that generate it. The Platform will begin by prioritising the free and open sharing of data held by researchers at CGIAR – the world’s largest network of agricultural research organisations.

Convene – foster new partnerships between the agricultural science and technology sectors in order to bring together the best minds, and accelerate progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Inspire – put the data and partnerships into practice via a US$ 4 million fund to support innovative projects with big data approaches at their core, such as real-time monitoring of pest outbreaks, or site-specific recommendations for farmers on water and fertiliser use.

"With enormous expertise and processing power now at our disposal, this is the next frontier in agricultural research-for-development,” said Jawoo Koo of IFPRI. “Better use of data can help drive better policy decisions, helping solve development problems more quickly, cheaply, and at a greater scale than before,” Kood added.

“If we’re going to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of increasing food production, reducing poverty and tackling climate change, one of the quickest ways will be to close the digital divide between rich and poor farmers. This will help ensure the world’s farmers and policymakers are making informed choices that produce the biggest impacts. The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture aims to do exactly that,” Kood further said.

Dr David Bergvinson, Director General, ICRISAT, said, “Big data is a potential game-changer for agriculture as it can offer excellent value along the entire agricultural value chain from research and discovery through rapid cycle innovation, to targeted provision of farmer-preferred products, services and supply chain logistics. It also offers the opportunity to realise real-time monitoring and evaluation to track progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. ICRISAT is happy to offer its skills and expertise to this CGIAR effort.”

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture aims to harness the capabilities of big data to accelerate and enhance the impact of international agricultural research. The six-year initiative will provide global leadership in organising open data, convening partners to develop innovative solutions, and demonstrating the power of big data analytics through inspiring projects that focus on improving agriculture in developing countries, and informing policymakers.

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