Real-time food prices in Africa enabled by new technologies and people's participation

Recent food crises have revealed the importance of timely, reliable and accessible food price information to monitor food security and to support informed policy decision-making, improved market transparency and more efficient value chains. The European Commission's Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO), together with the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and its research partners, are actively exploring innovative methodologies for data collection and how they can contribute to early warnings about food security. A JRC study conducted in cooperation with Terranea and Eoxplore shows the role that mobile technologies and crowdsourcing or data collection by volunteers can play in filling the information gap in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

Africa has seen the greatest increase in mobile phone subscriptions of all world regions, with an annual growth rate of 11% from 2010 to 2015 compared to 8% globally and 1% for Europe. ©Fotolia, Alistair Cotton

Food prices are a key indicator of changes in food supply and demand, as they signal the availability and affordability of food. They are, therefore, key determinants of households’ access to food. New mobile technologies and crowdsourcing, which uses contributions from citizens (“crowd”) to gather different types of data, are increasingly researched as a means of obtaining timely, frequent and accurate information. This is especially relevant for developing countries, where data are often sparse.

Africa is experiencing an exponential growth in the use of mobile and smart phones, driven by the increasing availability of low-cost devices and more affordable mobile broadband. From 2010 to 2015, Africa showed the greatest increase in mobile phone subscriptions of all world regions, growing at an average annual rate of 11%. The figures for the world and Europe stood at 8% and 1% respectively over the same period. This, combined with improved networks and broadband coverage, makes it increasingly possible to use mobile-based crowdsourcing, including in remote and food-insecure areas.

The JRC study provides a review of the existing literature on crowdsourcing, and takes account of innovative and crowdsourcing initiatives (e.g. from the World Bank, the World Food Programme, the FAO, the JRC and the African Development Bank). The potential advantages and challenges are identified and translated into a set of key elements and recommendations.

The JRC study shows that there is no single crowdsourcing solution. The main challenges are in encouraging crowd participation and ensuring that data collected are trustworthy and of high quality, which in turn depends on the right incentives being offered. Although the financial rewards offered to the crowd are often low, unpaid voluntary work is not common practice, which to some extent limits the potential cost advantage of crowdsourcing methods of data collection. The choice of the right technology and tools for reaching people and collecting and disseminating data is crucial, and should take into account the local network and broadband coverage, the availability of devices and the local community practices. Financial issues such as cost efficiency and long-term sustainability need to be addressed in the chosen solution, along with country-specific and rural–urban disparities.


Innovative Food Price Collection in Developing Countries Focus on Crowdsourcing in Africa