This post originally appeared on Agrilinks. 

“I used to think that the computers were something that only the people in offices used. They were not something that farmers could use. But these tools are important [for us] because they help the farmers understand the size of their plots.”

On a late April afternoon in 2017, I found myself in a small crowded room of millet farmers in Senegal discussing something you might not immediately associate with agriculture — data and information sharing. The millet farmers didn’t know how many workers were in their farmer organization. They were uncertain about the size of their plots, exactly how much seed and fertilizer they required and struggled to capture data behind last season’s low yields.

These farmers were joining the Feed the Future Senegal project, Naatal Mbay, a four-year initiative to scale up and expand successful value chain approaches. Naatal Mbay, which in Wolof means “making agriculture prosperous,” aims to benefit 150,600 households active in the rice, maize and millet value chains.

A core feature of Naatal Mbay is introducing digital tools to enable value chain actors to leverage the power of data to better serve farmers. Introducing digital tools can help improve the monitoring of activities, increase transparency along the agriculture value chain, and attract investment. With support from Naatal Mbday, farmer organizations are using, some for the first time, a basic set of digital technologies — mainly laptops loaded with Microsoft Office, Dropbox and GPS devices — to collect, analyze and store data about farmers in their organizations. With these digital tools, they can observe the adoption of technologies, attendance at trainings and yields.

With the GPS devices, farmers can accurately capture the size of plots, allowing them to right-size the purchase of inputs and more precisely manage their production. Farmers can finally ditch their worn-out notebooks that have long been the repository for this type of data. The captured data is shared with Naatal Mbay for the project’s reporting purposes but more importantly is used and owned by farmers to better understand their businesses.

While in Senegal, I met with representatives from several farmer organizations active in the rice, maize and millet value chains who described their experiences to me. Many recounted how they now have easy access to historical data around production activities and no longer need to worry about sifting through waterlogged or torn paper notebooks to manually aggregate membership or production data from past seasons.

The most encouraging stories showed that better presentation and understanding of data led to new investments for farmer organizations: a tractor, a 125 million West African Franc (CFA) investment in a rice processing plant and new funding. Farmers felt empowered by the professionalization and credibility that came along with digital data collection and felt more of their needs were being met and understood.

Naatal Mbay introduced a bottom-up approach to data collection and analysis, shifting the responsibility and ownership for monitoring and evaluation to the stakeholders who stand to gain the most from it — that is, the firms, non-governmental organizations and farmers associations and federations who represent and service farmers. This approach earned a Data to Action Recognition Award by the U.S. Global Development Lab within USAID in 2014, acknowledging the project’s modest yet effective way of incorporating data innovations to increase impact.

The project is slowly introducing digital upgrades, like smartphones loaded with the data collection and analysis application, CommCare, to their 120+ network partners. While these more advanced tools have been available for a few years, the Naatal Mbay team deliberately chose to start simple.

A commitment to learning and sustainability are key pillars of Naatal Mbay’s digital integration strategy. This means not only building the farmers’ capacity to use the tools but ensuring farmers understand the value of those tools and the larger monitoring system of which they are a part. The expectation is that over the long term, these organizations will assume the financial responsibility over the data collection system.

Challenges remain but the future is hopeful. As one farmer explained, “These tools are now in our heads. We are not going to leave them behind when the project leaves.”

Want to learn more about Naatal Mbay and their support from Feed the Future? Check out our longer case study.

Cristina Manfre is senior associate with Cultural Practice, LLC, where she provides practical and actionable advice to implementing organizations, agricultural researchers and practitioners on how to address gender issues in the design, monitoring and evaluation of international development programs. She brings over a decade of experience and knowledge to focus on gender issues linked to aspects of economic growth, with an emphasis on agriculture and food security including extension and advisory services, value chain development, information and communication technologies, and capacity building.

Photo: A farmer’s field in Niger. Credit: Caitlin Nordehn