The Poverty of Data in African Agriculture

Africa accounts for 60% of the world’s arable uncultivated land, but despite this incredible agricultural potential, 1 in 4 Africans go hungry every year. Although governments, non-profit organizations, and other stakeholders are committed to reducing food insecurity and developing African agriculture, their efforts have been hampered by a scarcity that mirrors the physical shortage of sustenance.  A drought of data and information is having far-reaching and complex effects in many sub-Saharan African nations as they work to end hunger and improve agriculture.


There are numerous impediments that limit agricultural production and sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa including:

  • Unproductive farming systems
  • Lack of agricultural innovation
  • Limited research capacity and infrastructur
  • Inconsistent or uninformed agricultural policies
  • Poorly managed biotic and abiotic stressors on crops.
  • Lack of accessible education on farming best practices
  • Inadequate information management tools for farmers and regulatory bodies

Identifying the numerous problems farmers face is not easy simply because quality agriculture data is so sparse.  Even large-scale intervention efforts such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Project have experienced setbacks because of lack of quality data. The 2010 MDG Project Report noted the challenges of measuring the progress of sub-Saharan Africa in the absence of robust survey information.

“The lack of good quality surveys carried out at regular intervals and delays in reporting survey results continue to hamper the monitoring of poverty. Gaps are particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of countries lack sufficient data to make comparisons over the full range of the MDGs…”


Building statistical capacity in Africa may be a necessary step before real improvement in the agricultural sector can occur.  Of the 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa rated by the Food and Agricultural Organization, only two are considered to have high standards in data collection, while standards in 21 countries remain low. The validity of existing statistics has been called into question which leads to ill-informed and inconsistent policy decisions that may do more harm than good.

The absence of agricultural data is a serious, but often overlooked problem; however certain strategies could greatly improve the way data are collected and analyzed.  Below are several suggested approaches that would transform the state of agriculture data in Africa:

How to improve quality data acquisition and analysis

  • Leveraging mobile technology as data gathering tools
  • Developing more accessible data collection systems
  • Creating agencies and providing training to monitor progress
  • Integrating crop data with climate data to create data visualization and predictive models
  • Improving data sharing coordination between governmental agencies and nonprofits
  • Standardizing data collection and visualization methods for a common open access platform

Of these proposed solutions, one of the most novel is the potential use of mobile phones for data collection and tracking.  Where countries may lack the human or monetary resources to carry out effective survey taking or census, the high penetrance of mobile phones makes it possible to collect data from numerous  farmers in a rapid and cost efficient manner. This solution also standardizes the format of collected data and would improve the process and accuracy of analysis and interpretation. Mobile technology may also be used to take many data points over the course of planting and harvesting seasons so that trends could be identified and treatment mitigation strategies may be formulated for crop disease outbreaks and pest management.

Tremendous effort has been put forth to grow agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa, and improving the way agriculture data is collected, visualized and analyzed will only make those efforts more fruitful.

Benefits of better data

  • More informed policy-making and regulation
  • More efficient data-driven farming practices that use data to improve crop yields and decrease crop losses
  • Better understanding of what programs and investments lead to measureable improvements in agricultural productivity
  • Improved market analysis leading to greater returns for smallholder farmers
  • Increased incentives to develop new innovations

Creative strategies for ending Africa’s poverty of quality data will hasten the march toward strong agriculture development and food security.