Big Data and Small-Hold Farmers: iCow

From iPhones to iCow – this weeks Development Agriculture article takes a look at Big Data! Big Data has revolutionised agriculture in many developed countries, but the wheels are only just starting to turn on what huge potential this field has for development agriculture.

“It’s time for smallholder farmers to stop looking at the sky and praying for rain”, according to Andy Jarvis, a research director for CIAT (International Centre for Tropical Agriculture). Smallholder farmers can now look down to smart phones to access big data which can make a big difference to both their farming practices and also farming systems globally. As discussed in previous weeks, in many cases people in developing countries often have more access to smart-phones than they have access to adequate food and water. However, the usage of technology in development agriculture is still far behind that of agriculture in developing countries.

One of the first steps to closing this gap is through data access. If farmers can access accurate weather forecasts, for example, they can know which crops to plant, when to plant them, what shocks they could anticipate and prepare for, and how to best manage their resources to suit the conditions. Jawoo Koo, a Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) states that “With enormous expertise and processing power now at our disposal, this is the next frontier in agricultural research-for-development”.

This week, we take a look at some current Big Data research projects, innovations and impacts agricultural research-for-development is having in the field of data.

What is Big Data

Data is a valuable commodity globally. Access to data enables access to knowledge which is vital for overcoming challenges such as food insecurity, climate change, and malnutrition. Big data can be characterised as having high volume, velocity, variety, and variability. The origins of Big Data in agriculture focused on precision farming and plot productivity variability. Now, the scope of big data is expanding with focus now shifting to agricultural development.

Agriculture globally has seen a big data revolution. Advancements in technology and infrastructure into rural areas has meant farmers are now in a better position to receive and send data which is crucial to decision-making and investments. This includes data about weather, market conditions, market access, management practices, pest controls and shocks. But despite the spread of big data across the world, many smallholder farmers in developing countries do not have access. Jarvis continues that:

“There’s no reason for precision farming to be the preserve of the fortunate few any more… While the data revolution has been a boom for farmers in richer countries, it needs to be democratized so that the world’s 500 million smallholders can benefit too – after all, they produce 70% of the world’s food.”

Thankfully though, there are many organisations leading efforts to close the digital divide. This includes CGIAR, the World Bank, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Kings College London, Penn State and Michigan State universities, and PepsiCo. Today we’ll take a deeper look at the innovation iCow and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.


Kenya is a hub for novel ICT-based innovations which transform traditional agricultural extension concepts. iCow is one of the examples of the successes big data access can have in developing countries like Kenya. The program is the first mobile phone system which  provides a platform for smallholder farmers to access verified agricultural content. iCow sends SMS messages with information on improving productivity to farmers, in their language of choice. The platform also has more permanent information access systems for farmers to access on demand.

The story of Peter and iCow

Peter started using iCow in 2011, for his 80 x 200m farm in Banana Hill, Kenya. Peter explains that he receives knowledge from iCow on how to efficiently compost the materials on his farm by layering the materials and covering them with banana leaves to stay moist.

Peter also speaks of the Mashauri Cow product on iCow, which involves sharing knowledge of how to increase fodder production and animal nutrient diversity by planting fodder trees (luceana and calliandra), which also improve soil fertility.

iCow also covers topics of animal feed. The milk yields from Peter’s cow (which he affectionately has named ‘Boss’) fluctuates depending on the quality of feed. Peter learnt from iCow that younger maize which included the cobs at their milky stage would help to increase and stabilize the yields.

For the full story of Peter and iCow be sure to check out this link.


CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture

On a larger scale, the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture aims to produce more accurate and reliable data for both farmers and policymakers by combining the knowledge of crop scientists, with the skills of software engineers. The platform was launched in Hyderabad India earlier this year, following a successful big data program in Colombia in 2013. The Colombian program involved providing recommendations of sowing times based on local meteorological data, and data from the Rice Growers Federation. The successes were enormous –  US$3.6million is s estimated to have been saved in input costs in one season. CGIAR’s Platform for Big Data aims to fast-track international agricultural research, to make it more accessible and impactful in all regions of the world.

It’s important to also note, however, that Big Data too has its problems. Many claim that big data accentuates divides between the rich and poor within small communities, that infrastructure is insufficient, maintenance may not be available, services could be unreliable, or that larger challenges will continue to prevail. However, for all the successes that big data has already shown, we can see that this area is one with huge potential for research in agricultural development.  This is certainly an interesting space to keep an eye on as new innovations and technologies continue to reshape agriculture for many around the world.

Closing the digital divide between farmers in developed and developing regions of the world could be one of the fastest and most efficient ways towards food security. Ensuring that both farmers and policy-makers have access to sufficient data to make informed choices is key to increasing food production, efficiently managing resources, adapting to environmental change, and improving conditions/practices for farmers globally.







Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.