Zaheer Dindar, South African, is the Director of Analytics Team at the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). Trained in Computational and Applied Mathematics with a focus on Artificial Intelligence, he is passionate about connecting the dots with rigorous research and produce evidence in a bid to address systematic agricultural bottlenecks.

Despite having such a busy schedule, Zaheer has never faltered from occasionally glancing up from his desk to see how his Analytics team is doing.

Zaheer leads ATA’s Analytics team of young, talented, and ambitious individuals engaged in research and generation of sound solutions that will contribute to transforming Ethiopia’s agriculture and improving the lives of smallholder farmers. They come from different fields of study but there is one thing that makes them similar; all are selected based on their high educational performance and have undergone a rigorous selection process – a process has ensured that only the best get recruited and has enabled ATA to build a reputation for having an analytics team that is renowned for its works. “We recruit the top new graduates and international consultants from top firms, and look out for people who have the ability to work in a team, that have strong interpersonal and communication skills, and have the ability to solve problems in creative ways,” says Zaheer.

Most of the analysts are recruited through an outreach program at their universities and colleges. “I didn’t know much about agriculture or consulting when I first heard of the Analytics program within ATA at a recruitment program,” says Orion Lemma, a Senior Analyst at ATA. Hayat Ebrahim, an Associate Case Team Leader in the Analytics team comments, “Since I joined ATA, I have learned a lot, and it has been like a second home. I am glad to say I have one of the rarest opportunities to work with and learn from some of the brightest minds across the world.” She adds, “When I first heard that an organization called ATA is holding an outreach program at our campus, I almost did not make it to the program. However, things changed for me quickly once I listened to the pitch presentation about the work that the Analytics team does, and what a typical day of an Analyst is. I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!’ And I have not been disappointed.”

Analysts at ATA are primarily tasked with analysis works. Some of the tasks they do include internal/external research, quantitative and qualitative analyses, contributing to problem-solving sessions, and sharing their findings and recommendations to the various ATA projects that are dedicated to improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers by supporting them to shift from subsistence farming to commercial-oriented agriculture. The Analytics team is engaged in strategy development and policy analysis that contribute to creating an enabling environment in the agricultural sector. One of the projects currently being supported by Analytics is the Farmer Production Cluster (FPC) that is a subset of the Agricultural Commercialization Cluster (ACC) programme. The project contains clearly defined geographic clusters specializing in priority commodities across the four major agricultural regions of the country. These clusters are intended to act as Centers of Excellence (CoE), where regions will be supported to maximize production and productivity while integrating commercialization activities. These clusters will serve as models for learning to help Ethiopia intensify the ACC approach and scale up best practices across the country. This project currently comprises close to 1.6 million farmers and aims to scale up to include 2.5 million farmers after five years to help transition their farmer clusters to group-owned commercial companies. The Analytics team was responsible for the redesign of the project, development of a five-year implementation plan and project tracking system. These tasks require logic, mathematical and analytical skills, pragmatism and, most of all, the drive to get to the best possible solution.

Although they are only required to work regular working hours, members of the Analytics team usually arrive early and leave late, often working through their lunch breaks as well. Anyone coming in on weekends is likely to run into a few of the analysts sitting at their desks, working.

A work that requires such commitment is bound to come with its own challenges, and life as an analyst is no exception. It requires hard work and commitment. To some analysts, the primary challenge is maintaining the work-life balance, while for others it’s the stress that comes with the responsibility they are given. But according to Zaheer, the major challenge faced by analysts is adjusting to the constant communication and feedback with their peers and managers. “Our model is very much an apprenticeship model where analysts learn problem-solving and communication techniques from seasoned consultants. This is required to achieve the best results while developing rapidly. It is quite a shift from being a student where you have almost total independence over your output,” he says. “Not only does this model help enhance their skills, but it will also enable knowledge transfer from the consultants to the young Analysts.”

In a span of a few years, ATA has managed to build a reputation for its analytical work in all its mandate areas and implementation verticals. Analytics is important because it provides heavier analytical and problem-solving support that is required by ATA and its partners. While most teams across ATA have long term objectives, the analytics case team focuses on the specific problem and work closely with partners to solve them. The value of the things the analysts learn within analytics goes beyond their day to day work. The demanding nature of the work has made them more resilient and confident to take on more challenging tasks. It has given them skills they can apply throughout their life, making this experience a different type of classroom.

As he looks through the glass door at his team, Zaheer is always amazed by how the analytics team is made up of overwhelmingly talented individuals. “The dedication the entire team shows to producing high-quality output while nurturing a positive work environment is truly inspiring – it’s not the late nights, but the dedication to getting the job done that matters most,” he says. “This team is the reason this has been my favorite job so far!”