Building an Agricultural Monitoring System in Africa

Yesterday in Rome, Bill Gates announced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new $200 million commitment to agricultural sustainability and innovation. CI and our partners, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and the Earth Institute, Columbia University, have received a $10 million grant for the Africa Monitoring System, a new initiative which aims to monitor ecosystems, agriculture and livelihoods in five regions of sub-Saharan Africa where agricultural intensification is critical to meet the needs of Africa’s growing population. In the interview below, CI’s Kim McCabe talks with Dr. Sandy Andelman, a vice president at CI who will serve as Africa Monitoring System executive director.

A man harvests greens at dawn in Tanzania. The Africa Monitoring System will examine the tradeoffs between agricultural development, nature and human livelihoods. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Q: Tell me about your vision for the Africa Monitoring System and the need for it.

A: The world is very connected and resources are diminishing; we can no longer afford to have siloed policy and decision-making with separate decisions for agriculture, poverty alleviation or nature conservation. And there is a growing need to increase agricultural production on the African continent — not only to feed Africans, but to feed the world.

The Asian Green Revolution was massively successful at increasing crop yields, but are the living standards of smallholder farmers in Asia better off now than they were 20-30 years ago? And can those yield increases be sustained in the face of depleted water tables, diminished soil health and the loss of pollinators? If we don’t start measuring agriculture, nature and human well-being in an integrated way, we can’t answer these questions.

Looking at all these challenges from a very high level, we realized that one of the pieces we urgently need to put into place is the ability to offer consistent, transparent, integrated information that decision-makers and individual farmers can easily access to see the big picture: the sum of many parts. I describe it as an ability to take Earth’s pulse and gauge how its support systems are holding up. It is only with this view that we feel that policymakers, farmers and investors alike can make smart decisions that fully consider the tradeoffs and synergies between the likely agricultural outcomes, ecosystem service outcomes, and human well-being outcomes.

This integrated global monitoring system will provide that information, initially in five regions of sub-Saharan Africa that are all priorities for agricultural intensification and which are also very important for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services.

A man sells dried corn, beans and grain at a market in Iringa, Tanzania. Efforts are being made to double the region's food production in the next three years. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Q: Why now?

There have been many recent calls for this sort of holistic and science-based monitoring system building over the past year, from the private sector, to governments like the United Kingdom, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which wrote in its recent Agricultural Development Strategy about “creating a new and innovative monitoring system to evaluate environmental impacts…[that] brings to light any potential problems and builds in the ability to change approaches if necessary.” The Africa Monitoring System will align with the Agricultural Policies area of the foundation’s strategy, which focuses on “helping farm families increase their yields while preserving and enhancing natural resources over the long term.”

Q: You say it will be an integrated and holistic tool for decision and policymakers. Tell me what that will look like. How will it work?

We developed the model for the Africa Monitoring System primarily in rural Tanzania through the work of the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring (TEAM) Network and numerous partners, where we demonstrated our proof of concept. The pilot project brought together scientists, the government of Tanzania, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assess and report on agricultural productivity, ecosystem health and human well-being metrics such as livelihoods.

The international scientific community will decide on the standards for this data, and our intent is for it to offer a “gold standard” environmental monitoring system. Perhaps most importantly, we’ll have national and international policymakers telling us what information they need, and the funding to build capacity for the system and design its implementation to meet their needs.

We need to distill complex scientific information into a set of holistic indicators that have meaning for policymakers. But we also want to make sure that those indicators can be decomposed in a transparent way into the raw data and analyses that went into them. Right now there are many maps of agricultural yield gaps, or maps of ecosystem service values, but you can’t readily get at all the information that went into creating those maps and there is a disconnect between the scales at which decisions are being made and the scales at which the data are available. That’s a serious limitation.

The foundational principle of the Africa Monitoring System will be this transparent, open-access, standard and quantitative data which will be collected at several scales, from household, to plot, to landscape, to region, and eventually global. Policymakers will see a simplified, online dashboard which will allow them to look at the tradeoffs and see, for example, what will happen to water quality or water availability if they decide to intensify agricultural production in the lowlands, if they plant a certain rice or use a particular fertilizer.

An agricultural field in Tanzania. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Q: That sounds like a pretty massive undertaking. Who will gather all of this data?

A: Our aim is to build capacity in African countries to collect, analyze and interpret the data, working through local scientists and organizations. We will give grants to local organizations to collect the data; and we will develop partnerships with existing data collection efforts such as the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics or the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study; and through collection and analysis of remote sensing imagery. As much of the work as possible will be done in Africa by Africans.

Q: You live in California, quite far from these rural African landscapes where agricultural intensification and hunger are key issues. What is your motivation? What drives your passion for this initiative?

A: We face this huge challenge that boils down to this one pressing question: in the next four decades: how are we going to feed the 9 billion citizens of this planet without destroying nature, especially in the face of climate change, and all of the uncertainty it brings? To do that, we can no longer afford to make decisions without really seeing the full picture of what’s happening to the planet. To provide that picture, we need to measure the right things in the right places and translate that information into something policymakers can use.

On a personal level, I lived in Africa for 10 years and have worked there for more than 30 years. My son spent his early childhood in Africa. I don’t want my grandchildren to be born into a world that is dying. But no one should go hungry so we can conserve nature.

Q: Last summer in the scientific journal Nature, you talked about “conservation science outside the comfort zone” and the need to think bigger and faster to tackle Earth’s challenges, sharing your vision for a global monitoring system. Is Africa the beginning of this larger global system? What’s next?

Sandy Andelman

Yes, this is the first step; phase one of a 10-15 year plan. Our intent is to create a multi donor fund that will support the implementation of a global system in priority places in Asia and South America, in addition to Africa. Our hope is that other donors jump on board to help us scale it up. Developing and implementing the Africa Monitoring Systems in five regions of sub-Saharan Africa represents phase one (three years) of a three-phase process (10-15 years) to create an Integrated Global Monitoring System for Agriculture, Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being.

Dr. Sandy Andelman is a vice president at CI who will also serve as executive director of the Africa Monitoring System.


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