WEBINAR SUMMARY – Big data & COVID-19: Intro panel on the challenges and solutions (Eps. 1)

The first episode of our Discussion Series: Big data solutions to COVID-19 & food security, brought together experts to give an overview of the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the opportunities big data solutions present.

In times of crisis, big data tools can help us make sense of and respond to crises with agility and accuracy.

From using satellite remote sensing to monitor crop harvests to leveraging social media data to track population dynamics that may influence the spread of disease, big data tools and approaches have been instrumental in sensing and responding to the pandemic’s impacts on global food security and supply chains.

As we begin recovering and (re)building resilient food systems, we must leverage the power of big data to examine concepts of resilience and inform our understanding of how digital dynamism enables adaptive food systems in the face of shocks, and, in the longer term, addresses systemic issues in agriculture that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

The first panel, held 30 June, brought together four experts to introduce the theme of the discussion series, giving a general overview of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential opportunities big data solutions present for re-building food systems into more resilient, sustainable ones.

Here are the main take-aways from each of the speakers:

Sara Mbago-Bhunu

Director, East and Southern Africa Division, International Fund For Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Sara’s work experience spans more than 20 years in the agriculture sector across Central, East and Southern Africa. She has worked on agriculture policy and sector reviews, value chain development, access to agricultural finance, social enterprise models and the promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises in peri-urban and rural areas

Key takeaways from Sara Mbago-Bhunu

  • The pandemic boosted the range of shocks food systems in Africa were already experiencing, increasing food insecurity, particularly in East Africa
  • The pandemic has significantly disrupted supply chains (i.e. imports, on which a majority of African households depend on), flows of capital from cash crops (e.g. coffee, cocoa), regional trade, disposable incomes, smallholders’ access to finance, and small food outlets. Without mitigation, the health crisis can easily slip into a food crisis.
  • Reducing food systems’ vulnerability and rebuilding food systems after the pandemic requires practical actions in tandem with adequate policies.
  • There needs to be a shift in how markets are functioning, how food is transported, a need to secure food corridors in order to adapt to changes in demand and supply.
  • Big data can help to prevent situations of severe malnutrition by collecting data on prices and by being able to predict when prices might spike, in order to support the net food balance; but access to government data remains difficult.
  • Investing in agricultural input systems that work for smallholder farmers is essential and digital communication infrastructure can fast track those investments to support small farmers in shifting to commercially viable businesses.
  • Big data can be used to help de-risk the choices that farmers make between different production systems (e.g. crops vs aquaculture).
  • Short-term solutions found during the pandemic could serve as inspiration for longer-term fixes within food systems. For example, many countries are now introducing green corridors, where one can fast track the transport of food and inputs for agriculture.


Andy Jarvis

Associate Director-General, Bioversity International and CIAT alliance and co-founder of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture

In addition to the above roles, Andy is Flagship Leader on the CGIAR Research Program for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), based in Cali, Colombia. He has extensive experience with cutting-edge scientific research in developing countries to support the goals of alleviating poverty and protecting essential ecosystem services of importance to humanity.

Key takeaways from Andy Jarvis

  • In Latin America, prices for agricultural inputs have spiked, making logistics more expensive and restricting access both for industrial and smallholder producers (e.g. rice).
  • Households are spending less as there is less money for consumption.
  • Deforestation has increased across Colombia, Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela in the first three months of 2020, compared to the same period last year, undermining the natural resource base.
  • There is an opportunity to fix the underlying problems of food systems and to explore how the digital revolution can be part of that.
  • Using data can help track movements within informal food systems, such as markets.
  • There is an increased use of satellite-based data that helps track planting, yields, as well as changes to land use. But better global scale monitoring is much needed.
  • Digital tools are facilitating the localization of food systems, bringing consumers closer to producers.
  • Direct food market platforms are critical for food systems security. It is worth exploring how to use digital platforms to support wholesale producers from a health, food, and efficiency perspective.
  • Researchers have improved their use of digital technology to understand phenomena across extended areas in much shorter time.


Natalia Pshenichnaya

Head of the AgriTech and CleanTech Programmes at GSMA

Natalia oversees GSMA’s portfolio of projects across Africa and Asia and has been working on mobile solutions for rural environments since 2010. As GSMA documents best practice in the use of digital tools for agriculture, they are looking closer at how COVID-19 facilitates the adoption of technology in agricultural value chains. In particular they are examing the increase in demand for specific digital solutions, such as mobile money and e-commerce.

Key takeaways from Natalia Pshenichnaya

  • Digital solutions alone can by no means solve the underlying problems we already had in agriculture and food systems.
  • There has been a dramatic change in global market demands, pushing farmers to find alternative ways to make a living
  • There is also a change in local markets, including a drop in farmers’ attendance, a surge in online consumption, a drop in food demand from the hospitality industry. Now farmers do not really understand how they need to diversity production and for how long, while they are less able to invest in the next season’s production.
  • The pandemic is a real test for countries’ ability to feed themselves and for farmers’ capacity to react and redirect produce where it is needed. Even large e-commerce players have struggled to meet demand because of infrastructure gaps.
  • We see digital innovation as a push towards more agility to plan and respond within value chains. The ability to close the demand-supply chain already exists, but questions remain with regard to digital tools’ ability to increase farmers’ resilience, including access to financial services.
  • There is an increase in the number of mobile money wallets and transactions, especially across Africa’s rural population.
  • There has been a boost in agricultural produce e-commerce, in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, allowing suppliers to respond better to spikes in demand, by adding quickly more farmers to supply chains, through automation and addressing infrastructure issues.
  • This crisis has demonstrated the need for farmers’ access to digital communication tools and to financial services.
  • Farmers are trying to come together through the use of social media to sell their produce and this is becoming a global phenomenon; but it remains to be seen how businesses will leverage these informal social media networks.
  • Digital innovation can help solve fundamental problems, but there is still a dire need for investments in infrastructure and for financial solutions. There still is a misunderstanding about how easily can a farmer adopt technology, and solutions need to look at the operational processes and actors coming between producers and consumers, aka the middle of the value chain.


Brian King

Coordinator of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture

Brian King leads the Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, a global programme of the CGIAR consortium centred on digital transformation of food systems worldwide. Brian has led programmes leveraging transformational digital technologies, mostly in developing economies, to establish early internet networks and policies, build sustainable rural internet and license mobile operators, among others.

Key takeaways from Brian King

  • Adaptation networks are highly important for building more resilient food systems.
  • Action must be tailored to national, regional, and local needs.
  • Data sharing and ethical open data collaborations within the health industry can serve as inspiration for food system actors
  • There is urgent need for a global, fast, data-driven science to inform responses.
  • Food systems are disrupted and becoming more localised – digital is helping with that – but also at a global level, we need to know how it is unfolding by context so that we can rapidly diagnose and respond in ways that are context-specific.
  • How data standards and data sharing capacities have unfolded in the health space to collectively combat COVID-19 reveals new opportunities and ideas for agricultural data and potential collective efforts towards food security solutions.
  • There is a recognized need for digital innovation in agriculture – e.g. using remote sensing to start building a high-frequency global picture of global food trade, but there is also a need for market system support interventions and investments in infrastructure.

June 30, 2020


CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture
Cali Colombia

  • 12

Latest news

  • 12