Could Data Transform The Lives Of 500 Million Smallholder Farmers Worldwide?

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Could Data Transform The Lives Of 500 Million Smallholder Farmers Worldwide?

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Regi Wahyu is a data-entrepreneur transforming smallholder farming in Indonesia and beyond. He is the co-founder of HARA and an Ashoka Fellow since 2018. We spoke to him as part of our series on the future of Planet & Climate. (Read Part 1, Part 2 , and Part 3 of the series.)

Tell us about your work.

There are 34 million farmers in Indonesia, who make approximately $100 USD per season. They live in complete poverty. The average age of a famer is 54 and they each own about 0.28 hectares of land. There are at least 9 layers of traders (middlemen), including loan-sharks, between farmers and the end consumer. The traders make pretty good money, while farmers are stuck in the poverty cycle. The problem is: nobody in Indonesia has production data, land data or farming data.

So, I built a simple application at the time to collect the data on the ground: measuring the land and some demographic data about each farmer. We went to banks and suggested they start using land size as a proxy for credit scores. They could start giving loans without any collateral since land size is a major predictor of farmers’ income. They saw the opportunity this represented and agreed.

Now we empower local, young people in rural areas who have smart phones to become data collectors (field agents). These young people collect the data and if a farmer gets a loan from the bank the field agents get a payment as well. Today we have 33,000 farmers onboard with us and we engage 1,800 field agents to do this data gathering. We work with three different banks who give loans to farmers with very low interest rates compared to loan sharks. This means a huge boost for farmers’ livelihoods.

Does the data you collect with farmers – at an aggregate level – help them adapt to climate change?

Usually we have 3 planting seasons: the wet season, the dry season and the very dry season. Now since we collect data from farmers directly, we know exactly when they are going to plant and when they are going to harvest; and there has been some movement. In 2018, the wet season started in September. In 2019, it started in November. This year it started in December. There was no rain at all. Those data affect the loan cycle, and it gives feedback to the banks and the farmers in other areas. We work now in 640 villages so we can map out which farmers are already farming certain weeks and we can inform other farmers not to plant now based on trends we see.

Are farmers listening to your suggestions?

We use the loan contract to incentivize the use of best practices. “If we give the loan to you and you do not listen to what we say, next season we will not give you the loan.” It becomes a carrot and a stick. As part of the loan agreement, we also guarantee uptake of their yield – another good incentive.

Clearly the primary concern is getting out of poverty. How do you connect that with environmental stewardship?

I have found a few villages where local wisdom, tradition and astronomy are used to understand climate change. The way they inherit that knowledge is through local songs. In most other villages, people listen to the Muslim leader– their thought leader. We always approach the thought leadership in the village when we want to start working with farmers. We can’t simply share the data we gather bluntly. We have to build trust and a narrative story line that translates the data we have. We usually talk about the need to preserve the earth – an understanding rooted in the Koran – and hang out with them at the coffee shop. Though technology plays an important role in our model, none of it would be possible without the human elements. Otherwise it would get lost in translation.

You have spent a lot of effort embedding HARA’s values in its data infrastructure. Can you tell us about that and why it’s important?

First, why do we use technological blockchain? Blockchain ensures data authenticity. Once it is in the system, nobody can manipulate the data. And if people enter fake data – a lot of people do – there is a social punishment. Fake data means no loan. Second, data needs to be gathered bottom up, from the field. Otherwise we would spend a lot of money to do a census and the data wouldn’t be accurate enough. Finally, the type of data gathered is critical. There are 5 types of data we collect about: 1) the identity of the farmers; 2) land size; 3) cultivation data; 4) ecological data; and 5) transaction data.

So transparency and bottom-up collection are two principles that guide your work. But you’ve also made the rare decision to have farmers own their data when most companies are focused on monetizing and privatizing data. Why is that?

It’s true data is a luxury and very valuable. A first answer to the why is that I’m the first supporter of GDPR. It’s the best data regulation there is globally and I’m a big believer in that. And my main thought process is “What else can farmers get on top of earnings from their yields?” This connects back to the reason I do this work – to break the cycle of poverty for smallholder farmers. They don’t have any skills other than farming, and no capital to do business. The only thing they have is the data they are producing. I want the farmers to get paid whenever the financial institution, or insurance company uses their data.

How do farmers choose whether to share their data or not?

We layer the data into three different categories: personal identity, which no one can access; anonymized land information including size, cultivation, and transactions; and aggregate data from a village. Most companies want to see the aggregate data. And farmers get to choose what they are ok with each time there is a request.

Going back to the topic of values, is there one in particular that guides your work?

Integrity is at the core of everything we do. It’s about the integrity of the data; having integrity by paying farmers for their data; and integrity in how we behave with each other.

Regi Wahyu is the co-founder and CEO of Hara – a blockchain-powered platform that promotes inclusive sustainable growth and contributes to the economic prosperity of smallholder farmers through the exchange of valuable data. After 15 years working in business development for multinationals like GE and Dupont, Regi decided to pursue his entrepreneurial path. In 2015 he merged his big data background with the social mission of solving Indonesia’s agricultural challenges. Regi became an Endeavor Entrepreneur in 2016 and an Ashoka Fellow in 2018.

Corina Murafa is leading Next Now/Planet & Climate and is also the Director of Ashoka Romania. Prior to joining Ashoka, she advanced long-lasting positive change in Eastern Europe as a public policy expert on energy and sustainability. She has worked for the World Bank, OMV Petrom, Deloitte, national governments and think tanks.

Next Now:  For the first time in its history, Ashoka is galvanizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now: Planet & Climate aims to change the course of history by uniting extraordinary changemakers around audacious goals that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. Read Part 1, Part 2 , and Part 3 of the series.

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