An interview with Srikant Vasan, Senior Program Officer for Agricultural Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and member of the AGCommons steering committee. Now at the AGCommons meeting in Nairobi
Q: What’s the Gates Foundation’s major interest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?
A: Agriculture is your prototypical geospatially referenced industry.
Q: Um, translation, please?
A: In other words, for agriculture, location is critically important. It matters where your farm is, what type of soil is there, where the water table is, what your climate patterns are, the distance to your markets. That’s why maps are interesting. The other piece is: Agriculture is very technology and information intensive. We’re big believers in the power of science and technology to improve outcomes. So for both these reasons, we think of geo-spatial information as a key piece of the puzzle.
Q: How are you using GIS?
A: First of all, location intelligence forms a key piece of several grants across our portfolio, from AfSIS (building digital soil maps) to HarvestChoice (enabling key analyses using geospatial information in agricultural development to AWhere (creating local weather data layers to better inform farming decisions). Second, my colleagues in the policy and statistics sub-initiative are looking at primary “Statistics from Space” data and filling gaps, to feed policymakers’ decisions, and enable better crop models using remote sensing data. My focus, though, is based on the assumption that there’s a lot of data already– but it doesn’t get to the field. We want to help data cross boundaries–boundaries within and between institutions. And also to disseminate information out to the field and closer to the farmer. I’m interested in seeing a transition from a focus on data to a focus on solutions. This is happening in bits and pieces. Why should a farmer care what we’re doing How can this data affect a farmer’s life? How can it ultimately improve incomes on the small farm, the dollar-a-day farm?
Q: So how DO you get information to farmers?
A: A good example is Mali Shambani here in Kenya. It’s a radio program that reaches 2.2 milion farmers weekly with information they can use directly.
Q: Not very high tech….
A: It doesn’t need to be cool or fancy technology to be useful! Radio is fine by me. We’re also exploring using cellphones. There’s a model we’re looking into of farmer helplines: people can just call up and ask about their problem and get an answer. It’s showing good early signs of success. Video works, too: local mediators video what successful farmers are doing, then gather a group of 25 to come and watch the video together and talk. In terms of adoption of improved methods per cost – early indicators show that it is up to 10 times as cost effective as regular extension services. We’re planning to support it. Now they are dealing with 1500 farmers. How can you scale that up to 100 times that? And how do you show you have a viable model while doing so?
Q: What are other focus areas of the Foundation for agriculture?
A: The agricultural development initiative has four subdivisions: science and technology, farmer productivity, market access, and policy and statistics. We have 200-plus grants across those four initiatives.
Q: Do you work a lot with the CGIAR centres?
A: The foundation views the CG centers as key partners in our efforts across the board; CG centres are key grantees in all four of these areas.
Q: What is your background, and why are you at the Gates Foundation?
A: I’m an IT entrepreneur, having started, built and sold two companies. After selling the second company in 2007, I wanted to find a way to use my skills and experiences to try to ‘give back’, which is what led to this role at the Gates Foundation. I try to find ways to use IT to turbocharge our efforts to help smallholder farmers.