In this interview, Mélanie Bacou – agro-economist consultant at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and data management specialist in Africa RISING – introduces herself and her work with Africa RISING. It is one of a series of portraits of key people in the program.

Tell us about your background

Mélanie Bacou, data management specialist and agro-economist consultant at the International Food Policy Research Institute (photo credit: HarvestChoice)
Mélanie Bacou, data management specialist and agro-economist consultant at the International Food Policy Research Institute (photo credit: HarvestChoice)

Contrary to other Africa RISING collaborators I am not coming into the program from an agronomic background. Though my academic training is in agricultural economics, I have worked on a number of data-intensive initiatives for both scientific (with the Global Trade Analysis Project) and development aid projects — mostly in the private sector, as a subcontractor for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, African Development Bank, and more recently for IFPRI.

My contributions are typically on building innovative data collection, collaboration, data visualization, and interactive mapping platforms (e.g. survey and mapping of health facilities in Yemen, data visualization of bilateral trade flows, designing interactive materials for on-line courses).

I joined HarvestChoice team at IFPRI in 2010 and am currently overseeing HarvestChoice data releases (over 750 spatially-explicit layers for sub-Saharan Africa) and the mapping of the CGIAR R&D activities globally (over 4,500 flagship activities and 330 permanent research sites worldwide).

HarvestChoice reference layers constitute a key input into Africa RISING evaluation framework, as many action and control sites in the three Africa RISING megasites have been chosen in relation to particular bio-physical and socio-economic characteristics selected through HarvestChoice’s databases.

What do you do in your current position?

For IFPRI I am also working with other Africa RISING Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) team members (particularly Carlo Azzarri and Cleo Roberts) on augmenting HarvestChoice data holdings with more (more recent, and always more spatially disaggregated) socio-economic, health and nutrition layers harmonized across the entire sub-continent. These data curation and harmonization efforts are important to support high-level decisions on aid and agricultural R&D investment targeting in sub-Saharan Africa, and to feed into broader M&E systems.

I work primarily on “spatializing” recent national survey datasets and agricultural census for Africa, but I really enjoy the mix of background and expertise in the team, allowing me to grow my economics skills with a fair amount of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and agronomic knowledge. Over the years I have learned a lot more about breeding techniques, farm management and agronomic practices.

What are your plans for Africa RISING?

Because HarvestChoice is now developing tools and standards for the entire CGIAR System (e.g shared ontologies on agricultural technologies and methods, project mapping tools), we try to leverage these into Africa RISING monitoring and data management platforms, making it easier for researchers and aid practitioners to locate the data and information they’re looking for. We would like for more of Africa RISING field and agronomic data to be carefully curated and easily available through searchable on-line data catalogs, especially ILRI CKAN and AgTrials (an important repository of breeding data). We have to make sure that lessons-learnt and best data management practices from Africa RISING are carried over into other CG and partner programs.

What are the biggest Africa RISING challenges and how do we deal with them?

The bigger challenge is the collaboration amongst Africa RISING research partners, the interdisciplinary nature of many Africa RISING initiatives making discussions around data sharing and standards very difficult, and championing an open-data environment, with every researcher equipped with the right tools and resources to publish not just key research output, but also the wealth of agronomic, bio-physical and plot-level data collected over the entire program lifecycle. This is a challenge not just for Africa RISING partners but for the CGIAR as a whole.

We have also found that many research teams are not necessarily familiar with M&E methods, frameworks, and indicators now mandated by international donors. There is a lot of catching up and training that needs to take place, also a fair amount of cultural shift so we plan all data collection activities with a view to demonstrate long-term impact.

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