Tracking or tracing has never been so important – thanks to COVID19

Before COVID-19, the need for privacy was gaining momentum across the world particularly in the global North. People were beginning to frown at the intrusive nature of technology and digital gadgets are notorious for tracking people’s movements and whatever they are doing. In addition to social distancing, contact tracing is one of the phrases popularized by COVID-19 as a key method through which the spread of the pandemic can be kept in check. Post-COVID-19 many people will most likely agree to be tracked wherever they go, especially when given the choice between privacy and staying alive.

emkambo covid

If people can be tracked why not food and agricultural commodities?

The importance of tracking has always been promoted in the name of food safety.  However, very few players in the food industry have been taking it seriously particularly in Africa. Many traders and businesses have not been too keen to share information on the pretext that their information is private property. COVID-19 has pushed the boundaries of what can remain private information as previously secretive traders are opening up in order to cope with market disruptions.

eMKambo is leading innovations around tracking food supply chains as part of dealing with challenges brought by COVID-19 on African food systems. Tracking is the core of building resilient food supply chains as volumes of commodities from each farmer or production zone have to be known as well as numbers of traders and transporters. Additional benefits include:

  • Enforcing fair trading practices and pricing.
  • A market-driven or guided production system that minimizes gluts and waste of inputs. Gluts negatively affect GDP by making resources from production not realizable in sales.  Communities and countries end up under-valuing their agriculture and commodities.
  • Where all players are recorded, tracked and known, government is able to introduce tax collection along the supply chain. Everyone should be proud to pay tax. Farmers cannot complain about poor roads when they are not paying tax when they know that money for road rehabilitation comes from tax.
  • Tracking supply chains enables local authorities to manage cities, towns and growth points efficiently as they know accurate numbers of business people, traders and vendors. This enhances local planning in terms of vending sites, regulation and increasing revenue streams. Most African local authorities have been operating without a system for years.
  • Financial inclusion – The food supply chain system will act as a collateral system, enabling financial institutions, input suppliers and other service providers to feel confident to work with registered economic actors who can be tracked. This will address perennial headaches like side-marketing.
  • Food safety and traceability – The supply chain will simplify introduction of traceability systems which are key requirements for exports.
  • Devolution – The supply chain speaks directly to devolution by enhancing local investment in production zones.
  • Tracking the supply chain as an anti-corruption tool – The supply chain will address corrupt practices that have bedeviled the agriculture sector for decades at the expense of the farmer who has continued to surrender his/her commodities for a song.
  • Behavior change – The supply chain will introduce new behavior among value chain actors.

It takes a pandemic or national disaster for people to stop doing certain things they have become used to.  However, those who do not adapt during a crisis become irrelevant. COVID-19 has presented opportunities for developing countries to value proper transportation, storage, processing and utilization of food. All that cannot happen without systems and infrastructure for tracking who is doing what, where, why and how?  / /

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It has taken a crisis for the importance of market infrastructure to be acknowledged

After years of persuading development agencies not to concentrate on the production side but spread their resources along supply chains all the way to the market, eMKambo has finally been vindicated.  COVID-19 has provided the Ahaa! moment for policy makers and development agencies on the importance of building infrastructure at African mass markets. If a fraction of millions of dollars that have gone into African agriculture over the past decade was directed at building or refurbishing mass markets like Mbare in Harare, Comesa in Lusaka and Mitundu in Lilongwe to name just a few, these markets would not have been closed during the lockdown that has been consistent with combatting the spread of COVID-19.

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African food markets will never be the same

If African mass food markets had appropriate infrastructure, the way consumers are queuing to buy food from the depleted supermarkets would be the same way they would be queuing to buy food from mass markets because these markets would be neat and well furnished. Long queues at supermarket and wholesalers are sufficient testimony that formal markets cannot adequately deal with a food crisis. In addition to offering variety at affordable prices, African mass markets can feed huge populations.

After COVID-19, African countries and financial institutions have no choice but to poor billions of dollars into revamping African mass markets and ensure appropriate infrastructure is put in place. Words like ‘informal market’ are likely to disappear completely from academic and policy vocabulary following a new realization that smallholder farmers, traders and food vendors are smart entrepreneurs who deserve a more respectful identity than to be called informal economic players.

Dealing with shocks that come from unfamiliar directions

COVID-19 showed up in Africa when agricultural authorities were already in the throes of climate-induced disasters like Desert locusts in East Africa and African armyworm in Southern Africa. Nobody imagined another much bigger threat to African food systems was on the horizon. More importantly, COVID-19 caught African policy makers off-guard because they have not been used to responding to shocks that come from non-agricultural avenues like health. Instead, they are used to responding to droughts, floods, fall army worm and other familiar disasters. Since it appears disasters and shocks may continue coming from any direction, African policy makers and investors have to be proactive.

How much adaptability and flexibility is within institutions?

While it is true that no one can adequately prepare for a disaster, those who refuse to adapt during a crisis become irrelevant. By focusing on funded projects only, development organizations have not been flexible enough to deal with COVID-19.  How does a 5-year project respond to shocks like lack of markets for agricultural commodities in its area of operation?  For those focusing on particular value chains like goats and poultry, how do they respond when suddenly there is no trading of agricultural commodities like goat or poultry meat? How does a project focusing on irrigation development suddenly switch to assisting starving villagers instead of continuing to procure equipment for irrigation schemes?

Like soldiers in a war, doctors and nurses have proved that they do not run away from the war front leaving patients alone. Conversely, some development agencies working in the agriculture sector have run away from farmers, leaving them to find their own solutions on markets around COVID-19.  Members of parliament have also disappeared into hibernation yet farmers who are the majority of voters are incurring losses through commodities rotting due to absence of a market.

Although raw commodities for manufacturing feed come from rural and farming areas, most of the poultry feed in Africa continues to be manufactured in cities and transported to rural chicken projects. With the COVID-19-induced lockdowns such feed is not going where it is needed. The same applies to pork production whose feed comes from cities. COVID-19 has not only exposed the folly of some of these arrangements but also presents opportunities for countries to revisit their food systems in ways that recognize the importance of every player, most importantly farmers who are the primary food producers.  / /

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Strategies for cushioning African informal economies against COVID19

Cushioning informal traders and vendors against the impact of COVID-19 is a very noble idea in developing countries. However the devil is in the implementation details. For instance African informal economies function more like ecosystems than a collection of disconnected traders and vendors. That is why before introducing social cash grants, the most important first step is making sense of how these economies work as well as their levels of complexity. Being informal, these economies do not have a solid culture of collecting and processing information. Since informal sector databases are disjointed and rudimentary, policy makers have to be very careful when selecting names of people to be compensated.

corona mbare

Compensating ecosystems not individuals

Instead of picking names of those to be compensated, it is better for governments to consider compensating the informal economy as an ecosystem whose actors have all been affected by COVID-19, though at different scales.  For instance, food traders do not work in isolation but have a network of subsidiary actors who depend on them for employment and these include sales assistants, loaders as well as family members who work in the enterprise. The same applies to vendors.

More importantly, compensating traders and vendors at the exclusion of smallholder farmers who are part of the ecosystem is not a resilient solution. Conducting rapid assessments can generate better evidence for implementing social grants. Names have to be accompanied with voices of those to be compensated. A lot of background information and contextual issues are invisible in databases and may not be apparent in names or numbers of traders or vendors in particular informal economies.

Turning social grants into a revolving fund

Understanding the informal economy may point to creative avenues like converting social grants into a revolving fund for informal market traders, vendors, smallholder farmers and other actors who are part of the ecosystem. Since they live hand to mouth, giving cash to traders and vendors may not assist in reviving their enterprises but end up meeting consumptive purposes.

While informal food markets have a wide range of traders, the social grant will have a multiplier effect if targeted at traders who buy commodities directly from farmers. These traders have potential to move commodities without the need for much cash and can extend commodities to vendors on loan with the vendors paying back after collecting cash from consumers.  Every $20 000 given to one of these traders, end up with the farmer. Shocks caused by COVID-19 have affected these traders more because their businesses have been disrupted by being delinked from farmers, some of whom they has financed to produce particular crops.

African smallholder farmers do not have social safety nets

Smallholder farmers do not have social safety which can directly cushion them against shocks induced by COVID-19. In the absence of social safety nets, crops and livestock are their only source of food and income, meeting their day to day needs. While formal shops like supermarkets may be open, if farmers are not able to sell their commodities in the cash-driven informal market, they will not be able to buy commodities from supermarkets. After selling tomatoes or leafy vegetables, farmers should be able to buy sugar and cooking oil.  Unfortunately supermarkets and wholesalers have seen the closure of African mass markets by authorities to minimize the spread of COVID-19 as an opportunity for profiteering. A major role for African mass food markets has always been keeping prices in formal shops in check by providing alternative sources of affordable food.

The majority of smallholder farmers produce crops and livestock to solve problems not for business purposes. When they sell eggs, vegetables, chickens, zviyo, madhumbe, mbambaira and many other commodities, they do so to pay school fees, solve household consumption and health challenges, most of which will have accumulated over time. The predicament would be lesser if African countries had investment models for rural enterprises. Currently, a cotton or tobacco farmer who earns his/her income from sales, has no meaningful investment opportunities in rural areas where s/he lives.

The under-estimated power of food vending in Africa

Food vending remains a major source of income and essential service at family level for many Africans. Following the continued closure of formal companies, most men no longer have formal employment. This has shifted the burden of keeping the family surviving to their spouses who are into vending. From a gender perspective, vending is more than 90% a women’s domain, mostly widows and single mothers. Given their operations and mobility, trying to get an accurate database of all vendors eligible for COVID-19 social grants has to be a meticulous process in order to avoid leaving out the most vulnerable.  / /

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COVID19 – an opportunity for decision makers to know how African food markets function

African countries are called less industrialized economies for genuine reasons. If the majority of people in a country depend on more than 80 agricultural commodities and less than 10 can be turned into processed products, such a country is obviously less industrialized. For instance in Zimbabwe only maize meal, flour, sugar, wheat flour, magarine, tomato sauce, baked beans, milk and beer are some of the few processed products. It just shows agriculture and food cannot be considered an industry and commerce thing but a food systems domain under the ministry of agriculture especially during uncertain times characterized by pandemics like Corona virus.


Besides absence of processing and value addition technology in most African countries, the nature of most African foods makes industrial processing a non-starter.  What processed products can an African country produce from okra, magaka eminzwa, beetroot, tsvubvu, nyii, nzimbe, nzungu nyoro, nyimo nyoro, madhumbe, sweet potato, mazhanje and many other diverse commodities that are part of seasonal African food systems?  Such food have to be consumed or nutritionally used in a fresh and raw state.

Using mass markets to ensure food supply during uncertain times

During times of crisis like the current Corona virus that has spread across the world like wildfire, securing food systems should take a granular view of local reality and recognize the fact that mass markets are still the backbone of African food supply chains and systems. To that end, countries that decide to declare a 21 day lockdown should carefully think about food supply and demand pathways during and after the lockdown.

While manufacturing has an important role, it is not yet the backbone of most African food systems. Relationships and trust are the bedrock of African mass markets and have enormous influence on food availability as well as price setting. It is not just about forces of supply and demand but sometimes food travels through kinship-based relationships, among other avenues. That is why it is important that as part of understanding the supply chain, decision makers become aware of different contractual arrangements through which food moves from farm to fork.

Contracts between mass markets and smallholder farmers

The following are major types of contracts in African mass markets like Mbare in Harare and others:

  1. The farmer just comes to the market after producing commodities using his/her own resources. Although the farmer relies on information from other farmers who visit the market, this is an ad hoc approach which, for some reason, is most popular and constitutes 40% of the trading systems.
  2. The farmer gets into a marketing contract with a trader who comes to collect commodities when ready at the farm and remit the farmer’s payment after selling the commodity. This is the second popular arrangement (20%)
  3. The farmer agrees with the trader who comes to pay for the commodities at farm gate, guided by prevailing market prices. In most cases the trader will have agreed with the farmer to ring-fence the commodity through paying a deposit (Hallo).  This accounts for 10% of the entire contracts in the market.
  4. The farmer produces through sponsorship or partial-sponsorship from the trader in the form of inputs like seed, chemicals and fertilizer (15%).
  5. The farmer produces commodities with guidance and knowledge from the trader in terms of shortage periods for particular commodities and other critical factors. When s/he brings commodities to the market, the farmer does not get into the market but gives commodities to the trader who pays the farmer promptly. The trader goes on to sell using his/her networks while the farmer goes back to do what s/he is good at   and the relationship continues.  This accounts for 15% of the contract arrangements and overlaps with others like

Major commodities produced under the above contractual arrangements include tomatoes, butternuts, cucumber, green beans, carrots, onions and, water melons especially from dry regions.

Large scale commercial scale contracts between farmers and mass markets

  1. The farmer produces using his/her own resources and traders come to fetch from the farm. Commodities that are traded under this marketing contract arrangement include potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, green mealies, onion, butternut, cucumber and sweet potatoes.
  2. The farmer produces and the trader secures the commodity with a bit of money to ring-fence against other buyers. The trader can put some inputs and get paid after selling.
  3. In addition to assisting the farmer to produce through market-driven guidance, the trader sponsors the farmer through inputs and pays for commodities at the farm gate. This arrangement builds strong relationships between the farmer and the trader.
  4. The farmer produces and gives commodities to the trader who has a market stall in the market. The trader pays the farmer as commodities are sold.

Both large scale commercial and smallholder contractual arrangements are not based on legal documents but trust and relationships built over time. Value chains built through these contracts support specialization.  Each farmer ends up doing what s/he is good at in order to satisfy demand and orders. The market and related contractual arrangements create pathways for generating and sharing knowledge. This avoids cases where one farmer comes to the market with no idea of who to talk to and how prices are set as well as sources of knowledge.  Unless policy makers understand some of these issues, it is easy to disrupt food systems in times of crisis like the COVID19 and expose the majority to malnutrition.  / /

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Clear benefits of containerization in African Agriculture

Post-harvest handling and storage of agriculture commodities remains the biggest challenge for the majority of African smallholders. Unfortunately most solutions being pushed are designed to get surplus commodities moving quickly from farming areas to the market and consumers. Solutions that enable farmers to hold onto their commodities and sell profitably rather than be pushed to sell by the condition of the commodity are largely missing. This is where containerization become a solution.

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There is a limit to the quantity of commodities a farmer can store at home and that determines production levels as each farmer ends up producing in line with storage capacity.  Even where conditions are suitable for doubling productivity, farmers hesitate to increase production because storage capacity cannot be equally doubled. On the other hand, most smallholder farmers keep their food and harvests in their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. The condition of such commodities can only be good for household consumption, not the market.  Commodities stored in houses and small granaries are obviously too little even for the local market.

Commodities than can benefit from containerization

Setting up containers at village level will help in aggregating commodities and provide a sense of the collective volume of commodities from one area. Commodities that can be stored in containers include the following:

Onions – Apart from drying, storage is one of the main challenges around onions.  That is why supply is so erratic in many Southern African countries including Zimbabwe.  Poor storage leads to rotting, loss of quality and reduced shelf life.

Butternuts – During gluts, butternuts can sell for 22c/kg and in periods of scarcity they go for 72c/kg.  This variation is not good for the consumer and the market although it may be good for a few farmers who may have butternuts during scarcity periods. Containerization and warehousing can solve a lot of these supply and demand mismatches.

High value commodities (red, yellow & green peppers) – Some of these may not be produced in winter and during off-season their price can go as high as $2/kg.  Containerization and storage will ensure an even flow of these commodities into the market, avoiding wild price variability.

 Carrots – These can also be stored for consistent supply.

Fruits (apples, oranges and peaches) – These tend to run out completely and can be stored when in season for release when out of season.

Dry crops (groundnuts, sugar beans and others) – These can also be stored for release as and when the market wants them, especially when better prices start prevailing. Prices of sugar beans tend to go up towards the rainy season as most people purchase them for seed.

Sweet potatoes –Given that most smallholder farmers store this crop in the field, storage facilities can quickly release land for other uses or for preparation processes like liming so that the next crop is planted on time.

Small grains – These can also be stored for both human and livestock consumption.  An increase in the production of indigenous chickens is driving the demand, hence production, of small grains.

Enabling market readiness

A critical look at storage will give African agriculture a different picture.  It should not be just about addressing insects and rushing commodities to the market. In most cases, commodities are produced when the market is not ready. Therefore containerization is a critical stage in enabling market readiness. The majority of farmers do not have storage facilities or sheds and do not have money to invest in such important infrastructure.

Volumes of commodities produced by smallholder farmers make it less cost effective to invest in storage or take the few commodities to the market individually. Unfortunately, most investments in post-harvest technologies by governments and development partners have focused on grain storage like metal silos, ignoring other foods such as horticulture that are a critical part of the food basket.  Investment in infrastructure will help producers, consumers and many other value chain actors.  / /

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Using infrastructure to unlock the value of African agriculture

African agriculture requires banks with a vision to invest in infrastructure which can be used by farmers to anchor production in ways that simplify loan repayment. For instance Vision 2030 should have financial products that speak to a 10 year horizon. Financing inputs is just like providing consumer loans which do not have a growth path. In the event of a drought inputs and all resources are wasted as farmers are not able to repay loans.

emkambo zimbabwe

There is no longer any doubt that African agriculture requires long-term finance focusing on infrastructure starting from the markets. A fundamental question is: What are the infrastructure needs of the market. In much of Africa, more than 90% of commodities from smallholder farmers go through informal markets. Consequently, infrastructure needs of smallholder farmers who are the majority of food producers in most African countries should be tracked and addressed.

The power of feeder roads

In as much as financial institutions and government programs can provides inputs to distant rural areas like Gokwe, Hurungwe, Muzarabani and Rusitu, among others, in the case of Zimbabwe, poor road networks in these areas have negative implications on loan repayment as commodities produced by farmers fail to reach the market in a good state. Financial institutions should invest in road infrastructure including aggregation facilities in production zones. That investment can eventually evolve into a strong financial model built on numbers. Given that many smallholder farmers do not qualify to get big loans as individuals, investment in good feeder roads can enable tracking of commodity volumes, supply corridors and their performance. This is critical in forging pathways for financing value chains.

 Infrastructure as foundation

Building a firm foundation for transformative agriculture should see financial institutions investing in dam construction and borehole drilling at farmer level.  This can also be a pathway for weaning off farmers to be self-depended and release pressure from depending on loans or unfavourable contract farming arrangements.  Starting with inputs and operational costs when there is no foundation is not the correct way of investing in agriculture. Productivity is driven by infrastructure which enables farmers to utilize water, pastures and other resources.  A strong production sector is driven by sound infrastructure.

Institutional arrangements for financing the Bottom of the Pyramid

To the extent traditional forms of collateral have become a barrier to financial inclusion and unlocking the value of African agriculture, the Bottom of the Pyramid can only be financed through institutional arrangements or under an institutional umbrella like mass markets whose contribution to economic growth and nutrition security is now beyond question but are not being supported financially.

There is definite need for sustainable financing models to support informal markets as public institutions. Acting as a broker, such an institution can provide technical assistance to market operations along business lines as more of project managers. On the other hand, there is scope for strengthening relationships between local authorities like municipalities and banks.  While some local authorities could be accessing bank loans to buy water treatment chemicals, they are not getting loans for revamping food markets which are viable sources of revenue.  / /

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Which sources of information can transform African Agriculture

All over the world, information sources are no longer just important for journalists. African policy makers who really want to transform their agro-based economies cannot afford to remain silent about their sources of information. There is emerging consensus to the effect that information from academic institutions, private companies and development agencies is not enough for transforming agro-based African economies. The need for alternative sources of information has never been greater.

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How reliable is information from formal institutions?

In as much as it may be easy to get information from formal institutions there is no longer guarantee that such information sources provide their best ideas and strategies for transforming African agriculture. To the extent, the private sector is often reluctant to get some of its strategic information into the public domain, policy makers have to devise creative ways of accessing useful information from private actors.

On the other hand, the majority of African economies are not yet formally institutionalized but dominated by SMEs, informal markets and smallholder farming communities. It follows that if formal informants constitute about 25% of agricultural transformation information sources, 75% of the most useful information is within smallholder farmers, SMEs and other actors who are not part of formal institutions. While it may be easy to get information from commercial farmers as opposed to smallholder farmers who are not formally institutionalized, how can African policy makers tap into informal sources of information and enrich their policies with undocumented initiatives and experiences from different ecosystems?

For instance, it is important to know how financial inclusion is understood by informal markets and smallholder farmers. While banks may think financial inclusion is about opening branches in farming areas, farmers may understand financial inclusion as wealth creation through interest on savings in a bank.  A useful starting point is understanding existing relationships between financial institutions and farmers if financial institutions are to make a financial difference to ordinary lives.

The role of rapid assessments

Rapid assessments are some of the under-rated methods and pathways for collecting information from economies that are not formally institutionalized.  That is how we can get information on mechanisms through which SMEs, smallholder farmers and marginalized communities are surviving and coping with climate change as well as absence of reliable financial systems.  A rapid assessment opens avenues for accessing fluid information that can be used to develop local communities and continuously review strategies in a fluid manner than can be achieved through static documents.

Every new intervention is getting into communities where things are already happening. Rapid assessments pave pathways for continuous sharing of information and knowledge. Farmers who contribute information at the start of the intervention want to continue contributing to what makes sense in solving their challenges.  A product can only impact the market if it is informed by potential customers.  A cue can be taken from African informal mass food markets where packaging and measurement is informed by clients who indicate their preference for different types of measurements such as baskets, boxes, bundles, 20l tins and many different measurements and packaging material depending on commodity.

Much of the content from rapid assessments should constitute experiences of farmers and other value chain actors in different ecosystems. In some cases, government needs technical assistance in conducting rapid assessments because some of the information collected is private property that has to be converted into business models. Weaving business models is often a domain for private organizations and social entrepreneurs. For instance, early warnings from the market can only be generated by private actors like SMEs and processors.

Based on a competitive mind-set, some private companies may share knowledge selectively. However, public sources of information like mass markets can provide valuable information because they have a much broader exposure to many actors and their impacts.   While the public sector has more data than the private sector, such data is often in unusable and inconsistent formats.

It is through rapid assessments that policy makers can see that smallholder farmers cannot produce solely for value chains and manufacturing but other important linkages have to be understood.  Other enabling factors for smallholder farmers to thrive, not just value chain approaches being pushed by NGOs and the private sector become visible.  Policy makers will also begin to realize that it is not just about yields but the entire ecosystem. While development agencies may want to move smallholder farmers from agriculture to manufacturing, local markets demonstrate their relevance for social cohesion and local food security. Unless policy makers broaden and deepen their sources of information this evidence will remain invisible and unused.  / /

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Ten guiding principles for yoking infrastructure and ICTs in African Agriculture

There has been a general tendency by developing countries to cherry-pick and deploy some components of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the agriculture sector. Combining infrastructure and ICTs could play a more catalytic role than just using ICTs for promoting extension services. If African countries are going to produce sufficient agricultural commodities, how can ICTs and infrastructure and ICTs fuel economic growth and the best Return on Investment for farmers?


Guiding principles

  1. Making leadership support visible – What type of support is leadership providing for infrastructure and ICTs? Leadership should be visible. A national agricultural budget should have a clear allocation for infrastructure and ICTs along entire value chains, not just on the production node.
  2. Shared language –   When talking about policies, currency, monetary policy, how are many value chain actors contributing? If the majority of value chain actors do not understand what is happening due to complicated terminologies, implementation will not bear positive fruits.
  3. Create space for many value chain actors – Many African countries are still using colonial terms like informal, smallholder, middlemen, Koronyera and other derogatory and demeaning terms to classify economic actors. Each actor’s role should be cleared defined in ways that reveal contribution to the economy. The existence of traders and informal markets has a meaning that needs to be understood. They would not be available if they did not meet a need.
  4. Simplify contribution pathways – Many farmers and other value chain actors do not contribute to talk-shows and conferences where their circumstances are discussed.  What forms of media can enable farmers and traders to contribute? How can ICTs help?
  5. Focus on action – Most policies end at policy level with no actionable stems. Catalyzing is about action.
  6. Simplify connection – What are the pathways of creating networks?  Currently in much of Africa, NGOs are doing their thing, farmers are on their own, companies on their own and government departments on their own. There are no sustainable connectivity pathways.
  7. Challenge the mindset – Traditional mind sets have held sway for generations and that is limiting innovation. For instance, the notion of irrigation schemes needs revamping in people’s mindset if it is to integrate modern infrastructure and ICTs. So far irrigation development is associated with sophisticated machinery only and irrigation schemes. For how long will elders continue associating social media with the youth when it has several positive uses that should be harnessed?
  8. Recognition and constructive feedback – accepting constructive criticism and acknowledging other actors’ contribution can incentivize knowledge sharing.  Someone should be awarded a prize for sharing knowledge through ICTs just as farmers win accolades for achieving higher yields.
  9. Preserving community status quo – Interventions like food aid tend to disrupt the status quo and social fabric in many communities.  For instance, when villagers and farmers start receiving United States dollars to go and buy their food in a community where foreign currency is not a major medium of exchange, social norms and cohesions are weakened because using foreign currency at community level is not part of a resilient strategy.
  10. Track and capture added value along value chains – What value is each intervention adding?  / /

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Building pathways for commercializing research findings and knowledge

Days of doing research for its own sake are numbered in developing countries. The same applies to an enduring tendency by researchers to be satisfied with publishing research findings into journals. Many African researchers are waking up to the fact that academic excellence will not solve teething challenges like mass poverty and unemployment among graduates. From all the investments that have gone into agricultural research in Africa and other developing parts of the world, there has not been meaningful efforts to lay strong foundations for commercializing research findings and knowledge.

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From the laboratory mentality to a commercial mentality

While it is known that agricultural researchers are not commercial experts, smart partnerships can assist in commercializing research results. Across Africa, efforts to commercialize research have mostly revolved around government research stations working with private seed companies who would reap the benefits of government investments in public research. Such relationships have not translated to substantial benefits for government research institutions which continue struggling to sustain their operations.

Much talk about impact pathways has not seen public research institutions being assisted to go beyond demonstration plots and trials to visible pathways for upscaling their research findings into commercial products. Most research findings continue ending up in journals and academic theses. Lack of a commercial pathways has seen several cases where farmers and consumers fall in love with bean and potato varieties bred at public agricultural research institutions being disappointed by unavailability of enough seed for mass production. This is one of many ways in which research institutions squander  opportunities to upscale and fully commercialize their research results into demanded products.

While government research institutions are largely considered public entities, there should be a limit to which their products and knowledge should remain public. For instance, there is another part where their knowledge should be valued and paid by users like when they produce seed should be bought by farmers and other value chain actors. The same way artists like musicians are paid through royalties should be the same way research institutes are allowed to craft cost-recovery business models for sustainability.

It is not true that smallholder farmers cannot pay for research or knowledge

The notion that smallholder farmers cannot pay for research is retrogressive. If farmers can pay to get national identity particulars like passports or to be treated at a hospital, who says they cannot pay for seed and knowledge? When farmers begin accessing knowledge and information from a local research institution or knowledge centre, they become members of knowledge ecologies that support research institutions. Likewise, when researchers are adequately informed by users, pathways for redistributing relevant knowledge and products emerge organically. Such sharing contributes to community resilience.

When citizens continue to expect free knowledge, products and services from government they lose their right to complain about receiving below par services from government.  All value chain actors including farmers should pay for knowledge. More importantly, it is critical to separate public information from private information so that farmers who want information for subsistence can be separated from those interested in commercial information that can only be assembled from many actors.

Publishing is not a sufficient indicator of knowledge and success

Many African researchers are beginning to realize that their performance and prestige as researchers cannot continue to be expressed through number of publications.  They are also starting to question why scientific ideas have to continue being shared in the form of papers. More importantly there is some emerging consensus to the effect that although publishing is important it remains largely foreign to African countries where knowledge travels more through relationships, trust and networks than publications. To that end, livestock and seed breeders cannot continue to be more famous for producing papers about their research than producing and commercializing their research findings into tangible products.  / /

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Why policy makers should know the difference between information and news

By confusing information with News, most African countries have neglected vital information that is neither News nor statistics but more important. What is ignored is information that continuously informs and guides socio-economic activities in rural communities. A lot of research has been done in many African communities by several institutions like NGOs, the private sector and government departments but the information cannot be found in one place. Most of the research reports and studies do not speak to each other while some organizations focus on individual value chain studies for narrow purposes.

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No one has taken time or put resources toward consolidating all these studies and researches into a holistic and fluid body of knowledge that can inform local development. When studies and information sources are fragmented, you cannot deduce trends that inform community development pathways.

What roles are ministries of information satisfying?

In most African countries, the ministry of information is about the media, news and political information at the exclusion of fluid socio-economic information. On the other hand, government officials think information is statistics yet without the contextual interpretation, statistics are just a set of meaningless numbers. Given that national statistical agencies lack a business angle, business people and investors always miss business sense in the data held by statistical agencies at national level.

The ministry of information also tends to avail information in other government departments in the form of news rather than part and parcel of daily work. For instance, the ministry of agriculture generates a lot of information daily and should not wait for such information to be converted into news and then shared with the majority. Digitalization should assist in turning such information into a fluid resource and an inclusive knowledge ecosystem that keeps communities updated and in touch with early warnings.

 Information is now a necessity and not a luxury

Ministries of information are yet to wake up to the fact that information has moved from being a luxury into a necessity. Therefore, besides inviting sabotage, leaving a commodity or service that is in high demand like information in the hands of private actors like Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) puts such commodities and services beyond the reach of the majority especially when decide to increase the cost of data bundles and airtime. For the majority to participate in economic development, a necessity like information should be a public good and government should ensure information that matters in economic development is accessible to the majority.

African governments that invest in fluid information collection and analyses will soon minimize food imports because farmers and other producers would be adequately informed to make quality decisions, contribute to solutions and provide early warnings. Being proactive means clarity on affordable and effective ways of generating information. Setting up knowledge gathering platforms within ecosystems is the fastest way of gathering information about diverse value chains. Such information and knowledge will become part and parcel of local farmers’ enterprises unlike expecting farmers in remote rural areas to subscribe to an information platform owned by a MNO based in the capital city more than 400km away. Local platforms can enable farmers to provide information and statistics to their local knowledge centers as well as begin to build their track records for financiers and other potential partners.

Farmers belonging to a community should have their socio-economic information pooled together for the purposes of guiding investment unlike leaving each farmer with his/her fragmented information or in the hands of MNOs. Fluid information gathering requires active, reliable and timely information sources. Currently much of the information coming from the ground does not have a clear destination. A system that does not link producers with diverse markets is dead. Farmers, traders and other value chain actors should interact freely.

 African communities have been over-researched

Most African communities have been over-researched such that asking them the same question is unproductive and causes fatigue among local people.  Those going to collect information should just be asking for new information instead of different organizations going to ask the same questions when doing their own separate baseline studies.

Had government and development organizations focused on setting up pathways for keeping local information fluid, each community would be having some consolidated demography such that if, for instance, someone goes to Binga district to collect information there would be no need to ask about levels of education or marital status since the information will have been gathered already and kept in a fluid state. The researcher would just ask people if their circumstances have changed since the last time information was collected and update the details unlike repeating questions.

Given that they already keep information about their population, village heads should be empowered to collect and update demography information regularly. They can even be given tablets in which they can easily update and keep their data in a fluid state. There is no reason why those conducting a census continue to estimate populations when the exact number of people in a community is known including where they are staying and those who have migrated. Why conduct a census every 10 days when people and communities have information that should simply be made fluid and shared in real time?  Instead of spending millions repeating researches that have been done, it’s key to keep the information as a flow.

 How the media can contribute positively

In addition to converting socio-economic information into fluid news, the mainstreaming media should paint a clear picture of the changing agricultural landscape in African countries. Media should be clarifying who is who in agriculture-driven economies? They should also be democratizing economic and financial news that has remained a preserve of economists and bankers for too long. Economic and financial information is still to be brought to the level of major economic actors like SMEs and farmers.

More importantly, the media should be simplifying monetary issues through programs like “Know Your Economy” through which ordinary people can be exposed to the dynamics of the economy. More than 80% of Africans do not read newspapers or listen to television when ministers of finance and reserve bank governors issue financial and monetary statements. It should be the role of media to translate and communicate some of these issues to the majority who remain excluded from formal financial issues.

The situation is worsened by the fact that African governments have not bothered to invest in economic and financial literacy for the majority. Economic plans and systems are still too complex for the majority to understand what is going on. When citizens do not understand their economy their contribution to solutions is limited. For instance, they stop caring about the national budget because they won’t see how it directly speaks to their aspirations. If you ask smallholder farmers how much they know about the national agricultural budget as announced by the minister of finance, they often don’t have a clue. Even policy makers like members of parliament are uninformed.

Using fluid information held by communities and taping into community knowledge centres or platforms, the media can nudge institutions like the National Economic Consultative Forum (NECF) to think about building their influence from the bottom, starting with convening Village Economic Consultative Forums,  Ward Economic Consultative Forums, District Economic Consultative Forums, Provincial Economic Consultative Forums and finally, NECF. The NECF cannot just start and end at national level and expect to be considered a serious national institution that fosters effective decision making about the economy.  / /

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