Empowering African farmers with data


Agriculture is Africa’s biggest industry, but much of Africa’s agricultural land is currently underutilized. Crop yields could be increased with more efficient farming techniques and new equipment — but that would require investment capital, which is often an obstacle for farmers. A new research collaboration at the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) aims to address this challenge with data. The group plans to use data from technologically advanced farms to better predict the value of intervention in underperforming farms. Ultimately, the goal is to create a platform for sharing data and risk among invested parties, from farmers and lenders to insurers and equipment manufacturers.

IDSS proposes a data-sharing platform that incentivizes all parties to participate: Technologically advanced farms are rewarded for their valuable data, bankers benefit from data that support their credit risk models, farmers get better loan terms and recommendations that increase their profits and production, and technology companies get recommendations on how to best support the needs of their farmer customers. “Such a platform has to have the correct incentives to engage everyone to participate, have sufficient protection from players with market power, and ultimately provide valuable data for farmers and creditors alike,” says Dahleh.


Ultimately, IDSS aims to bring wins across an entire economic ecosystem, from insurers to lenders to equipment and fertilizer companies. But most importantly, boosting this ecosystem could help lift many farmers out of poverty — and bring about a much-needed increase in the world’s aggregate food production. Says Dahleh: “To accomplish this mission, this project will demonstrate the power of data coupled with advanced tools from predictive analytics, machine learning, reinforcement learning, and data sharing markets.”

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