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.

Future Farming

Crop Heat Map

Crops of the future can be monitored with smartphones and will alert the farmer if toxins are spreading

Imagine you are a Kenyan maize farmer. Your entire lifeblood is tied to your harvest’s percent yield. Imagine your neighbor’s crop gets infected with Aspergillus flavus. Aspergillus is a mold, responsible for producing one of the most deadly, naturally occuring carcinogens known – aflatoxin. The government doesn’t allow the sale of produce with  aflatoxin levels above ten parts per billion (ppb). Recently a study found that aflatoxin contamination is more widespread than previously thought especially  in eastern and south western sites.  For example, in eastern regions 31 percent of samples collected from farmers’ fields in February 2010 had aflatoxin levels greater than ten parts per billion,  which is not only over the Kenyan government limit but also the United Nations World Food Programme.  In southwestern sites, 40 percent of samples from farmers’ fields during  the same period had aflatoxin levels above the legal limit.

However, you aren’t worried because you’ve have been tested all season long with a mobile diagnostic tool from Mobile Assay Inc.  that quantifies aflatoxin. Much like a tricorder, you can cheaply test in the field and around the perimeter. The app allows you to timestamp and log the info so you can manage the data later at your computer with the latest statistical data models.  Comparing climate data like humidity, precipitation and data gathered from your neighbor using Mobile Assay Inc. diagnostic tool, you are able to monitor a heat map similar to today’s doppler radar.

Sound like the future? Maybe not. Startup companies like Mobile Assay are getting funding from partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They already have this Smartphone tool  (called mReader™) and cloud aspect for their customers. Together with the foundation, they are working with places like Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, or JKUAT, to help solve this complex problem.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 25 percent of world food crops are affected by aflatoxin, and countries that are situated between 40ºN and 40ºS of the equator all around the globe are most at risk (Source: Meridian Institute).

Future Farming

Smart farming of the future will utilize diagnostic testing on smartphones and the Cloud

New technology like this could go a long way towards solving the world’s food safety problems. Because of the low-cost of  Smartphones even developing countries can afford them. According to the the International Telecommunication Union, 96% of the world population has a mobile subscription (7.1 billion). That’s up a staggering 23% since just two years ago at 5.4 billion. For the latest in mobile diagnostic testing, visit


mAgriculture and the transformative power of mobile tech on smallholder farming


Mobile smartphone technology can detect and track natural carcinogens like aflatoxin in grain, estimated to contaminate up to 25 percent of the global food supply

The developing world, and especially Africa, has experienced an explosion of mobile technology in the past decade that has already transformed the lives of millions of people through innovations such as mobile banking and the “digital wallet”. Now, mobile technology is being used in even more creative ways to improve the quality of life for an unlikely group of mobile cellular phone users: smallholder farmers.

Using the popular naming conventions now associated with this type of mobile revolution, mAg is a movement that seeks to leverage the high penetrance of mobile phones in developing countries with the power and versatility of mobile platforms to reshape the face of smallholder agriculture.

Unlike mobile banking, which has now become an integral part of life in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, mAg is a relatively new idea. As such, the strategy of proponents and entrepreneurs has been to take a methodical approach, tackling very specific problems and coming up with solutions that take into account their audience’s needs as well as their facility with technology.

For instance, one of the biggest challenges for smallholder farmers is lack of access to market information such as crop prices. Whereas larger operations have the tools to track market values of crops and negotiate better prices for their commodities, smallholder farmers are often in the dark when it comes time to sell. Companies are now seeking to eliminate this problem through mAg. Esoko, a service provided by Ghanian company BusyLab, now allows farmers to access wholesale and retail market prices through SMS as well as other value added services such as the ability to buy and sell crops wirelessly.

M-Farm, based in Kenya, goes even further, allowing farmers to connect with each other through their mobile phones in order to pool resources and negotiate more profitable, large scale crop sales with exporters and commercial retailers.

Maize infected with aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus flavus.

Maize infected with aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus flavus.

Several factors point to an increase in the market for mAg. First, the last 5 years have seen tremendous growth in mobile phone penetrance in the developing world and it has not yet reached saturation. Second, if mobile banking is any testament to the type of adopters Africans and others in the developing world are, there will be a large and enthusiastic consumer base for mAg applications. Third, and most importantly, mAg actually has the capability and potential to improve numerous aspects of smallholder agriculture.

As the mobile revolution in developing countries continues, look for mAg to become a leading movement, and expect agricultural innovations to follow.