Global Tool to Gauge Earth's and Humanity's Vital Signs Launches in Africa


Africa Monitoring System launches with ground-breaking grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a policy support tool and "gold standard" environmental monitoring system for holistic decision-making on agricultural development



ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, U.S.—In a bid to increase food security and decrease environmental degradation, scientists with Conservation International (CI) and partners have created an innovative and potentially game-changing tracking and diagnostic system for policy and decision-makers that will help to holistically monitor agricultural productivity, ecosystem health, and human well-being measures in African landscapes with near real-time data, and better understand the opportunities and trade-offs of increased agricultural production.

The Africa Monitoring System (AMS), an initiative that will be co-led by Conservation International, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa and the Earth Institute (EI), Columbia University, launched today, following the announcement in Rome, of a ground-breaking grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The investment, a three-year $10 million dollar grant that will be managed by Conservation International, lays the foundation for a new, integrated monitoring system in five regions of Sub-Saharan Africa where agricultural intensification is targeted to meet the needs of Africa's growing population, including Tanzania, Ghana, Ethiopia, and two countries to be determined. Foundation co-chair Bill Gates announced the grant in Rome today at the Thirty-fifth Session of the Governing Council of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations.

"If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture," said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people. The international agriculture community needs to be more innovative, coordinated and focused to really be effective in helping poor farmers grow more. If we can do that, we can dramatically reduce suffering, and build self-sufficiency."

The grant to CI is one of seven grants Gates announced in Rome, totaling nearly $200 million; that brings the foundation's total commitment to agriculture to more than $2 billion since the program began in 2006.

Dr. Sandy Andelman, a Vice President of Conservation International who will serve as African Monitoring System Executive Director said, "We face this enormous challenge that boils down to this key question: how are we going to feed nine billion people on the planet without destroying nature, especially in the face of climate change which in itself brings vast uncertainty. The answer is that we can no longer afford to make decisions without really seeing the full picture of what is happening to the planet."

"To provide that picture, and to ensure agricultural development is sustainable, we need to measure the right things in the right places and translate that information into something policy makers can use, including better data, better analytical methods and better risk management approaches so that they can effectively evaluate the trade-offs and synergies among policies for agricultural development, poverty alleviation and conservation of nature. In essence, we need to put our finger on Earth's pulse."

The Africa Monitoring System will provide tools to ensure that agricultural development does not degrade natural systems and the services they provide, especially for smallholder farmers. It will also fill a critical unmet need for integrating measurements of agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being by pooling near real-time and multi-scale data into an open-access online dashboard that policy makers will be able to freely use and customize to inform smart decision making. The raw data will be fully accessible and synthesized into six simple holistic indicators that communicate diagnostic information about complex agro-ecosystems, such as: ,availability of clean water, the resilience of crop production to climate variability or the resilience of ecosystem services and livelihoods to changes in the agricultural system.

"Rather than having a set of data over here for one issue, and other sets of data over there for other issues, what this system will essentially do is assemble the different puzzle pieces into one clear image that will allow decision makers to transparently see the parts and their sum in one centralized location", Andelman explained.

The data collection will happen at multiple scales to create the most accurate possible picture:

  1. A household scale, using surveys on health, nutritional status, household income and assets
  2. A plot scale to assess agricultural production and determine what seeds go into the land, where they come from, what kind of fertilizer is used, what yield of crops they deliver, what happens after the harvest
  3. A landscape scale (100 km2) measuring water availability for household and agricultural use, ecosystem biodiversity, soil health, carbon stocks, etc.
  4. A regional scale (~200,000 km2) that will tie everything together into a big picture, to see the scales at which agricultural development decisions are made.

All of the diagnostic information will be collected and assembled in a standardized way to allow for accurate comparisons. The intent is to create a "gold standard" environmental monitoring system for the global good.

Another intention of the system is to emphasize capacity building for African policymakers and institutions in geographies where the foundation invests. Measurements will be collected through a combination of ground-based data collection and remote sensing, working through sub-grants to local scientists who will collect information and partnerships with existing data collection efforts such as the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics.

"Our aim is to develop this capacity in Africa," added Andelman. "As much of the work as possible will be done in Africa by Africans who will be partners in the Africa Monitoring System."

CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann praised the grant as a landmark moment in conservation which would inspire others. "For many years, we have seen the forces of conservation and development progress along parallel but separate tracks, with goals that some people perceive to be at odds. But the opposite is true: these two forces are completely dependent on each other for their long term success. "

"The Africa Monitoring System will finally merge these two tracks and recognize the absolutely critical link between people and the ecosystems that support them," Seligmann continued. "We are honored to be entrusted by the foundation to shepherd their largest investment to date in examining the relationship between agriculture and the environment, and I could not be more encouraged or appreciative for their leadership."

Gordon Moore, a member of CI's Board of Directors and co-founder of Intel Corporation, applauded the vision of the innovative monitoring system. His foundation supported the creation of the Tropical Ecology, Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) network, which served as a model for the Africa Monitoring System.

"There will unquestionably be a multitude of challenges feeding nine billion people by mid-century in a resource-constrained world," said Moore. "However, I strongly believe we have it in our power to find solutions through technological innovation and commitment to science. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conservation International and partners are setting a global example of a science-based approach to development for the twenty-first century that I hope will be further strengthened through innovative partnerships worldwide, to make this a truly global information resource."

CI, CSIR and Earth Institute will collaborate with governments, other non-governmental organizations, the academic community, the private sector and key international partners, such as the World Bank Living Standards Measurement Survey, the Institute for Food Policy Research, the World Agroforestry Centre, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations over the next three years to design and implement the African Monitoring System. This period will represent Phase 1 (three years) of a three-phase process (10-15 years) to create an Integrated Global Monitoring System for Agriculture, Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being, and developers expect to mobilize additional resources to leverage the Foundation's investment.

Dr. Andelman added, "The bottom line is this: people need secure livelihoods and to be food secure. We all critically depend — both directly and indirectly, through agriculture — on the wealth of services nature provides. If we continue to make decisions with inadequate, imperfect information, we will fail at meeting this challenge of making sure everyone on the planet has enough food to eat while earth's life support system is sustained. So it is now or never."


Notes for Editors:

Additional quotes:

Sir John Beddington CMG FRS , Chief Science Advisor to HM Government, United Kingdom: “The recent UK Foresight Report 'The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability' recognized the need for integrated information on agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being.  This commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conservation International and others, to create the integrated monitoring system is an important step in the right direction as we meet the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population.”

Kanayo F. Nwanze, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD):  “Partnership has always been at the heart of IFAD’s work, and our most important partners are the smallholder farmers themselves. Two billion people depend on the world’s 500 million small farms. Most of them are very poor. IFAD has been working in remote areas where few development partners have ventured, helping these farmers raise not only their yields but their incomes. Development fails when imposed from above. IFAD’s  ground-up approach  helps farmers build strong organizations so that they have more power in the marketplace and a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives. When farmers are recognized as small entrepreneurs and have access to better resources and an enabling environment, they can transform their communities, their own lives, and the world.”

The Africa Monitoring system has five primary aims:

  1. To minimize unintended consequences of agriculture on ecosystem services by providing essential data and an analytical framework to evaluate trade-offs and inform decisions
  2. In areas targeted for agricultural intensification, to establish a reference level and tracking system for land cover, carbon stocks, hydrology, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
  3. To build local and national capacity for environmental monitoring among scientists, civil society, government leaders and the private sector in areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa
  4. To help ecosystems and smallholder farmer communities respond and adapt to emerging changes in the climate
  5. To create a 'global public good' in a freely accessible and transparent information resource,

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation press release:

LEARN MORE: Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring Network

For More Information:

Kim McCabe
Senior Director News Strategy + Media Relations
Conservation International
+1 703-241-2546

Conservation International (CI) — Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the long term well-being of people. Founded in 1987 and marking its 25th anniversary in 2012, CI has headquarters in the Washington DC area, and 900 employees working in nearly 30 countries on four continents, plus 1,000+ partners around the world. For more information, please visit:, or on Facebook or Twitter.