Farmers in Uganda test ‘big-data’ to boost output

Peter Alisengawa, a farmer in Namungwale village in eastern Uganda, was struggling to grow enough maize to support his family a few years ago. Despite getting regular advice through his local cooperative, he could not afford to act on it.
“Without money, you can do nothing,” he said. “They were giving us all these trainings, but I could not put them into practice.” Banks refused to lend to him because he had no land title to put up as collateral. But after signing up for a service that draws on a huge database to give Ugandan farmers tailored weather information, funding and insurance all together, Alisengawa’s luck changed.
The programme run by the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) was designed to address multiple challenges by building a comprehensive picture of farmers’ problems rather than attempting to solve them one by one, said CTA’s head of information technology, Benjamin Addom.
Using weather mapping based on satellite data, agents working for the project delivered location-specific advice to Alisengawa and others on when to expect rain or dry spells.
They also recommended ways for farmers to adjust their crop schedules and techniques to prepare for the coming weather.
At the same time, they collected data on the smallholders themselves — about which crops they grew, their historical yields and how many people they employed, as well as sketches of their farmland using the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The CTA took that information to the Rabobank Foundation, a Dutch social fund, which used it to gauge the farmers’ creditworthiness and agreed to lend the programme 1 billion Ugandan shillings ($270,000).
The collective insight the database offered gave Rabobank the confidence to approve the loan, said CTA Director Michael Hailu.
The money was divided among more than 1,800 farmers across Uganda, including Alisengawa, who got 1 million shillings.
He used his six-month loan to pay for fertilisers and hire more labour, as advised by the agents who visited his village.
As a result, he bumped up his maize harvest by 400 per cent.
“Now I am in position to send my children to school, I improved my piggery and opened up more of my land for farming,” Alisengawa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As data plays an increasingly important role in adapting to climate change, some development agencies are seeking ways to use the data they gather to make their projects sustainable.

Lydia Namubiru
— Thomson Reuters Foundation