28 March 2012

Africa-Wide Monitoring Tool Aims to Boost Food Security

Johannesburg — An innovative tool for monitoring agricultural production and ecosystem health in Africa could boost food security and decrease environmental degradation across the continent.

The Africa Monitoring System (AMS) tool was launched last month (23 February), and aims to provide real-time integrated data on agriculture, ecosystems services and human well-being, assembled in six indicator categories, which policymakers and organisations can use to better understand trade-offs that result from increased agricultural production.

Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania will be the first countries to contribute data to the tool, in the first of three phases targeting five regions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The US-based non-governmental organisation Conservation International is a co-leader of the project, and Sandy Andelman, CI's vice president, said data will be collected by automated sensors as well as manual observations and measurements from technicians. Data will also be incorporated from household surveys using smart phones.

"The data will be summarised into a set of holistic indicators and displayed on [an open access] web-based dashboard. Raw data and analytical outputs will be available through the web as well as various customised reports on particular topics," she told SciDev.Net.

Policy nodes at national, sub-national and international scales will be established, and regular input from policymakers will be obtained to ensure they understand the service and are receiving relevant information from it.

Andelman, who will serve as AMS executive director, said the tool's target audience will be policymakers at the international, national and regional level, donors, agricultural extension systems, non-governmental organisations and farmers' associations.

He said farmers would also benefit indirectly through improvements to livelihoods and the maintenance of ecosystems.

Keith Shepherd, chief soil scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre, Kenya, said the system would help generate more evidence-informed decisions.

But he warned that "one of the key challenges will be good planning and coordination across multiple agencies so that everything comes together into a smooth operation".

"If standardised and systematic processes with good quality control are not put in place, we may just end up with a lot of messy data from different sites that cannot be combined," he said, adding that data handling, statistical analysis and interpretation, and obtaining sufficient investment were also potential challenges.

AMS is headed up by CI, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and the US-based Earth Institute, and has received significant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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