COVID-19 has revealed the importance of understanding roles of different actors in Africa’s food systems. When roles and responsibilities are unclear, smallholder farmers are exposed to conmen. For instance, in Zimbabwe farmers are losing produce to unregistered buyers. The situation would be better if all buyers were registered and the trading of all agricultural commodities was properly regulated.
Due to lack of coordination, there is so much overlap and duplication of roles. Farmers need value added services and these can come from knowledge brokers. There should be an institution whose core business is knowledge brokering and consolidating knowledge in ways that show overlaps in service provision.
Role of the Reserve Bank: Farmers and other value chain actors think the reserve bank and ministry of finance in each African country should have a budget for information or knowledge gathering and processing if it is to really unlock the potential of agriculture and food systems.
Farmer unions: While their role seems clear, it is still confusing when considered in the same breath with other service providers. Since unions are membership-driven, they should become a local hub for information dissemination to their members. This can be their main value added service and they can be a conduit between their members and other service providers and markets.
Agricultural marketing authorities: These should regulate brokers and service providers in the market.
Agritex extension services: Their role should shift to monitoring farmer activity at grassroots and providing generic information, mainly for new farmers or those getting into a particular commodity for the first time. For learning purposes, extension officers can ensure knowledge barriers are lowered so that a farmer can obtain the basics before becoming an expert. Most farmers, particularly those new into a particular commodity, may not know what they need to know. Self-learning works where farmers have acquired enough basic knowledge to know what they need to know.
Associations: Ideally information should travel from the farmers/associations to brokers to buyers/processors/end-users. Associations can provide vital information required by markets. Ideally commodity associations can be built in the framework of farmer unions.
Knowledge brokers: As a way of controlling costs that farmers may end up incurring, knowledge should facilitate information movement between informal markets and processors who often find it difficult to consolidate information in terms of what volumes, quality and types of commodities in the market. Markets also find it costly to get information from the production side, especially for specific commodities. The broker can consolidate all this information and share it with all actors including marketing authorities who can use it for policy review and crafting responses to COVID-19.
Chambers of commerce: These should have sectoral representations from farmers unions/associations, manufacturing, input suppliers, equipment manufacturers, etc.
NGOs: These should focus mainly on social enterprise so that vulnerable groups are not left out of socio- economic activities and interventions.
Responding to a dynamic environment
All the above categories of institutions are targeting the farmer. However, if a farmer is to belong to an association, farmer union or chamber, what services does a farmer get from an association which s/he cannot get from a chamber of commerce? There should be levels of membership and service access. An association should provide well defined services different from what can be obtained from a chamber or marketing authority. If these roles are not neatly defined, farmers will continue losing through membership fees.
Given than the benefits of belonging to one category are not clear, farmers end up trying to belong to all and thus ending up belonging fully to none. Farmers who used to produce major staples like maize had no reason to worry about market information because prices were set by the government for the entire season. In addition to new farming dynamics associated with horticulture and other high value commodities, farmers have to keep monitoring prices and other changes. This is where ICTs like mobile phones have potential to provide solutions beyond just calling, short message service and Whatsapp groups, some of which are leading to information overload due to lack of fresh content.
Social safety nets will not be able to cover ordinary people’s coping mechanisms. Where economies were functioning normally, many farmers, traders and other entrepreneurs were busy servicing loans taken from banks and Micro Finance Institutions. What is going to happen?
Importance of careful business profiling
The biggest challenge for policy makers is navigating difficult trade-offs between promoting public health and stimulating socio-economic revival while competing for limited resources. Widespread informality and information asymmetry in most African countries makes it easier for government to mistakenly subside what is in abundance and miss sectors that need critical help. For instance food distribution remains an unsustainable option when it is better to provide resources to communities so that they can produce their own food in gardens, wetlands and production zones.
Teasing out all these issues requires careful profiling of people, communities and available resources. A biggest headache for countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe where the informal economy employs more than 80% of the population is how this economy can be re-opening during the lockdown and post-COVID19. The importance of careful profiling of economic actors in the informal economy cannot be over-emphasized. The following is how a detailed and meaningful profile will look like for each actor:
Justification (why it is important)
Name and sex
Name is about identity. Who are we dealing with? In the final analysis, sex reveals the extent to which the informal sector is dominated by women, for instance.
This has economic implication for business. What has been the impact of closing businesses on youth in response to COVID-19? What is the impact on the elderly pensioners? How many young people have become unemployed due to the lockdown?
COVID-19 has had a different impact on the married, unemployed single mothers and widows.
Household size has an influence on the pace at which small enterprises can recover from the pandemic. For most SMEs, more than 90% of the business income is more of a salary for the household.
Level of Education
This has a bearing on the introduction of financial literacy and provision of technical skills. How many graduates and school drop outs are in the informal sector?
Home Address (Location)
Where do informal traders and SMEs stay? If staying in Epworth, why do they prefer selling to Mbare? What are the business factors for staying in Epworth and doing business in Mbare? This is a description of the ecosystem. While policy makers may want to be directed by availability of land and by-laws in allocating work spaces, traders and SMEs know what should be considered in setting up a business. They know the behavior of their customers and target market.
This is becoming a key unique identifier.
Business Name and Location
Where is the business operating from? This assists in mapping and revealing the concentration of SMEs.
Is the premise a. rented from i. private property ii. Council property. owned c. home
This will assist in assessing risks. If one is renting at a private property, does the by-laws allow or property owners are just taking advantage of desperate SMEs. In most countries private property owners have become more of tax collectors. What plans can be put in place to bring commodities closer to consumers and de-congest Mbare? How can some premises be combined into industrial parks that accommodate street vendors and those operating from home? If you chase street vendors you are saying where they bought is also illegal.
Year business started
This provides landscape in terms of experience as shown by years. Are SMEs growing? What is dominating in terms of years? What is the age of the business? How old is the SMEs? If an SME has been running for 20 years but policy makers still do not recognize it, there is something wrong with government policy not with the SME. One cannot continue to be called informal merely because s/he has not been given works space or there is no supportive legislation. For instance what company registration is needed for brick molding? Youth enterprises should not be called projects but enterprises.
Average monthly sales
How much is a SME contributing to the economy? Such information will provide a basis for clustering. It will also lays the foundation for creating a growth path. If someone has been in business for 20 years but sales are going down, it could signal lack of adaptation or existing knowledge has reached a limit.
Number of employees: a. full time b. part time
This is a key component of economic growth. By closing SMEs, how many families have been affected? Any support required may not just be for the business but enhancing employment creation. Job losses need to be accounted for as SMEs may not be able to sustain full-time employees post-COVID19.
List of assets and estimated value
This shows production capacity and contribution of the SMEs to national economic growth.
Do you have any running loan? If yes state amount and lender?
What is going to happen to enterprises that had acquired loans pre-COVID? Their reputation with financiers is likely to get sour? If more than 60% had loans, how are they going to be repaid?
What kind of support does your business currently need? Provide details
This is critical. Most countries do not have fluid needs assessment management systems for the SMEs sector. In most cases there is an assumption that SMEs need loans when they probably need knowledge and skills. Some have their own knowledge and should not be locked in five day training courses. Others are always learning from each other and can produce items without having gone to college.
As technical people, SMEs know what equipment is lacking. In clustering SMEs, policy should be informed by existing type of equipment or come up with special grants that can enable SMEs to import appropriate equipment. A supply chain for equipment can anchor rural industrialization with no need for every aspiring entrepreneur to visit the capital city for everything.
Clustering as a success factor
The above profile is critical for clustering business according to services and products. The SME sector should work hard to classify commodities towards clustering. Profiling is important for systematic formalization. The informal sector is already in motion and most SMEs in urban centers are now very dynamic. If government policy says passports can be applied online from today, everybody will apply. Likewise, SMEs should be able to take advantage of ICTs by filling in their profiles online and send completed forms digitally without travelling to towns and cities for such simple processes.
Helping communities to benefit from their information and knowledge
Marginalized communities and farmers always find it difficult to access relevant and reliable information. Their capacity to objectively assess that information is also inadequate. The situation is worse during the marketing season when information overload increases especially from different buyers competing to portray themselves as offering the best deal for unsuspecting farmers.
Market information is more than price
One of the major issues is that market information is a public good which any one can get by getting into the market and asking around. However, while people think market information is all about price, there is always a story behind each price and that story is more important than the figure. Although it is a public good, market information is very valuable. How do people like farmers possessing this public information benefit from it? They benefit only if such information is consolidated into a final product that helps them make better decisions and take next steps. Prices from a single community may not be valuable unless consolidated and compared with prices from other areas.
The main difference between market information and tangible products is that knowledge brokering can introduce a feedback mechanism that adds value to the generators of information like farmers. That is how farmers end up benefitting from the information that they have. If a trader buys a commodity that trader is also buying information about that commodity and that information can be used for comparative advantage trading. What is needed are pathways for consolidating community information so that it comes back as a value added product for farmers and local communities. Armed with that feedback and intelligence, farmers are empowered to decide whether to build local markets or not after realizing that local markets are better than distant markets. They also start thinking about value addition and investing in preservation for the purposes of prolonging the shelf life of various commodities.
Who can assist farmers to protect their knowledge and information?
Across much of Africa, communities and farmers do not benefit from their knowledge and information. Most social services offered by lawyers in African countries tend to focus mainly on human rights issues, especially of the political nature and in urban centres. There are no lawyers who deal with justice in agriculture and rural development. If they were to exist, such lawyers would assist farmers and rural make sense of contracts which they often enter with private companies and financial institutions. Farmers in cotton growing regions have lost property like scotch-carts and farming equipment to contracting companies due to lack of legal representation.
Such lawyers would also provide legal advice to relationships between communities and development agencies so that relationships are not one-sided in ways that cause communities to lose their indigenous knowledge and other sacred resources. For instance, poverty in most rural communities is often used by many NGOs to write proposals but when money and other resources are obtained to purportedly address that poverty, communities are not told.
Most rural communities do not know how to fight for their rights. Local authorities and rural communities, in whose name development agencies get donor money, have a right to know the full details of the money accessed in their name including salaries of NGO officers working in the communities. When a project phases out, communities should remain with some of the assets such as vehicles instead of these being given to other NGOs who continue seeking funding without fully involving the beneficiaries.
Farmers and other less powerful value chain actors should be protected against abuse of power by big players. Financial institutions write contracts that are assessed by their legal departments before loan borrowers like SMEs are asked to sign. Since most farmers and SMEs cannot afford lawyers let alone setting up legal departments, in the event of misunderstandings, financial institutions take advantage of smaller less powerful partners.
Many development agencies know that what happens in Africa does not happen in the Global North. For instance, the European Union has gone a long way to mitigate some of the rights infringements resulting from the mass extraction of data from ordinary people by setting up the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Similar regulations should be introduced in Africa and other developing regions of the world as part of protecting ordinary people’s knowledge and information.
Decolonizing African Food Systems Has Never Been So Urgent
African countries have remained stuck in colonial food systems and structures where grain silos, abattoirs, processing centres and other important food handling facilities are located in cities. By now, silos and processing facilities should have been established at community level, close to production zones. Why should maize leave rural areas to cities just for milling and return back to rural consumers? Soya bean and sunflower should just be processed in production zones. Devolution will become meaningful when the same infrastructure in cities is also found in production zones.
Food security should not just be discussed at national level
Each community should have its food security initiative, enabling it to exchange food with other communities through relationships that have been built over decades. Governments should not only continue supporting colonial institutions like grain marketing boards and industrial milling but also support local alternatives. The colonial model becomes a disadvantage to farmers and local communities when grain marketing boards aggregate grain from farmers for millers who are paid on time while farmers are paid many months down the road when their maize has already been consumed.
If the issue is about maintain quality in milling, governments can simply formalize and standardize milling technology or practices for different types and sizes of hammer millers at local level so that local millers provide the same quality of maize meal and milling services. Decentralizing such services closer to farmers distributes benefits to producers unlike the current centralized food system which benefits consumers at the expense of producers. The same standardization can be introduced in oil processing and fruit processing services so that they are devolved to local levels. When that is done, maize, groundnuts sunflower and fruits will not be transported from rural areas for processing in cities only to return back more expensive for the majority of farmers and rural people. This is critical given the high cost of transporting commodities from production zones to cities. Maize, oil seeds and fruits should just stay in production zone and processed at source.
Ensuring nutrition security throughout the year
Centralized food systems borrowed from colonialism undermine Africa’s capacity to meet people’s basic requirements of ensuring year-round affordable access to nutrition rich food. Most of the nutritious commodities can only be stored and value added at local level. It means communities have to be empowered with appropriate resources for handling food at community level especially at critical moments in the life cycle of agricultural commodities when maximum attention is needed.
Given the complexity of handling agricultural commodities in a bumper harvest, storage of abundant agricultural commodities should not be left to individual farmers but be escalated to community level. Individual farmers can simply set aside the amount of food they know their households consume per given period and take the surplus to a central local warehouse centre where value addition can also be done. The community warehouse system can provide a sense of food security at community level while also serving to provide early warnings in terms of food availability. If many farmers are seen going to get food from their community warehouse, it is a signal that their subsistence levels have gone down.
More importantly, the collective warehouse should be growth focused and set up at a neutral venue with no political inclinations. In most countries, constituency development funds focus on building social amenities like clinics when the priority should be building food reserves like community warehouses which guarantee food and nutrition security at local level. A community food warehouse will reduce the number of people visiting clinics for treatment of nutrition-related diseases which could have been avoided by availing nutritious food all-year round.
Decentralizing data collection and market regulation
When efficient systems of managing agricultural commodities at community level are set up, eventually communities will be able to conduct their own food assessments by collecting local statistics. For instance, they can introduce the notion of controlled selling of agricultural commodities from the community. Due to excessive focus on production at the expense of market issues, in most African communities, extension officers, chiefs and local members of parliament have no clue how much food is sold from their communities per month or per year. No one knows whether community sales are benefiting communities or not, let alone volumes of commodities leaving the community forever.
Addressing some of these issues will require regulation and information brokers at community level to ensure socio-economic justice through collecting and sharing local statistics on what is happening. This will prevent cases where middlemen from cities buy goats for USD10 each from the community and sell for USD40 in the city. Appropriate regulations and empowered local authorities should be able to indicate when agricultural commodities should not leave the community as evidence will show the extent to which that may compromise local food and nutrition security at given periods.
The value of a community is in its people and natural resources
Empowered communities should not just allow cattle and other key resources to be sold but will become informed enough to safe-guard community resources. Local knowledge brokers should lead in educating people on the importance of preserving their resources. The value of any rural African community is its people, cattle, goats, indigenous fruits, forests and other natural resources. By allowing commodities to leave their community without asking questions, local people lose water, soil nutrients, pastures, nutrition and other resources that will have been used to produce those commodities.
Communities should also be empowered to know the genetic potential of their crops and livestock. Most African communities are aware of the limit to what can be commercialized in a communal set up where knowledge, labour, water, rivers, land and other resources are a common pool resource. For instance, in the African sense, neighbours do not really sell food to each other. They just exchange food, services and knowledge. When there is a bumper harvest it is a taboo to sell food to your neighbours. Field crops like sweet reeds (Ipwa) and water melons are not sold to neighbours. At community level food is part of social capital and should you decide to sell, you start selling at the district level onwards.
Why demand for advice and knowledge increases during the marketing season
The urgency with which farmers seek help, advice and support increases during the harvesting season compared to the planting season. Production knowledge is now relatively abundant but the same cannot be said about knowledge on markets and their behaviours. During the planting season, the market is the one looking for commodities while farmers are busy in the field. However, the situation changes during the harvesting and marketing season when all farmers begin pushing commodities to the market irrespective of demand levels. This is often good news for consumers not farmers.
Curse of short value chains
Across Africa, supply chains for most agricultural commodities are very short – farm to fork. Conversely, demand especially from urban consumers, does not change by a greater percentage at household level. For instance, consumers do not suddenly start buying and consuming more pumpkins, fresh groundnuts or any other commodity in response to more production. Since the demand for necessities like tomatoes and vegetables does not change fast, increases in supplies of such commodities exerts pressure on commodities which end up fetching much lower prices than their potential earnings. There is a limit to which consumers can buy extra commodities. Even if a bucket of maize can be sold for USD1, an urban household will not buy a ton of maize grain. Another dynamic is that when a commodity is readily available, consumers will not buy in bulk or hoard because prices remain favourably low. It is when there are shortages that buying in bulk and hoarding becomes rampant, pushing prices up.
The other side of a bumper harvest
Every commodity has a potential price and a premium price which determines return on investment. If there is a bumper harvest like this season in Southern Africa, prices are suppressed, causing commodities to fetch below normal prices. This trend undervalues the contribution of agriculture to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Where, for instance, under a normal supply situation characterized by normal prices, the agriculture sector can contribute USD1 billion to GDP, under a bumper harvest-induced glut, prices may fall by 50% which means the sector only contributes half a billion dollars.
More importantly, when farmers get below normal prices (50% or less), their potential to purchase inputs also goes down by 50%. That is how the agriculture sector begins to shrink because even if the following year becomes a good rainfall season, this season’s poor prices will constrain farmers’ ability to take advantage of the good rainfall season next year because they will not be able to afford sufficient inputs. Ultimately, this torches a collapse of entire agriculture-driven economies as the impact stretches to downstream and upstream industries.
Ensuring quality control within supply chains and farming systems
Absence of quality control has remained another major challenge in African food systems for decades. When most commodities are coming from the field during the harvest period, quality differences are very minimal as commodities from individual farmers will be very similar in quality. However, if farmers take the commodity for storing in their individual stores, quality levels become very different such that quality gaps become so huge. This is because farmers have different infrastructure, storage and handling facilities as well as pre and post-harvest knowledge. Many do not have the right stores and some commodities are exposed to rodents as well as different impurities. To that end, aggregating commodities when they have been exposed to different storage facilities and handling techniques makes it impossible to get commodities of the same quality.
That is why aggregation has to be done timely – just as commodities are leaving the field before quality variances increase. This is where the notion of a Warehouse Receipt System (WRS) becomes relevant. The WRS should be built from the bottom starting with aggregation of commodities. It does not start with issuing receipts. Neither should it just be about collateral if farmers are to be convinced about its benefits. A thorough baseline study can ensure the WRS is tailored to real needs of farmers.
Importance of matching supply with demand
The importance of coordinating and regulate commodity supplies to the market as part of avert huge losses cannot be over-emphasized. Supply patterns are often pushed by absence of alternative markets like preservation, processing and value addition. In most African countries there is definite need for infrastructure and systems that spread supply of commodities all-year-round especially given that the bulk of food commodities are seasonal. Ensuring commodity supply all year round translates to ensuring availability of nutrition baskets all year round and extending food to low producing areas.
For home-grown commodities, communities and farmers have more control over prices or return on investment unlike internationally traded commodities like tobacco and minerals whose prices are determined by international forces of supply and demand. When each country is able to put in place systems for managing its food system throughout the year, that mechanism becomes a strong foundation for comparative advantage trading.
As African countries export food, importing countries will be using African commodities to build their food systems and food baskets including processing industries. Western countries have invested in infrastructure and facilities for warehousing and preserving commodities for a long time. Questions that exporting African countries should ask themselves include: how are importing countries keeping bananas, peas, blue berries and other commodities throughout the year? Most African countries are only interesting in earning foreign currency and not drawing lessons on how to preserve commodities throughout the year from developed economies that are importing commodities from Africa.
African countries need better ways of responding to bumper harvests
Why does a bumper harvest not get as much attention from governments and development agencies as disasters like droughts and cyclones? When there is a drought, African governments are quick to declare a national disaster so that food aid starts being mobilized from outside with support from development agencies. On the contrary, a bumper harvest does not seem to inspire swift action toward preventing the next drought. In addition, bumper harvests do not receive as much media coverage as famine.
A bumper harvest is more than cereals
What is often ignored by policy makers and development agencies is that a good rainfall season does not only lead to a bumper harvest of cereals but bumper nutrition in the form of a wide range of cultivated crops, livestock, indigenous fruits, fish and wild animals including edible insects. It follows, nutrition-responsive strategies for handling a bumper harvest should certainly go beyond revamping maize silos. Due to a bumper rainfall season, a lot of field crops and horticulture will be produced throughout the year. More than 30% of the farmers will produce all-year-round.
However, issues facing farmers when there is a bumper harvest are national in stature and cannot be tackled by individual farmers or communities. Such issues include poor road network and connectivity to ensure farmers are constantly communicating with the market as well as organizing markets. In addition, a bumper harvest cannot be marketed through buyer monopoly. For instance, it cannot just be about selling to the Grain Marketing Board. Farmers should be given options because some just want to sell a bucket to solve immediate issues. They should not be forced to sell through a bureaucratic system that pays after several months.
The role of markets in managing bumper harvests
In the context of a bumper harvest, most farming communities produce more than can be consumed locally and have to off-load commodities on the market. This means government and development agencies have to understand the capacity and operations of different kinds of markets. The fact that formal markets cannot handle the bulk of the bumper harvest compels governments to support mass markets where the bulk of the commodities find their way from the majority of farmers. Efforts and resources should be directed at revamping and recognizing the aggregation role of mass markets so that they are able to meet the needs of consumers, processors and other value adders. Building a strong connection between mass markets and formal markets like processors and exporters becomes critical.
The media can play a more meaningful role by covering the entire value chain including markets not just focus on production. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the media is always seen accompanying the minister of agriculture when he is touring big farms and irrigation schemes but the minister does not visit mass markets at all. The Grain Marketing Board which the media covers repeatedly, especially when the same minister tours the grain silos, no longer has monopoly. It is unfortunate that the only time mass markets are covered in the media is when something negative like an outbreak of cholera happens or when there is suspicion that people in mass markets are too congested to practice social distancing.
Bias towards production also needs to be revisited. A lot of public and private institutions including NGOs are still pouring resources into field days, shows and other exhibits that are designed to celebrate high production through high yields. Most of these events are confused with markets. If you pour all resources to demonstration sites, field days and shows, what about markets where commodities end up making a difference between moving out of poverty or staying in poverty for farmers? Although the market contributes more than 90% of the money and other resources squandered on production and field days, it does not receive commensurate support and resources. The fiscus also tends to be more inclined towards production as seen by how more than 90% of the agricultural budget goes to production with markets not even visible in budget lines except parastatal marketing institutions.
Most of the production becomes meaningless if the market is not able to absorb most of the quantities produced. When you produce you need to trade. A holistic focus that recognizes markets as drivers of food and nutrition security should see presidential input schemes and government input support interventions being extended to the market. The best ways of extending presidential schemes or government schemes to the market include establishing cooling and value addition facilities in production zones, grading infrastructure and other market-related needs so that farmers do not just push all commodities to the market as soon as the marketing season starts because they are afraid the commodities will go bad and be rejected by the market.
The bias towards production also holds sway in the development sector where most consortiums comprising several NGOs continue to work in production which is already showing signs of being over-subscribed. Given that at least 70% of African agriculture is rain-fed, a critical factor for production is availability of water. This implies, bringing together dozens of NGOs to work in production where there is no water is just a waste of money and other resources like knowledge. As if that is not enough, the NGO sector covers less than 5% of the population, which means 95% of the farmers finance themselves.
There should be a shift in resource allocation towards harvest periods in response to a bumper harvest, the same way development agencies quickly respond to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and cyclones so that the good harvest is not lost. Development agencies, farmer unions and other actors should adapt quickly rather than treat a bumper year like any other year. Several agricultural companies requesting foreign currency allocation from the Reserve Bank are doing so to import commodities they should procure locally if they had built win-win relationships with mass markets that are the major aggregators of agricultural raw materials.
Importance of treating mass food markets as institutions
Mass food markets are institutions in their own right and require appropriate management skills. It is a colonial mind set to insist that mass food markets should be owned and operated by local authorities like rural district councils and municipalities. The fact that local authorities own the land on which markets are operating does not imply they should also operate the market. Private partnership models between local authorities and the private sector should be explored and solidified because the private sector is good at identifying demand and meeting customer needs.
By insisting that local authorities should operate food markets, governments are persisting with a colonial model. Agricultural markets should also be treated like formal institutions. There is no one playing a watch dog role in food markets run by local authorities, from which the majority of urban residents get their food. While in residential areas, residents are watch dogs for service delivery such as water reticulation and refuse collection, such watch dog role does not extend to mass food markets which are business institutions where residents should be making noise about food safety and hygiene.
The situation is worsened by the fact that government departments do not have power of oversight over each other. The ministry of agriculture does not have power to tell the ministry of local government how food should be handled in mass markets under local authorities. Otherwise the ministry of agriculture, ministry of women’s affairs, ministry of health, ministry of youth as well as industry and commerce would be making noise about the poor handling of agricultural commodities in mass markets because such handling has a bearing on the success of each of these government departments’ mandates. The ministry of health is also silent and far from markets yet the quality of food and how food is handled has a bearing on the health budget.
When government departments do not see their mandates or stakes in food markets, a vacuum is created for NGOs to seek donor funding by writing proposals based on bad things about mass food markets. For instance, instead of capacitating local authorities to execute their mandates, NGOs seek donor funding to provide water and sanitation in mass markets as well as revamp market infrastructure when a more sustainable approach is supporting local authorities. On the production side, NGOs are drilling boreholes and doing work that should be done by local councils instead of giving those resources to councils as part of a permanent solution. It seems the whole development space is being invaded by NGOs, pushing out government departments such as councils and extension services departments.
The power of evidence-based responses
All actors should come together and answer a question like: What can we do the abundant produce from farmers and production zones?In much of Zimbabwe, most commodities like tomatoes, pumpkins and others are already rotting in farming areas. Some are fetching below their normal value due to market failure and low consumer spending, following lockdowns. When the majority of farmers get less than 30% of the potential value of their commodities, that means they will have lost 70% of potential income – pushing them back to poverty. On the contrary, the price of inputs will obviously not go down.
This is how understanding markets becomes very important. It is not just about farmer unions because more than 80% of farmers do not belong to farmer unions. However, if farmer unions articulate and represent farmers well during a bumper harvest, it is an opportunity for them to mobilize membership towards tangible results and solutions.
Transportation – With respect to the cost of transport, farmers are left to move their own commodities to the market using whatever means at their disposal. It seems government has no role in facilitating the movement of commodities. Once in a while, the railway system is seen moving coal rather. How can it be used to move agricultural commodities from high production zones to low production zones?
Horticulture – In Zimbabwe there is no active institution responsible for horticulture. Maize and other grains go to the GMB and its infrastructure but there is no similar board for horticulture. How do we preserve, aggregate and market horticulture commodities as well as facilitate exports when there is no appropriate infrastructure? The new horticulture board is linked to exports and controlled by exporters of selected commodities while the government is just a passenger. The debate at horticulture meetings is dominated by a few actors and does not have a national complexion.
All commodities do very well in a bumper harvest and such commodities include livestock. How are we going to help farmers market goats? Indigenous chickens and fruits also do very well in a bumper harvest. How are we going to store and market commodities in ways that preserve nutritional content? A bumper harvest is so important as to merit a national dialogue on how to harness its benefits. Instead of waiting for national assessments like the second round of the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZIMVAC), there is need for a national dialogue on the bumper harvest because farmers are already harvesting. More importantly, crops are not harvested at the same time because they are at different stages of ripening.
National readiness for a bumper harvest requires swift evidence-based policy interventions. When marketing is well organized, it will prevent cases where farmers move around looking for markets and consumers travelling long distances looking for commodities and in the process exposing themselves to COVID19 or becoming super spreaders. A bumper year should be turned into good returns. The pros and cons of gazetting prices should be backed by evidence. Evidence from the mass market demonstrates how gazetting maize prices leads to farmers getting lower prices from alternative markets which end up using the gazette prices to benchmark what farmers should get in the open market. Instead of gazetting prices when the size of the markets and its dynamics are unknown, it is better for government to build efficient market systems and supply chains.
An ideal market is more than a few companies buying from thousands of farmers
Every marketing season (March to August) in East and Southern Africa is characterized by people from cities camping in rural areas to buy agricultural commodities cheaply. Farmers will have produced surplus commodities but with no capacity or space to store, process or preserve. Many buyers from cities take used clothes, shoes, kitchen utensils and other items for bartering with maize, groundnuts, sugar beans, chickens, goats and other commodities. The fact that this practice has persisted for decades is a sign that formal marketing systems have failed to meet the needs of the majority.
Local markets as foundation for local economies
In most cases, urban buyers and middlemen who mobilize grain and other commodities from rural farmers, masquerade as farmers and sell the commodities to marketing boards, benefiting from prices gazetted by governments in favour of authentic farmers. This demonstrates the extent to which colonial marketing systems preferred by African governments are rigged against smallholder farmers. Most policies are in favour of middlemen and consumers.
A more viable solution is building strong local markets to anchor local economies and ensure value addition happens in local production zones. African governments should get rid of the colonial model where one or two companies buy commodities from thousands of farmers for a song and go on to do all the value addition in the city. Building the collective common wealth of farmers is about empowering them to do most of the value addition and earning more from their sweat.
A case for data collection and interpretation at local level
Since much of the value addition happens in cities, nutrition knowledge tends to be concentrated in cities and as you go down to rural communities there is less talk about nutrition. Food diversity is also more pronounced in cities where markets aggregate as opposed to rural communities which may be stuck with their particular food. Mass markets and processing companies aggregate food for urban dwellers already embedded in nutrition.
Instead of treating farmers and rural communities as data sources only, policy makers should ensure data interpretation happens at community level where impact should be visible. This means parastatals like ZIMSTAT have to change the way they present data to show what the data means in terms of nutrition at local level, for instance. Data should be interpreted at community levels. When that happens early warnings will no longer just be about deficits of staples but the entire food basket from community to national levels. Appropriate data collection and interpretation tools should be at community knowledge hubs where information from various sources can be consolidated and adapted.
Local communities are generators of indigenous knowledge. They also play a fundamental role in disseminating what is coming from local experts, local leaders at the grassroots and outsiders. When they own the data collection and interpretation process, farmers and rural communities will participate in processing indigenous knowledge and creatively combining it with external knowledge for the benefit of local communities.
Demystifying nutrition at community level
A major barrier to the adoption of nutrition messages is the scientific language in which nutrition is largely conveyed to ordinary people. This is worsened by the fact that African countries have not invested academic knowledge into indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, nutrition and related knowledge is abundant in indigenous fruits, herbs, vegetables and other commodities but the amount of quantities someone should consume in order to attain the right nutrition balance remains under-researched and unknown.
When communities are part of data collection and processing, they will assist in demystifying nutrition from being considered a science to a living practice. Working with communities will enable governments to identify their own indigenous food systems. It is easy to facilitate consumption of commodities which local people are already consuming. To that end, identifying nutrition in existing commodities is a good entry point than, for instance, introducing peas to communities that know nothing about the new commodity. Nutrition is part of people’s food systems but what lacks is identification and expression of nutrition in what communities are already consuming. It is as if nutrition is only found in imported foods.
The Western world has taken time to align its food systems with nutrition. Western countries, food systems are derived from processing of food, for instance, into tinned beef, vegetables and other processed foods produced by experts using academic research and expertise. Conversely most African food systems have not subjected to experiments like processing by experts. For at least 99% of the food consumed in Africa, consumers do not know if they are meeting or surpassing nutrition requirements. Imported energy drinks are flooding African markets but people just consume irrespective of energy deficiency levels.
Knowledge inclusion is the most important of all forms of inclusion
Digital inclusion, financial inclusion, gender inclusion and several other forms of inclusion have received too much attention over the past few years including 2020. What has been ignored is the mother of all inclusions – knowledge inclusion. All forms of inclusion are meaningless when knowledge existing within ordinary people and communities is excluded. What is worsening this dilemma in Africa is the fact that governments continue to confuse knowledge management with higher and tertiary education yet these are completely different processes although they sometimes overlap.
To the extent it tries to maximize capabilities of the academically gifted, the imported formal education system of which higher and tertiary education is a component, excludes the majority. On the other hand, knowledge management recognizes all forms of knowledge wherever they exist and that includes knowledge generated by communities as well as ordinary people as they strive to make a difference. Knowledge management is conscious of the fact that African communities are good at providing a platform for people to recognize, preserve, and build on their many intangible cultural assets. While external knowledge systems imported through formal education do not have clear pathways for tapping into the knowledge held by retired knowledge workers, communities are adept at utilizing elders and retired knowledge workers in respectful ways.
Development will not be achieved without intentional knowledge inclusion
As 2021 beckons, African countries should revisit their knowledge agendas rather than continue with external research agendas that have been making it difficult for Africa to upscale and deepen its knowledge systems toward achieving inclusive development. For all countries in the world, natural endowments were the foundation of economic development. People started by understanding how they could add value to natural resources for the purposes of economic development. Western countries had all the time to experiment and develop knowledge for exploiting their natural resources. These countries did not just depend on formal education but harnessed inclusive knowledge which they packaged for exploiting and turning natural resources into tradable commodities.
This is what is lacking in Africa. Western countries started trading their own knowledge through formal education which was extended to Africa, the main focus being to get manpower which could convert African resources into tradable commodities for the benefit of the West. To the extent formal education was used to extract African resources, physical slavery has given way to intellectual slave trade. There is no doubt that the West has used formal education to access African knowledge. Vehicles and machines produced using natural resources from Africa are coming back to Africa as finished products instead of the machines and vehicles being manufactured in Africa.
The West went further and converted part of its knowledge into academia but hid the formula for producing tangible tradable commodities. This was part of extending Western knowledge to exploit African natural resources because Africans have not been smart enough to process their indigenous knowledge into tradable products using their natural resources. No wonder most natural resources from Africa are being processed using external knowledge. As African countries process their natural resources using imported knowledge, whose agenda are they serving?
What is the science behind producing seed varieties in the laboratory and what is the nutrition content? It cannot just be a one-size-fits-all knowledge system because people are different depending on their context such that a single recipe cannot apply everywhere. Having exhausted their natural resources, Western countries have invested in developing knowledge that they use to package products required to supplement their own food systems. As African countries promote exports, the demand for those exports are guided by Western countries’ desires to meet their nutrition baskets.
This means Africa is basically dancing to the Western agenda in relation to consumption patterns and food systems. That is why the West is cherry-picking African countries in which to produce particular commodities. For instance, in Zimbabwe (blueberries, mange tout peas and others), Kenya (sugar snap, fruits and flowers, etc.,), Ghana and Ivory Coast (Cocoa) and so on. Western countries are interested in specific commodities not everything that can really lift masses out of poverty. There is no way, a country serious about lifting its farmers out of poverty can dream of doing so through growing sugar snap, flowers and other commodities demanded by the West. The West looks at different countries where particular commodities can be produced economically to meet their needs.
Africa’s medical and health space is facing the same predicament
Africa is just a market for knowledge generated in the West as Western countries are interested in finding a market for their knowledge by exporting their medical syllabus to Africa. Western countries have realized that they no longer have their own natural resources on which to apply their old and new knowledge. In Africa they have several options and can look at several diseases like Ebola, Cholera, Malaria and others. They use their knowledge to get natural products from diverse herbs and trees used to make pharmaceutical products through hidden scientific formulae. When the knowledge is converted into products it comes back as finished products. Africa is only buying back its own knowledge extracted from Africa.
As if that is not enough, the West then takes an academic route and starts training doctors and pharmacists as well as bringing X-ray machines and other medical equipment. By doing so, the West is basically developing distribution channels for its knowledge. African countries are not developers or inventers but implementers of other people’s knowledge. The Western industrial revolution has moved beyond manufacturing to embedding knowledge into goods and services.
During the COVID19 era African countries, including industrial ones like South Africa are clamoring for equitable distribution of vaccines developed in UK and USA yet they have been doing nothing on the research and vaccine development front. African policy makers have not taken time to look and learn from how ordinary people are innovating using concoctions of local herbs to combat the pandemic. In spite of being custodians of local and indigenous health systems for time immemorial, African herbalists are largely neglected. African governments are not even trying to enhance the development of vaccines through working with local herbalists. African policy makers remain blind to the fact that the Western agenda is to develop a market for Western knowledge because all Western countries have exhausted their natural resources.
What is more important foreign currency or food?
Africans have not developed and packaged their knowledge consistent their own food systems. If you search information about an apple, you get tons of information including nutritional compositions, allergies and others. But the same has not been done for indigenous fruits like mawuyu. Africans are running for grapes, ignoring their own muzambiringa to extinction. Matamba and diverse edible natural fruits are not being developed so that knowledge is embedded in ways that turn them into exportable products. African countries are being persuaded to grow blueberries for the sake of earning foreign currency. What is more important foreign currency or food?
It is now very clear that the external agenda has suppressed the development of African food systems. The West no longer has adequate natural resources like land, fresh water and favorable climatic conditions not polluted by industrial fumes to be able to produce diverse foods that meet their consumption preferences. They go to Africa dangling foreign currency as an incentive. African countries are exploiting and plundering their land, water, labor, immunity and other assets for the sake of foreign currency. What is stopping African countries from converting their natural resources like minerals, wild life and abundant tourism potential into sources of better nutrition?
There is still hope for African countries to restore their original food systems
In the face of intensifying climate change, voices calling for Africans to go back to their original food systems are getting louder. Such voices are guided by changes in the natural phenomena that once existed in several African communities and countries. Many voices are lamenting the fact that policy makers have embraced foreign food production systems at the expense of natural ecosystems like rich forests teeming with insects, wild animals and indigenous fruits, among others.
Some of the major questions being raised repeatedly include: As Africans destroy or remove natural forests to set up infrastructure like buildings and roads, what is replacing natural resources that existed before setting up these structures? When forests are cleared for mining purposes, what happens natural ecosystems and livelihoods that used to survive on natural resources?
What are Africans losing by replacing natural ecosystems with imported assets?
While there are no easy answers to most of the questions, should Africans cry foul about climate change when they are allowing natural resources to be destroyed? It is clear that African countries have been facilitating the destruction of their natural ecosystems and replacing them with colonial imported assets. Another major question is: How can African countries use natural food systems to develop their economies?
Traditionally, Africans developed tastes and preferences for foods that grew naturally without destroying local economies and ecosystems. Unfortunately, by embracing industrialization, these countries have over the past decades been importing in-organic knowledge to replace organic knowledge as well as destroying natural forests to grow hybrid maize and other imported foods. By destroying natural food systems, Africans are also destroying embedded knowledge. The majority of African countries have not cultivated pathways for developing or propagating local knowledge toward increasing production and utilization of natural foods. Much attention has been directed at supporting food systems for economies that have done research on their foods which they are bringing to Africa so that Africans produce for them in abundance and export to their countries.
That is how African countries have become food production zones for foreign countries that have destroyed their natural ecosystems. For instance, of the two million kilograms of tobacco produced in Zimbabwe, less than 2% is smoked locally. As Africans produce export-oriented crops like cocoa, cotton and tobacco, they destroy their natural ecosystems and replace them with imported plant species. In the same vein, Africans are destroying soils and micro climates on which natural foods used to grow. As Africans build infrastructure like barns for tobacco curing, they destroy forests which are an integral component of natural food systems encompassing wild animals, birds, bees and others for generations.
Honey production which used to happen naturally has gone down and Africans are trying to use scientific methods of keeping bees. The decrease in the amount of bees is affecting pollination for all crops that depend on pollination. In addition, the destruction of forests has led to marked decrease in the natural production of mushrooms, resulting in attempts to produce mushrooms artificially.
Existing and emerging opportunities
In all sectors, African countries are trying to develop their economies without strategies for replacing the destruction of natural ecosystems. Road networks are good but to what extent are they benefitting natural ecosystems? Most highways and roads are used for exploitative purposes and destroying natural resources. Roads going to areas where tobacco, tea and cotton is grown are mainly for exploiting those crops and taking them to the export market. Measures to stop some of these negative practices and reversing climate change through supporting indigenous food systems can include:
Raising awareness on the potential that exists within natural food systems – not only focusing on human benefits but a holistic approach that embraces wild life and nature.
Conducting research, not only for academic purposes but for consolidating knowledge on indigenous foods, from seed and all the way to establishing plantations for indigenous fruits, trees, pastures and vegetables.
Value addition –exploring processing and preservation of indigenous food.
Export promotion of indigenous natural foods – these have untapped potential to earn foreign currency if properly promoted. Africans can then invest in further reproduction to replace imported food systems. This can become a smart climate mitigation strategy while reducing foreign currency deficits. Using indigenous knowledge to produce natural products can be a better solution to foreign currency challenges.
Pitfalls of embracing a natural farming region approach to agriculture development
Agricultural practices in much of Africa have always been done in line with natural farming regions. While this approach is sensible, it has consistently disadvantaged dry regions. There has been a tendency to think that drought-prone areas do not have resilience pathways that can be commercialized. Most agricultural decisions continue to be influenced by rainfall patterns as drivers of investment.
Looking at what happens in African mass markets, it is possible to conclude that boundaries between dry regions and high rainfall regions may just be artificial. There are strong synergies between the two. Just as drought-prone areas are a market for food from high rainfall areas, high rainfall areas also constitute a huge market for commodities like small grains that do well in dry regions. An integrated approach to building food systems will ride on the strengths of both regions.
However, most African countries are yet to tap into the existing and potential strengths of dry regions. For instance, most mechanization investments are directed at high rainfall regions at the expense of dry regions. Instead of identifying appropriate mechanization for dry regions, governments have tried to foist crops that do well in high rainfall regions on dry regions together with associated equipment like combine harvesters and heavy duty tractors. Crops like wheat that consume a lot of water are often imposed on dry regions where small grains grow naturally but there have not been efforts to support the necessary innovation that would see small grains being produced under irrigation, possibly in winter.
Mapping of existing resources
Agricultural investments should be guided by careful mapping of existing resources like land, soil types and water sources including forests which also contribute to local food systems. Such efforts should also look at knowledge and human skills. Dry regions have been left with old people as the young generation migrate to high rainfall areas because they do not see agriculture-related opportunities in dry regions. Youth from dry regions are often found working in horticulture plantations of high rainfall regions and sugar cane farms when they should be applying their knowledge in their home areas.
Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) also have to be carefully mapped so that such knowledge does not completely disappear with the old generation. Much of the land in dry regions is lying idle as the old generation which has the knowledge on how to use the land in producing traditional crops no longer have the energy to work the land. The old generation has abundant knowledge in producing small grains, indigenous vegetables and indigenous poultry but youths are not available to receive that knowledge.
Infiltration and dilution of IKS
A disturbing trend is the infiltration and dilution of indigenous knowledge systems by modern companies scrambling for relevance. For example some livestock feed manufacturing companies now claim to produce road runner feed suitable for indigenous poultry. How authentic is that feed and why are African researchers or innovators not upgrading and commercializing indigenous poultry feed that has been produced traditionally for generations? What value is being added by local universities and tertiary institutions that are located in dry regions? How much of their curricula or content comprises local knowledge or IKS? Rather than adopting foreign syllabus, these institutions should be focusing more on contextual issues like developing local food systems for local, regional and global consumers.
Which supply chains are informed by small grains, indigenous fruits, indigenous vegetables, indigenous chickens and many other local resources that can drive growth? Serious efforts should go towards developing appropriate supply chains and markets. Many development organizations are promoting production of small grains and indigenous chickens but they are not developing markets. If a region has enough potential to produce its own food, 10% can be local consumption while the rest goes to markets.
Opportunities in value addition
Appropriate technology for small grains is lacking and that presents a challenge for commercialization. Most few quantities produced for surplus get to the market through public transport which is uneconomic for every farmer to come with his/her bucket of small grains. Better markets tend to be distant from smallholder farming areas.
Given that much of the production across Africa is seasonal, there is no control over production cycles and supply is rendered inconsistent. Preservation of indigenous fruits for consistent and organized supply to the market is also lacking. Universities should participate in promoting the utilization of wild fruits, indigenous vegetables and other crops that are abundant during rainy seasons. Seed for propagation of indigenous crops and wild fruits is another critical pursuit. Small grains have remained labour-intensive for generations, making the crops unattractive to the youth. Why do we not have plantations for indigenous fruits which do not need too much attention and can give young people time to multi-task? Building on existing IKS is the best way of developing dry regions rather than bringing foreign innovations and knowledge which cannot tap into these areas’ competitive advantages.