What Bhutanese hazelnuts tell us about using data for good

Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño at WEForum: “How are we going to close the $2.5 trillion/year finance gap to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Whose money? What business model? How to scale it that much? If you read the recent development economics scholar literature, or Jim Kim’s new financing approach of the World Bank, you might hear the benefits of “blended finance” or “triple bottom lines.” I want to tell you instead about a real case that makes a dent. I want to tell you about Sonam.

Sonam is a 60-year old farmer in rural Bhutan. His children left for the capital, Thimphu, like many are doing nowadays. Four years ago, he decided to plant 2 acres of hazelnuts on an unused rocky piece of his land. Hazelnut saplings, training, and regular supervision all come from “Mountain Hazelnuts”, Bhutan’s only 100% foreign invested company. They fund the costs of the trees and helps him manage his orchard. In return, when the nuts come, he will sell his harvest to them above the guaranteed floor price, which will double his income; in a time when he will be too old to work in his rice field.

You could find similar impact stories for the roughly 10,000 farmers participating in this operation across the country, where the farmers are carefully selected to ensure productivity, maximize social and environmental benefits, such as vulnerable households, or reducing land erosion.

But Sonam also gets a visit from Kinzang every month. This is Kinzang’s first job. Otherwise, he would have moved to the city in hopes of finding a low paying job, but more likely joining the many unemployed youth from the countryside. Kinzang carefully records data on his smart-phone, talks to Sonam and digitally transmits the data back to the company HQ. There, if a problem is recorded with irrigation, pests, or there is any data anomaly, a team of experts (locally trained agronomists) will visit his orchard to figure out a solution.

The whole system of support, monitoring, and optimization live on a carefully crafted data platform that feeds information to and from the farmers, the monitors, the agronomist experts, and local government authorities. It ensures that all 10 million trees are healthy and productive, minimizes extra costs, tests and tracks effectiveness of new treatments….

This is also a story which demonstrates how “Data is the new oil” is not the right approach. If Data is the new oil, you extract value from the data, without much regard to feeding back value to the source of the data. However, in this system, “Data is the new soil.” Data creates a higher ground in which value flows back and forth. It lifts the source of the data -the farmers- into new income generation, it enables optimized operations; and it also helps the whole country: Much of the data (such as road quality used by the monitors) is made open for the benefit of the Bhutanese people, without contradiction or friction with the business model….(More)”.