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Tech & Digitalisation

Transforming Agriculture Through Data: Insights From Malawi


Commentary28th February 2024

The power of data is revolutionising industries across the world, providing opportunities for greater efficiency and innovation. Governments that embrace data in combination with cutting-edge technology can transform the way they deliver public services and support their national industries, building a reimagined state equipped for the challenges of the 21st century.

Developing countries, however, frequently encounter challenges in formulating evidence-based policies due to limited access to comprehensive and readily available data. Data silos, scattered across various systems and even confined to individual laptops, pose a significant hurdle. This fragmentation hinders the effective use of data in providing actionable insights, which is crucial for informed decision-making and policy development in the agricultural sector.

Agriculture is the backbone of Malawi’s economy but the industry has long grappled with challenges. Low yields, pest invasions and climate change have continually threatened food security and economic sustainability. In April 2023, as farmers readied their fields for harvest, the country was rocked by Cyclone Freddy, the most energetic tropical storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere. The cyclone saw more than 2 million farmers lose their crops and livestock and more than 179,000 hectares of crop fields destroyed. With extreme climatic events set to become more frequent, embracing innovation to support farmers is paramount for government.

By harnessing actionable insights from data, governments can ensure their efforts are targeted, resilient and aligned with the evolving needs of a farming population. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) has been working closely with the government of Malawi to identify these opportunities and make them a reality.

Exploring Malawi’s Subsidy Challenges

Since the 1960s, the Malawian government has been operating subsidy schemes with the aim of assisting smallholder farmers in accessing essential agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers, in order to enhance the productivity of rain-fed crops. Accounting for 50 per cent of the governments 2022–23 agriculture budget, subsidies have come under increasing scrutiny due to concerns about inefficiencies and the misallocation of resources.

A collaborative dialogue among key stakeholders, facilitated by TBI, included representatives from government, civil society and the private sector who scrutinised the root causes of challenges in the subsidy programme. Through the conversations, a priority became clear: revamping beneficiary targeting for subsidies through a data-driven approach, which would funnel resources more effectively and transparently, ensuring they reach the people who need them most and can maximise the agricultural input’s use.

Embracing Data for Transformation

Embracing data to transform Malawi’s agricultural sector required a comprehensive assessment of existing data sources in order to compile and harmonise them into a usable farmer registry. However, while the harmonisation provided a holistic database, the information collated can often be outdated and prone to inaccuracies. To combat this, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of E-Government worked with TBI to roll out a custom mobile app designed to ensure data accuracy through “ground truthing”: verifying data against real-world conditions and circumstances. The app was used by 4,000 extension workers – Ministry of Agriculture staff who provide agronomic advisory services to farmers – to validate nearly 3 million farmer records nationwide over approximately 40 days.

Once reliable data had been collected, the question for the Malawian government was how to put them to use. The governments goal was to optimise the impact of its subsidies to achieve the highest possible output in food production. A machine-learning model was developed to cluster and classify farmers by productivity and land availability. This led to the creation of a “dynamic beneficiary-selection algorithm”, which streamlines the process of objectively identifying the most productive smallholder farmers to receive subsidies and improves resource allocation, ultimately contributing to greater crop yields.

Precision and Nuance

The foundation of this data-driven transformation was the harmonisation and enrichment of available data sources. By unifying disparate data into a cohesive farmer registry, TBI, in partnership with the government of Malawi, was able to lay the foundation for precise beneficiary targeting. This approach not only addresses the challenges faced by the subsidy programme, but also positions Malawi at the forefront of data-centric agricultural reforms.

Implementing nuanced and strategic distribution of subsidies is projected to elevate productivity by 50 per cent for programme beneficiaries, enabling them to contribute up to 40 per cent of the food Malawi requires annually. In addition, this process has made it possible to redirect almost 75 per cent of the previous years beneficiaries to other social-support programmes. Because the productivity of those farmers is currently low, in the short term they would benefit more from programmes offering benefits such as cash transfers rather than agricultural-input subsidies.

The establishment of a centralised farmer registry both tackles the current challenges facing the sector and lays the groundwork for future technological advancement and innovation in agriculture. Malawi now expects to see gains in profitability, increased investment and sustainable growth within its farming sector as a consequence.

Lessons for the Region

The journey to a food-secure and climate-smart future is complex. Malawi is already taking significant strides towards this future by embracing data and technology as the cornerstones of its agricultural transformation. Although every country faces its own distinct challenges, it is evident that rethinking the implementation of long-standing schemes by integrating cost-effective technological tools, as Malawi has done, can unleash significant potential for productivity and development for the wider region.

As Malawi’s story shows us, the importance of data harmonisation and integration cannot be overstated. Integrating data from disparate sources into a centralised system provides a level of insight and accuracy previously thought to be unattainable.

Emerging technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence can also offer innovative solutions to longstanding challenges. These technologies can provide new ways to understand and interact with data, enabling targeted interventions and more efficient resource allocation.

But for these technology- and data-driven approaches to be successful, governments must invest in building the digital capabilities of their workforces. Training extension workers, statisticians, economists and policymakers to use new technologies and data systems is crucial for the sustainability of these initiatives.

Malawi’s experience underscores the critical role that data must play in transforming agriculture. By adopting a data-harmonisation approach, leveraging data analytics and embracing emerging technologies, Malawi has established a blueprint for other data-driven sustainable-development initiatives. This journey from data fragmentation to strategic utilisation exemplifies how states can reimagine decision-making and service delivery to provide tailored, impactful policies and programmes.

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