Bridging the data gap: using market information to empower farmers

2015 World Food Prize Laureate Sir Fazle Hasan Abed introduces a panel on bringing valuable information and data to farmers. (Photo by Alexa Ahern)

2015 World Food Prize Laureate Sir Fazle Hasan Abed introduces a panel on bringing valuable information and data to farmers. (Photo by Alexa Ahern)

By Alexa Ahern

DES MOINES, Iowa — For small fishing communities in India, a cell phone can mean the difference between making a profit or not. In places where market fluctuations work against farmers, a cell phone connects them to a network in which they can find the markets with the best prices for their crops.

Collecting accurate and timely data, especially when it comes to prices, can make all the difference, but the first challenge is giving farmers access to that information.

“In my mind, data equals empowerment,” Phil Karsting, administrator at the Foreign Agricultural Service, said at the World Food Prize Wednesday at the Mariott Downtown Hotel.

Three speakers introduced by Karsting shared methods for bringing information to farmers who benefit from access to accurate and timely data — from the effectiveness of fertilizer to the difference in quality levels.

Eleni Gabre-Madhin is founder and chief executive officer of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, which has helped regulate the marketplace in Ethiopia.

Agriculture is a business, Gabre-Madhin said, meaning it needs structure in the exchange of commodities to ensure growth.

A reliable, efficient and transparent exchange between buyers and sellers provides essential ingredients to the growth of the marketplace. Market information is one of those ingredients.

Gabre-Madhin and her company, eleni LLC, are working to implement commodity exchanges in countries all over the world. The key is tailoring solutions to the situations, she said.

For example, in Ethiopia, Gabre-Madhin found that farmers weren’t aware of the difference in product quality levels. Removing shriveled beans from their coffee yields can mean moving up a level and selling at a higher price.

“Farmers are smart, but they need the incentive to change their behavior,” she said.

Cheryl Christensen, a USDA official, believes accurate market information is the key to food security, especially in times of crisis. Christensen is chief of the Food Security and Development Branch and the International Programs Coordinator for the department’s Economic Research Service.

Data can provide information about who is the most vulnerable, leading to earlier awareness and quicker relief efforts.

Overall, only accurate and comprehensive data are valuable, she said.

Market information has to include every aspect of the marketplace.

Even when data are accurate and relevant, there’s no guarantee farmers will have access or make use of it.

Farmers need incentives to adopt practices, which often comes from seeing other farmers similar to them adopt practices, said Ben Jaques-Leslie, Senior Research, Training and Program Manager at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

We must think of intervention from the perspective of farmers and their problems, Jaques-Leslie said.

In Kerala, India, fishing communities that use cell phones to find markets with the best prices for their fish have an easier time navigating waterways to get to those markets. For land-based food producers in countries where poor roads might mean higher transportation costs, this method — using cell phones to find the best market — might not make it worth changing.


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