Can One Improve Now-casts of Crop Prices in Africa? Google can.

With increasing Internet user rates across Africa, there is considerable interest in exploring new, online data sources. Particularly, search engine metadata, i.e. data representing the contemporaneous online-interest in a specific topic, has gained considerable interest, due to its potential to extract a near real-time online signal about the current interest of a society. The objective of this study is to analyze whether search engine metadata in the form of Google Search Query (GSQ) data can be used to improve now-casts of maize prices in nine African countries, these are Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We formulate as benchmark an auto-regressive model for each country, which we subsequently augment by two specifications based on contemporary GSQ data. We test the models in in-sample, and in a pseudo out-of-sample, one-step-ahead now casting environment and compare their forecasting errors. The GSQ specifications improve the now-casting fit in 8 out 9 countries and reduce the now-casting error between 3% and 23%. The largest improvement of maize price now-casts is achieved for Malawi, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania, with improvements larger than 14%.