Blog: Commonwealth Secretariat launches initiative to support member countries to better manage agricultural data through DPI

15 September 2023
Commonwealth Secretariat launches initiative to support member countries to better manage agricultural data through DPI

By Benjamin Kwasi Addom, Adviser, Agriculture & Fisheries Trade Policy, Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda

In this blog, Benjamin Kwasi Addom discusses a model of digital public infrastructure (DPI) developed under the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment programme to support Commonwealth countries' design and build their national infrastructure for agricultural data.

At the recently held Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting (CTMM) in June 2023[1], ministers emphasised the need for member states to develop digital public infrastructure (DPI) and connectivity to ensure digital technologies are accessible and affordable for all. In collaboration with national governments and with financial support from the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the Commonwealth Secretariat is launching an initiative to support member countries to better manage their agricultural data through a model of DPI.

This initiative will begin with a multi-stakeholder dialogue at the country level from 26-28 September in Malawi. The goal of the national dialogue is to jointly diagnose the data issue, create awareness of the risks, build consensus on the need for a national infrastructure, and begin the process for its design and development.

Data as a national resource

In 2006, British mathematician Clive Humby declared that “data is the new oil.” A common interpretation of this phrase is that, like oil and other natural resources, data is not useful in its raw state until it is refined, processed, and turned into useful products. In other words, the value of data lies in the power of its management. Secondly, natural resources like gold and oil are also associated with geographies such as oil in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, and gold in South Africa or Ghana. These can therefore be regarded as “national” resources for these countries. The countries then have sovereignty over these resources and ensure the safe and profitable exploitation of their national resources.

Infrastructure for a unique national resource

Roads, rails, ports, and airports are provided as “infrastructure” mainly by the public sector to allow all stakeholders - both public and private to provide transport services on the infrastructure. All shared public infrastructure serves as the fundamental building blocks that allow innovations – products and services to thrive. Also, for safe and profitable exploitation of these national resources, countries have put in place policies regulations, and infrastructure to guide both public and private sector players to carry out their activities.

Private sector service providers would need to use existing infrastructure and regulations to exploit these resources or obtain permits to build their own infrastructure if the existing public infrastructure is not available. Private sector transport service providers would use public infrastructure such as roads, rails, and airports to provide their products and services to citizens. By doing so, they pay taxes and tolls to ensure that the infrastructure is maintained.

The data challenge.

Unfortunately, countries lack a national approach to infrastructure for managing this unique national resource – agricultural data. As a result, every service provider, whether digital platform operators, researchers, NGOs, farmer cooperatives or UN bodies, will have to build their own data systems – a kind of infrastructure for their data. This leads to fragmented databases, the unwillingness of the data holders to share data, further duplication of data systems, operational inefficiencies, data collection fatigue on data subjects, failure to scale innovations based on data, unsuited policies being made based on this fragmented data points, and a data power imbalance between the data owners and data holders. The long-term effect of policy inaction of national governments will be a weak national digital sovereignty – the power and authority of national governments to make free decisions which affects citizens and businesses within the digital domain.

The call: A national approach to agricultural data management through DPI

Commonwealth member states need to consider agricultural data in their countries as a national resource and take the necessary policy actions to guard the resource and maximise the potential of the data for its citizens and across the entire Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Secretariat through its Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment has developed a model of DPI to support countries’ design and build their national infrastructure for agricultural data.

The framework consists of four components:

  1. a social or principles component that takes stock of existing data principles globally, generic principles for agricultural data, and country-specific principles to guide the use of data in the country;
  2. a data system or technology component that explores the viability of technological system to bridge existing data systems in the country and ensure interoperability;
  3. a governance or administration component that calls for a neutral and independent multi-stakeholder entity through custodians, stewards, or trustees to manage the infrastructure;
  4. a market or business model to guide how the infrastructure is financed and sustained for equitable access.

The real untapped resource currently across the Commonwealth is unstructured data. While the resource exists, the artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) revolution are very data-hungry. Member countries need a coordinated approach to the huge amounts of agricultural data that have been generated over the decades to train AI models for the benefit of smallholder agriculture.

According to Jon Suarez-Davis, Chief Strategy Officer at Ketch, the past three decades of data-management innovation have focused on amassing data, but the next three decades will bring a focus on unlocking mutual value for companies and consumers[2].

The long-standing spirit of cooperation in the Commonwealth positions the Secretariat to play an ecosystem coordinator and honest brokering role in supporting member countries to harness the power of data for future digital sovereignty, for both citizens and business.

To be part of this coordinated approach to agricultural data management across the Commonwealth, contact the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment (CCA) to join the national dialogues.


[2] Data isn’t ‘the new oil’ - it’s way more valuable than that. By Jon Suarez-Davis | Chief Strategy Officer, DECEMBER 12, 2022,value%20lies%20in%20its%20potential.