An ambitious, multi-stakeholder effort to promote resilient and sustainable farming practices in Africa
Conventional, resource-intensive agricultural practices pose severe consequences for people and the environment. In Rwanda, these practices have caused over 40% of the soils to be degraded, with productivity continuing to decline (Nambajimana et al., 2019). This is occurring while the demand for food is increasing.
Most smallholder farmers in Rwanda (over 60% of which are women) live on less than $5 a day. These farmers are disproportionately finding it difficult to access needed inputs and other resources (NISR-AHS, 2020).
DISA enumerators speak with Rwandan farmers about their farming practices.
The merits of Regenerative Agriculture
Data-driven Insights for Sustainable Agriculture (DISA) is an interdisciplinary project that leverages the power of Machine Learning, satellite imagery, local knowledge and human-centred collaborations to promote an alternative approach to farming called Regenerative Agriculture.
Beyond the accrued benefits that regenerative agricultural practices bestow on the planet—through carbon sequestration and reductions in soil erosion and water pollution—they are also vital to the viability of smallholder farms and farmers. In this regard, the practices enhance food security, healthy diets, crop yields, employment prospects and income (McLennon et al., 2021; Schreefel et al., 2020).
The implementation of policies and strategic incentives are crucial in driving this transition. The project is designed to provide data-driven evidence to policy makers about the merits of regenerative agriculture. It is hoped that, with more substantive evidence targeted to meet the needs of Rwandan policy-makers, policies will be devised to incentivize these practices. This, in turn, will encourage farmers to transition from resource-intensive, extractive farming models to knowledge-intensive, nature-positive, net-zero models that drive economies.
DISA combines high-resolution satellite imagery with algorithms that can identify regenerative and non-regenerative agricultural practices at scale. This approach will allow us to demonstrate the significance of regenerative agriculture for high impact outcomes such as soil fertility, soil erosion and susceptibility of farms to extreme weather events, among others.
The goal is to have the project serve as a catalyst, inspiring confidence in regenerative agriculture to generate policy action and grassroots change. While our scope is initially focused on the Rwandan context, the objective is to scale the project in multiple countries across the continent.
The origin of DISA
DISA originated in response to the pressing need for data-driven strategies aimed at accelerating the transformation of food systems. DISA strives to be a powerful force for the promotion and acceptance of sustainable agriculture, starting with the east-central African nation of Rwanda, where land-degradation problems are especially severe and where most of the farmers are smallholders.
The project is a collaborative effort among five organizations: Sustainability in the Digital Age (SDA), Future Earth, Planet, CIFOR-ICRAF and Mila. Future Earth and SDA are responsible for building local partnerships within Rwanda among experts in the field, policy-makers and farmers. Planet is providing access to its high-resolution satellite imagery, which the Mila team is using to create algorithms that offer insight into the long-term impact of sustainable agricultural practices in Rwanda. CIFOR-ICRAF is providing novel approaches of monitoring soil health and collecting data at scale.
Planting the seeds of environmental and economic sustainability
Our focus on Rwanda is the first step in a shift toward sustainable, evidence-based farming that we would like to see throughout Africa—a transition that can help to secure the livelihoods and futures of smallholder farmers.
The project strives to empower farmers to build the long-term economic resilience that comes from reliable yields and support them in gaining access to carbon markets (while ensuring they are compensated for reductions in emissions and carbon sequestered). The aim is to reduce and, in some cases, prevent poverty, particularly among female smallholder farmers. Such farmers represent the majority of the Rwandan population and 60-80% of the farming labour market (NISR-AHS, 2020).
Making steady progress
DISA is currently forging partnerships with local organizations and securing funding from philanthropic donors. It is also working diligently on defining the problem from a machine-learning perspective in ways that are contextually meaningful and technically feasible. To this end, we are drafting, and plan on publishing, lessons learned on the topic of Human-Centred AI.
Who’s Driving DISA at Mila?
The technical portion of DISA’s work is being led by Mila’s AI for Humanity team, under the management of Allison Cohen, Senior Applied AI Projects Manager. The team is composed of machine learning specialists including researchers, Mélisande Teng, Daoud Piracha and Gaétan Marceau Caron.
- Athanase Mukuralinda, Senior Scientist and Country Coordinator, Rwanda, CIFOR-ICRAF
- Eliane Ubalijoro, CEO, CIFOR-ICRAF; Director General of ICRAF
- Leigh Winowiecki, Soil and Land Health Global Research Lead, CIFOR-ICRAF
- Tor—Gunnar Vagen, Senior Scientist and Head of GeoScience Lab, CIFOR-ICRAF9
This project has been supported thanks to generous contributions from the ClimateWorks Foundation and McGill Mastercard Foundation Scholars’ Program.