The impact of open data on smallholder farmers

ICT Update

Getting open data benefits to farmers will be crucial if the move towards open access is to have any real impact. There is a lot potential, but lack of reliable and contextualised data is currently working against smallholder farmers.

Open data could offer significant benefits for smallholder rural communities in developing countries. Advisories combining agricultural knowledge with data from remote sensing and mapping provide farmers with early warnings of adverse conditions. Such advice and warnings can be crucial for protecting crops from pests and extreme weather, for increasing yields, for monitoring water supplies and for anticipating changes brought on by climate change.

Data that is shared or reused can have a far greater value than if it were simply used for its original purpose, was one of the conclusions of CTA working paper Open Data and Smallholder Food and Nutrition Security. Potential benefits for smallholder farmers were identified in the paper as increased participation and self-empowerment, improved or new products such as logistical, extension, financial, input and trade services, more efficient value chains with better access to markets, higher and less perishable yields, greater availability of inputs and better pest control.

Hence, giving smallholder farmers access to reliable data can translate into higher productivity, greater access to markets and better nutrition. How to deliver on this opportunity for smallholder farmers? In general, the impact of open agricultural data in developing countries is still low, the working paper also revealed. Often, this is because the data needed to have local impact does not exist, or is not openly available. Smallholder farmers are far more practically interested in data. For example, they ask very practical questions. What crops I should grow? How do I grow these crops? Which inputs do I use and where can I get them? Where do I store my harvest? Where do I sell my crops and at what price?

Theo de Jager, president of the Pan African Farmers’ Organisation (PAFO): ‘On a farm, whether it is one thousand hectares or only one hectare, I need real-time information. What does the market want now? What’s the cost of my inputs now? What’s my soil like now? What’s the weather like now?’ Having better market information would help farmers to decide what to plant and where best to sell it. ‘That’s why open data is so extremely important. It must enable me as a farmer to make a decision here and now. It’s a tool to assist me to make the right decision, on the right day, in the right place,’ he says.

Satellite data

Meteorological data is one area where open data is starting to make a real contribution to smallholders. Better satellite data is available and more services are being created to send the most accurate information to farmers for a lower price. Where satellite imagery is still obstructed by resolution or clouds for the use for small-scale agricultural plots, drone technology is now the emerging solution to improve data.

For example, the Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service (MUIIS) is a multi-stakeholder initiative that looks to provide smallholder farmers in Uganda with satellite-based crop advice. Satellite data will be acquired from a number of sources and data analytics will provide intelligent agronomic tips on amount of inputs to use, daily weather on timing and length of season, preventive practices or early warnings, responses to pest and disease attacks, financial and index-based insurance services, and market intelligence on where and when to sell. 

Studies in India have shown that such satellite data-enabled extension and advisory services can lead to about 40% increase in farmers’ productivity. Examples of satellite-based crop monitoring services include Cropio, FarmSat, FieldLook and ClimatePro. 


For many years, precision agriculture was considered irrelevant to small-scale farmers in developing countries because of the coarse resolution and high cost of the images. This has changed. There is now a growing body of research to support the idea that small-scale farmers can benefit from precision agriculture. GPS-equipped sensors on tractors, for example, enable farmers to measure and respond to soil variability across vast tracts of land, and dispense the right amounts of fertiliser and water exactly where it’s needed.

Multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, have taken up a more focused approach towards use of spatial technologies and information for ensuring food security. The UN organisations are promoting Global Geospatial Information Management. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, created in 1985 by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity. The Dutch government, through the Netherlands Space Office, has started a programme called Geospatial for Agriculture and Water. This initiative uses satellite data to improve food security and has projects in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Mali, as well as Uganda. The Copernicus Land Monitoring Service also makes use of satellite and in situ data to provide regular geospatial information on the state of global vegetation and water cycle for spatial planning, forest management, water management, agriculture and food security.

ICT tools

Success depends on the number of mobile platforms that have been taken to market with users willing to pay for agricultural and financial information services. The mobile and ICT service operators are developing and hosting agricultural advice services on mobile platforms, providing information as text messages, structured menus, voice messages. Farmers provide information about themselves and their environment through these services. Opening up these data streams will provide the opportunity to better understand smallholders and therefore the world at large, enabling better progress in terms of development and governance.

For example, Cropster, is an app that helps farmers customise and collect the data they want to help them make more informed decisions. The data can be exchanged between producer groups, NGOs and commercial partners, promoting the sharing of real-time information and decentralising monitoring to support sustainable agriculture.

Open data that is accessible to producers should make it easier for smallholder farmers in developing countries to overcome one of their biggest problems – access to financing, since it will provide greater assurances to banks and other lenders, if information is readily available on crop performance, inputs and other critical points. The first steps have now been set to create the enabling environment on which initiatives can flourish with the aim to impact smallholder farmers by providing them with targeted information based on reliable open data.

This article is compiled from resources of CTA, GODAN and PAFO.

Related links

More information on MUIIS

CTA working paper Open Data and Smallholder Food and Nutrition Security


other articles in this issue

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.