The power of an end to end view of agricultural value chains

Very few actors in African agriculture can see the entire value chain and its nodes. As a result, production activities continue to be based on guesswork. In most cases, some traders who have been in the marketing game for a long time have more knowledge about the value chain than farmers.  Many traders often pre-finance production and end up more informed about particular commodities. In knowledge-intensive value chains, most farmers are not keen to understand the whole value chain, preferring to have traders come and buy from the farm. While this practice has its own merits, a major shortcoming is that farmers are not able to get feedback directly from consumers.

Towards transparency in prices and volumes

In cases where traders assume the responsibility of relaying information between producers and consumers, producers may not get all the information needed for accurate decision making. That is why getting to the market and understanding the entire ecosystem is a worthwhile investment for producers. One big benefit from ICTs is reducing information asymmetry in ways that reinforce transparency in terms of volumes of commodities flowing into the market and changes in prices.

The following analysis is an example of decision-making information that is being collected and processed by eMKambo with the aid of ICTs in Zimbabwe’s informal food markets which handle more than 70 percent of locally produced food. The analysis focuses on potato supply in Harare’s major informal markets like Mbare and Lusaka-Highfield from January to October 2017. At peak periods, Mbare market alone handles more than 400 tons of potatoes a day.

In Zimbabwe potatoes are consumed in different ways – fried, roasted, boiled and baked. Processing companies also use potatoes to make potato crisps while most food outlets use potatoes to produce French fries.  A total of 641441- 15kg pockets translating to 9621.66t were supplied to Harare markets as shown below:


Supplies usually come in three different sizes – small, medium and large. Price per pocket also differs with the potato size, the large being the most expensive pocket. Traders in the wholesale market also sell seed potato whose unit of measurement is usually a 5-litre tin. Chats/baby potatoes are also sold. Some  traders specialize on selling potatoes with defects that would have been damaged during harvesting.

Production sources

Tracking sources of commodities like potatoes is one of the challenges for producers and financial institutions keen to invest in agriculture.  Evidence shows a drastic increases in potato production in 2017 compared to other years.  This has been due to good and prolonged rain season, among other factors. An increase in the number of production areas also demonstrate the extent to which potato production is spreading around the country. It also means production information is becoming standardized and easily available. The top 5 potato suppliers were Mazowe, Beatrice, Harare, Mhondoro and Acturus, as shown below. Harare as a produce source includes some of the per-urban farms around the outskirts of Harare.


While the average price has been $6 per pocket, the price ranges have been between $3 to $10 per 15kg pocket depending on quality, variety, size and source distance from  the market and supply versus demand at a given period.  The total estimated revenue generated by potatoes from January to October 2017 in the above mentioned markets was more than $6,584,475.69.   That is not a meaningless figure. Instead of producing blindly, modern farmers should insist on getting an end to end view of the market including insights such as the collective monetary value from staples like potatoes and different commodities.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

How external expertise can undermine local community knowledge

Many rural communities in developing countries are now more familiar with external experts and consultants who visit them to ask questions about their situation and go away never to be seen again. Using consultants and external experts to gather information or conduct evaluations is not an entirely bad idea. Outsiders can sometimes better see what is hidden in local people’s plain sight.  Like a fish which does not see the water in which it is swimming, local people may no longer be conscious of their situation. However, from views recently gathered by eMKambo from smallholder farmers, traders and community leaders, organizations which use consultants and external experts to gather information or conduct evaluations may be blind to several downsides of this practice.


Instruments of social control

Besides undermining local people’s judgment, external consultants and experts are often used to assert social control in ways that do not recognize local people’s collective capacity to generate wisdom and value their resources. The fact that much of the data collected by external experts and consultants does not come back to inform local institutions and decision-making implies people are left with no dependable sources of evidence. It becomes difficult to know what is real and what is not authentic. Local people end up favoring facts that justify what they already know when alternative views could be more beneficial.

Use of external expertise without building local expertise also undermines people’s capacity to form bonds of common interest based on common experience. In fact, the underlying message of such practices is that local people cannot trust themselves but should follow experts in every aspect of their lives such as nutrition, food production, health, environmental management, income generation, education and many other aspects. Leaving everything to experts strengthens elite power and versions of meritocracy that makes it hard for local people to gain control of their lives, individually and collectively. There are many cases where donor money is being used as an instrument of control and power.  Ideas and narratives that are funded receive saturated media coverage when superior local knowledge is barely mentioned.

A case for better ways of valuing local resources

Excessive dependence on experts also weakens local people’s capacity to value their resources without using money as the main proxy. How can communities make collective decisions in valuing their commodities and natural resources when their sources of information remain fragmented irrespective of billions of dollars spent in their name? Farmers need to know the value of their commodities beyond money.  What is the true value of a crate of tomato or a goat if produced well? It is not enough to say it’s worth $8. What does a dollar mean in relation to potatoes, tomatoes, chickens, fruits, milk, goats, sheep, cattle and other assets?

The majority of developing countries currently don’t have models for understanding commodity values without using dollars and cents. However, nothing stops policy makers and development agents from considering other factors like nutrition, healthy, wealth creation potential, environmental contribution and multiple uses in valuing local resources before getting to dollars and cents. What is the socio-economic value of a commodity before it is given a dollar value?  What is its environmental value?  Tobacco is valued in dollars and cents without considering environmental and other factors. Same with minerals.  After taking all these factors into account, it should be possible to assign specific weights to commodities from which comprehensive valuation can be derived.

Supply and demand should not be used alone to determine the value of agricultural commodities. When there is a glut of tomatoes, for instance, it doesn’t mean the nutritional value, taste and quality of the tomatoes will have gone down.  The same amount of water, labour and inputs will have been used to produce it. Where the monetary value of livestock on the market will have gone down due to over-supply, it does not mean a reduction in value because the cattle will have consumed the same grass, water, labour and other inputs as those fetching high prices during shortages.

Correct valuation will inform resource allocation

What is the value of an irrigation scheme in terms of land, water, soils, the environment, customers and other factors? Answering this question factually will reveal benefits and costs, taking into account people, animals, wildlife and other elements of the whole ecosystem in which the irrigation scheme is located.  Irrigation water, soil and labour have alternative uses. Correct valuation will show the extent to which resources are either being over-utilized or under-utilized for the sake of earning dollars.

When a government allocates budgetary resources to the ministry of health, it considers the importance of human life. The value of a good road network influences the size of budget allocated to the ministry of transport. Likewise, the value of agricultural commodities should influence budgetary allocations to the ministry of agriculture. How do developing countries value investment opportunities, minerals, land and associated benefits? In the absence of smart valuation criteria, developing countries limit their valuation to money and equipment brought by investors yet these may constitute a small part of the value of resources.  Investors end up assuming a big brother mind-set because they bring money and equipment.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

How developing countries over-rate foreign currency

Many African developing countries have a deliberate bias towards exports in the hope that this can bring foreign currency that is expected to stimulate economic development. However, it seems foreign currency is a preserve of the elite who have developed a taste for foreign toys like large vehicles, expensive furniture, clothes, wine and other expressions of privilege. Smallholder farmers and ordinary people don’t give a damn about foreign currency. All they need is an ability to sell their commodities at a value that can enable them to meet household needs and pay school fees for their children. That does not require foreign currency but credible local means of exchange. No wonder barter deals are common in most remote agricultural communities.


Single-minded pursuit of few commodities

A strong bias for foreign currency is seeing African national resources and energy being directed to a few agricultural commodities like cocoa, cotton, tobacco, flowers and, to some extent, beef. While West African countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast produce the bulk of the world’s cocoa (the main ingredient in producing chocolate), this commodity has failed to earn sufficient foreign currency that can ignite economic growth and reduce unemployment for the two countries and the continent. Kenya has a whole industry supporting the production of flowers for export. The situation was the same in Zimbabwe before the land reform, with the best resources going or flowers which meant completely nothing to local people. In spite of poor prices on the world market, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe continue to put their faith in cotton and tobacco for export earnings. This is happening at enormous opportunity costs such as environmental degradation and destruction of ecosystems that support socio-economic insects like bees whose pollination activities are irreplaceable. Few commodities being prioritized are failing to address socio-economic challenges.

 The power of domestic markets

One of the key takeaways for developing countries from China and India is the power of strengthening domestic markets first before trying to please foreign markets. China has no doubt used its domestic market to globalize itself. That is why Chinese goods are found everywhere. Rather than exporting raw commodities, China is exporting finished commodities after meeting domestic needs.  On the other hand, behind India’s burgeoning medical tourism is a powerful domestic base through which diverse medical products and processes have been perfected before being globalized. The same can be said about the Chinese medical foray into the world. These two countries realized the fact that when your eyes are firmly on economic growth you should not be obsessed with foreign currency. It is when your domestic market is strengthened, that foreign currency will come on its own.

 Instead of putting all eggs in the export basket, African countries should leverage their broad natural resources base to produce products that cannot only satisfy domestic needs but lure foreign currency. It doesn’t help to continue chasing a few colonial commodities that have reached their ceiling in terms of demand and local productivity. The majority of African countries have hundreds of diverse agricultural commodities whose uniqueness is a selling point on the global market. Tons of local commodities are waiting to enter reliable commercial markets and environments. The current knowledge economy is about translating these resources into better lives for citizens and economic growth.

 Commodity aggregation as a starting point

With the right knowledge and attitude at policy level, African countries can aggregate a lot of their diverse commodities in ways that position them for earning foreign currency without sacrificing local environmental and human well-being. Aggregating commodities at local level will enable countries to fully understand domestic markets and exploit their resources in ways that enhance socio-economic justice and progressive outcomes. Unless you understand the market at a granular level you cannot link it with relevant commodities at the right time.

A sensible direction is harnessing the power of local markets to aggregate, control and allocate resources to different commodities. It is the local market that tells you what you can produce as a surplus. Therefore sustainable export mechanisms should be anchored on local markets. This will prevent the South African curse where an over-sized industrialization strategy has ended up producing commodities that are beyond the affordability of the majority of domestic consumers. The knowledge pathway from producers should pass through the domestic market on the way to negotiating with the export markets.

Local farmers and processors should master domestic standards first before dreaming about export standards. How can African smallholder farmers be expected to meet foreign standards when they barely understand standards in the domestic market?  The disjointed nature of most African interventions is seen in how individual companies want to get onto the export scene in isolation.  When things go wrong on the international market, these individuals dump commodities on the domestic market where they will not have created a relationship. For instance, Zimbabwean companies that have been pretending to have mastered foreign markets for peas have been found disruptively dumping peas on the informal market.

 Why not use parastatals to earn foreign currency?

Instead of dragging smallholder farmers, most of whom eke a living in precarious conditions, to produce cotton, tobacco and other commodities for export or manufacturing, African countries should assign   parastatals like Agricultural Rural Development Authorities to produce export commodities. Smallholder farmers should be left to deal with domestic markets until they understand them fully. If this approach is ignored, African countries and their smallholder farmers will continue to be slaves and labourers of foreign markets where price discrimination and other hidden barriers are beyond their control.  Building domestic markets will see these markets ultimately selecting commodities suitable for exports. Eventually the local market will enable farmers to slowly graduate into the export market without missing the most critical knowledge acquisition steps. Some farming communities will start willingly seeking knowledge and skills for venturing onto the export market rather than have this process foisted on them. Foreign is not a ticket out of poverty for the majority!  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Using market evidence to protect smallholder farmers from price variability

That most African smallholder farmers can produce enough commodities for household consumption and surplus for the market is now beyond question. The majority of committed farmers have mastered the art of producing almost any commodity.  What remains outside their control are market dynamics such as prices as well as supply and demand trends. The situation is worse in informal agricultural markets through which more than 70 percent of agricultural commodities pass en route to diverse consumers.


While African insurance companies have started getting excited about insuring agriculture against weather-related parameters like hail, frost or drought, they are still to craft uniquely market-related insurance products. For commercially-minded farmers, insuring agricultural commodities against weather is meaningless if unpredictable market prices result in huge losses.  Agricultural markets re becoming too volatile such that even if commodities are insured against weather, failure to insure against price variability and supply trends derails the whole farming business.

Towards an agricultural market insurance index

Based on data and evidence gathered in agricultural markets across Zimbabwe over the past six years, eMKambo has started exploring a market insurance index that can cushion farmers against negative market dynamics. Lessons from this initiative can be scaled out to other countries. So far, market trends from diverse agricultural commodities signal that an appropriate market insurance product can focus on the following parameters:

  1. The break-even price for commodities to be insured: The insurer and farmers will have to agree on what is considered a break-even price.  If the break-even price for tomatoes is US$2 per box, anything above U$2 becomes a profit for farmers.  Farmers will have to focus on minimizing costs of production. Depending on type of commodity, there will be a minimum area of production for farmers to break-even.
  2. Price elasticity:  This is about how often the price of the insured agricultural commodity can change. Does it change three times a month or is it too elastic such that it can move from $2 today and $3 tomorrow? This factor takes into account differences between perishable commodities and non-perishables whose prices may remain stable for a given period.
  3. Price range: What is the price range for insured agricultural commodities?  For instance, in Zimbabwe’s informal markets, tomato prices can range from 50c a box to $12 a box within eight months depending on supply and demand. However, potatoes rarely go down to $1 irrespective of supply and demand. The cost of producing potatoes determines how low the price can go.
  4. Shocks:  To what extent are insured commodities affected by shocks such as dry spells, floods and others?  Sometimes good rains can cause gluts like what happened this year in Southern Africa.
  5. Trends: How do commodities behave in a given period? There are times when commodity supplies of commodities like onion and oranges are very low. Understanding how these commodities behave in a given season can inform designing of insurance products.

Bundle of services

Since it is not enough to offer insurance as a single service, there is enormous scope to combine insurance with other advisory services so that it becomes a coherent bundle of services that are critical for agriculture. While being evidence-based and knowledge-intensive, the market insurance model incentivizes farmers to work on their costs so that they stay above the break-even. Just as traditional insurance does not cover a car that is not moving, the market index insurance will not pay for poor quality commodities.  Farmer and commodity location will be critical part of valuation of farmers.

Distributing agricultural wealth and finance

By taking into account different commodities, production zones and contexts, the market insurance index will assist in redistributing agricultural wealth. The main challenge for African countries is absence of systems that can distribute agricultural commodities where they are needed without passing through major urban centres.  Agricultural commodities can move from one rural area to urban centres and back to a neighbouring rural areas. In most cases not much value will have been added to the product in urban areas.  Part of the problem is that most African countries have not transformed colonial structures which were designed in such a way that everything is directed to urban centres.  That is why rural to urban migration is not the increase although some rural areas may offer better opportunities.

Mechanisms that can update food needs of various communities are badly needed so that commodities can be easily moved from areas of production or abundance to where they are needed. In most cases, where commodities are produced there is no local market or demand because everyone has the commodity. For instance, there cannot be a market for bananas in Honde Valley area of Zimbabwe because almost everyone produces the fruit. Unfortunately, even if the fruit is needed in Gwanda district, it has to pass through urban centres like Mutare, Masvingo and Bulawayo where there will be so much double handling which results in losses.  A robust insurance index should cover all these issues.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

The power of knowledge retention in farming and rural communities

In addition absence of appropriate information at the right time, lack of knowledge retention mechanisms is a big challenge for African farming and rural communities. Unfortunately most resources continue to be directed at the dissemination of ideas from policy makers and development actors.  As a result many development interventions remain projects at the end of which communities go back to their usual practices. This situation would be addressed by clear pathways through which communities can integrate knowledge from outside with their local knowledge in ways that foster reliable knowledge retention.

With increasing urbanization, many African youths are migrating to cities and this means elders have no one to hand over their practical wisdom to. As elders retire from active agriculture or die, critical knowledge leaves with them. As if that is not negative enough, most African rural communities do not have libraries where knowledge artefacts can be kept for recall and adaptation. Given the rate at which human beings forget important details, it is not ideal to depend on human memory to retain all the knowledge needed by a community to function in the modern world. Community resilience is not just about availability of natural resources and food but relevant knowledge which has to be retained and transferred to the next generation.  Such a role cannot be left to formal educational institutions which are full of textbooks from elsewhere instead of people’s lived experiences.


Establishing Community knowledge centres

Intentionally setting up community knowledge centres should be part of each community’s knowledge retention and transfer strategy. That will reduce risks of communities losing all the knowledge the way their soils lose nutrients and water so much that nothing can be produced to sustain lives for a long time. Many communities have abundant natural resources that people are failing to exploit because they have not been able to retain the most important knowledge to which they have been exposed. Critical knowledge to be retained through a community knowledge centre include important decisions that have been made by the community collectively in the recent past, knowledge priorities for the community as well as ways through which communities address their challenges. A community should be able to retain a certain minimum amount of knowledge and wisdom in order to function dynamically.

African youths as drivers of modern knowledge retention methods

Youths’ exposure to various learning approaches can help them in setting up knowledge retention mechanisms for their communities through gathering what needs to be retained in community knowledge centres. It takes skill, curiosity and progressive attitudes to ask the right questions for surfacing community knowledge.  That is why one youth from a community can fully describe his/her community to outsiders while the other may not see anything worth describing. It is about imagination, interest and skill. Curious and determined youths can start the knowledge gathering process through conversations with community elders, experts and opinion leaders. They can then scan their local environment to identify socio-economic drivers that keep the community hanging together.

Every community has Communities of Practice (CoPs) through which people with the same interest learn together and deepen their practice.  In most cases, these local communities of practice can be invisible and have to be unearthed by someone determined to reveal stories behind the stories. Having figured out the wealth of existing knowledge, youths can capture and document using various methods including Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).  As part of building ownership and resilience, this initiative should not entirely depend on the donor life support system.

If most development interventions had knowledge retention has part of their community investments, many African communities would have pulled themselves out of poverty. Climate smart agriculture and other approaches being promoted will not go far in building community resilience if there is no commensurate effort in supporting communities to retain knowledge. Besides people’s natural tendency to forget important details, knowledge has a tendency to leak as much as it also tends to stick.  There should be strong initiatives in ensuring retention of critical ideas necessary for important decision making. Retaining critical knowledge enables a community to reduce risks to manageable levels and prevent situations where a community’s basic coping mechanisms have to come from outside.

Towards authentic community knowledge assets

Having gathered the most important knowledge, community youths can produce a number of knowledge assets by converting common sense into operational manuals that, for instance, demonstrate how a community can use its natural resources without depleting them. Stories of local champions and role models constitute some of the knowledge assets. Instead of relying on generic farming as a business manuals, communities can develop their own process manuals and guidelines that speak to their context.  Although most development organizations love to use words like ‘sustainable development’, much of the information being pushed to communities through development interventions is too general and irrelevant for achieving authentic sustainable development.

Knowledge becomes a common good when local people participate in its co-creation.  By producing many documents with their own logos inserted on cover pages, most development agencies are presenting knowledge as if it is their private property.  Even if stories in those publication are about local people, it is difficult for local people to identify with the final artefact in the form of a book or publication produced for the world to read.

Addressing haphazard knowledge sharing

Knowledge retention efforts can address the current scenario where the majority of African smallholder farmers are haphazardly informed about agricultural markets.  In some cases, existing markets do not take enough volumes or are so choosy that most commodities from smallholder farmers are not taken up, leading to loss of potential income.  What is presented as a market by policy makers is for very few commodities like maize and flowers. Very little of what farmers really need to know gets to them.  The rest is either half-truths or misleading advertisements designed for profit maximization by those pushing such messages.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Knowledge-driven ways to assess the socio-economic impact of agricultural interventions

Measuring the authentic impact of development interventions remains a big challenge for many development organizations and governments, mainly in developing countries. Terms like Value for Money (VfM) and Social Return on Investment (SROI) are being mentioned repeatedly as organizations try to ascertain the value of millions of dollars that continue to go towards development. While these efforts focus mostly on the monetary value, there is not much excitement towards assessing changes in knowledge and people’s capacity to make sense of their own development.


Building community confidence and culture

African agrarian communities may not attach particular names or abbreviations to most of their best practice models but such practices are worthy more than new models being dreamed up by development practitioners every day. eMKambo has realized that, besides using repetition to build community confidence and a strong culture, each farming community has sophisticated ways of evaluating its learning processes through questions like:

  • What is working well in our community this season?
  • Where are we solving the same problems over and over?

After every harvest, individual farming households often find time to discuss their results through questions like:

  • What have we achieved that makes us proud?
  • What could have been better?

Greater community efforts also go into analyzing collective decisions through answering questions like:

  • What decisions did we not implement properly leading to disappointing results?
  • What decisions preceded our good results?

Instead of focusing on monetary value, the impact of development interventions can be revealed through facilitating processes where communities ask and answer their questions intelligently.  It may not be so much about how much money has been spent taking people through formal training programmes like farming as a business or buying ICT equipment like VSAT.

Identifying pockets of positive community energy and knowledge

While a lot of knowledge may exist in a community, there is often need for structured ways of assisting local people to explore relationships that expand or impede knowledge sharing. This can be achieved through helping them to answer questions such as:

  • Where are the pockets of positive energy in our community?
  • Where is the negative energy and how can we minimize it?
  • What brings us satisfaction in our agricultural and socio-economic activities?
  • What is frustrating us and what does that say about our community?
  • What skills are we improving as a community?
  • What skills would we want to acquire and improve?
  • What are we learning about our individual and collective community roles?

Uncovering learning through reflection

Given an increase in the amount of information sources, many farmers now need few rules of thumb rather than a lot of information that ends up confusing them.  Contrary to the widespread notion that the customer is always right, informal markets have shown the extent to which many customers learn from traders, farmers and other actors who frequent informal markets.  Since not every value chain actor can possibly know everything, they thrive on trusting other people’s knowledge. In some cases, providing farmers and other value chain actors with more information or knowledge is unlikely to improve their situation due to several barriers to using that knowledge.

Many farmers need information on a just-in-time basis as opposed to just-in-case basis, on the assumption that it will become useful in the future.  Unfortunately, most capacity building programmes are based on just-in-case knowledge provision approaches on the assumption that communities will use that information when the project comes to an end. Quite often, when the project phases out, which is the end of everything associated with it, including knowledge sharing practices.  That is why setting up community knowledge centres becomes important so that they continue weaving various knowledge pathways into collective community action.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

When old knowledge prevent adoption of new socio-economic practices

One of the dominant facets of colonization is visible in the structure of African formal food industries. Many African countries are stuck with infrastructure designed for supporting manufacturing of a few agricultural commodities, mainly for the export market. Such commodities include maize, beef, coffee, tea, cocoa, soya bean, tobacco and wheat. The biggest mistake by African governments was to cling to the myth that only these few commodities out of thousands found in Africa, can transform African economies. Consequently, billions of dollars continue to be poured into promoting these few commodities which, in most countries have reached their ceiling. Given the decreasing buying power of local consumers, it is naïve for African governments to continue celebrating an increase in the production of mono-crops like maize, tobacco and wheat. When everyone has maize, who will look for maize to buy?


Handicaps in moving from knowledge to action

While there is increasing awareness and knowledge on the limitations of colonial agricultural model, African policy makers are failing to break out of structural limitations imposed by a colonial economy and food system. Since the 1950s, governments, the private sector and development agencies have poured billions of dollars into maintaining colonial infrastructure like research stations that focus on a few commodities, manufacturing plants that have outlived their usefulness and big maize silos that are no longer relevant for rapidly changing consumption patterns. Maize seed companies have invested millions into mono-crop research stations. In Zimbabwe, the most advanced laboratory supports tobacco production while there is no decent research station for hundreds of foods consumed and traded by the majority.

Transforming African agriculture will mean radically doing away with some of the above infrastructure that continues to reinforce structural economic problems. It means doing away with traditional research stations in which huge costs have been sunk. It means doing away with mono crop storage silos which are gobbling millions of dollars in maintenance costs. Most importantly, it means doing away with knowledge associated with these commodities and infrastructure. However, this is a big threat to thousands of knowledge workers who have spent all their lives and resources studying maize, tobacco, exotic livestock breeds, cocoa and nothing else. Researchers working for international research outfits like the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) will certainly not vote for transforming the current structural status quo because it means throwing away all the knowledge they have gathered and experimented with for generations.  However, something has to change.

Resistance to new evidence and knowledge

When policy makers in developing countries and development organizations look at the scale of transformation required to change the above situation, no amount of knowledge will convince them to take corrective action. Due to self-interest, they would rather resist change and ignore fresh evidence from alternative sources like informal agriculture markets which support the majority of local consumers. Instead of continuing to research and promote mono crops, developing countries are squandering opportunities to re-interpret their food system and build new collaborations through lessons from informal markets. In fact, informal markets can be fundamental in generating new theories of change that can be owned by local people and policy makers. Embracing knowledge from informal markets can generate ground-breaking insights through answering the following questions and issues:

  • To what extent are informal food markets not only demonstrating linkages between food and people’s identity but also inspiring new pathways for knowledge interpretation and collaboration?
  • How can we use informal food markets to inspire a correct reinterpretation of the social, economic, ethical, cultural and political characteristics of food systems in developing countries?
  • How can informal markets support the discovery of culturally-rooted food supply models?
  • How can development agencies assist communities in mastering their natural resources advantages in a globalizing world?
  • How can researchers open policy makers’ eyes to the fact that resilient food supply models have a long history and strong cultural roots from which the modern world can learn?

Despite ordinary people’s growing trust and faith in African informal food markets and local ways of sharing food, policy makers, the private sector and development agencies are not investing in the development of these resilient food sharing networks. Such efforts should begin with facilitating systematic reflection of how informal food markets can be theorized and practiced. This will ultimately reveal the strengths and weakness of conventional colonial food systems that are competing with local food systems, vividly expressed through informal markets. There is no way food theories developed in the West can capture all the peculiarities and roles of informal food markets in diverse African contexts.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Making sense of differences between communicating evidence and facilitating its use

Besides promoting linear ways of communicating information, most efforts by policy makers and development agencies in Africa continue to confuse dissemination of evidence with facilitating its use. Instead of speeding up the adoption of new knowledge, social media is also generating noise which gets in the way of adoption. If they were facilitating adoption and use of evidence, organizations would direct more resources to engaged reflection activities, mentoring evidence users and walking together with people in need of new ideas.


The difficulty of removing information from public discourse

Among those working with farmers and rural communities, there is an emerging realization that practices that have taken decades to solidify will not be changed overnight. That is why falsehoods and myths continue to compete with objective facts. While a lot of money still goes into producing documents, published information is not changing practices. Supporting the adoption and use of evidence requires thoughtful interventions.  For instance, you cannot change nutrition practices through advertisements because there are many reasons why people are not adopting new nutrition practices. One of the reasons may be that people cannot afford nutritional food due to various constraints.  Agricultural production manuals are not changing practices.

Examining factors that enable the use of evidence

Effective communication of evidence is important but incomplete. Given an increase in information and diverse sources, most people no longer have the time or energy to sift through the ocean of available information in order to identify what is critical for decision-making. The situation is worse among  policy makers like Members of Parliament who are exposed to disparate forms and sources of evidence such that they end up choosing what appeals to them although that may not be the most useful evidence for policy making.

Not all evidence has to be standardized

Contrary to efforts by organizations to turn all available evidence into documents and publications, more than 70 percent of knowledge in African communities may not need to be documented into lifeless publications but baked into best practices and rituals.  Not everyone wants to read a manual or standard operating procedures on how to produce all kinds of agricultural commodities. Many farmers are satisfied with following procedures and rituals into which evidence has been embedded.  This makes sense because it does not over-load memory. It leaves people with some cognitive space necessary for human well-being.  Rather than foisting evidence on communities, it is important to ensure it is demand-driven.  When evidence is demand-driven, it is put to use quickly and in its richest form unlike when it is not demand-driven. Cognitive bias is also minimized when people use evidence for specific purposes.

 Navigating the interconnected nature of opportunities and risks

Given the complexity and interconnected nature of opportunities and risks in African agriculture and socio-economic development, disseminating information is no longer enough. Building sustainable value chains requires facilitating the use of evidence. Numerous knowledge gaps cannot be solved through information over-load.  Instead, value chain actors have to be assisted in aligning their values and resources in ways that ensure business innovation and socio-economic impact. It means development partners and policy makers have to be better at communicating not just the moral imperative of positive change but also the market incentive which can be understood by the private sector. All this is not just about communicating evidence but availing appropriate evidence and facilitating its uptake by all actors.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Key elements of market – informed agribusiness Models

Like all businesses, agribusinesses should be built around a product/service and a niche market. Ideally, more products and services spawn more business models with some models eventually becoming separate business units.  When that happens, it becomes easy to assess the viability of each business model. Contrary to some beliefs, in a business model, money is just like salt. Without meat or vegetables, salt is useless.  The salt owner should be interested in those with meat, potatoes, tomatoes and other products. On the other hand, while some commodities need salt, some consumers don’t need much salt.


Confusing a business plan with a business model

Most agribusinesses lack models.  They confuse a business plan with a business model yet a plan assists in executing a model.  A model is an attempt to turn your innovation into profit or economic value.  The following pillars help to characterize a business model without over-simplifying the complexity in agricultural value chains

  1. The owner -who will provide the product or service.
  2. Value proposition – What need or solution do you want to address?  Have you addressed a need?  Absence of a value proposition is the main reason why we end up with copycats who just watch what another person is doing and try to imitate rather than focusing on the customer.  A need is a value proposition.  What loans are needed from the customer’s perspective?  To what extent is a reasonable interest rate a solution to farmers?  What if loan amount is the real need?  What if the main issue is unfavorable conditions that insist on collateral not in line with the agribusiness?
  3. Market segmentation – Who are you targeting?  Are you targeting farmers, traders, transporters or individual consumers?  A clear target will enable you to model in line with business behavior.  Most models, especially financial ones, are locked in systems.  It is important to create your own market niche that can inform what products to provide.
  4. Distribution channel – What is your distribution channel?  How are you going to reach your customers cost-effectively?  Most banks ended up setting up brick and mortar structure to establish presence. However, the entire value chain may be better supported by ICT-inspired channels.  Where Point of Sale (POS) machines are missing at other value chain nodes, clients get stuck.  For instance, loan disbursement will not be useful if traders cannot transact from rural agro-dealers where they stay.  Neither can loan repayment be smooth.  When clients get money, they want to use it somewhere.  It is important to understand destinations where money will end up being used.  That will enable building of other networks like between farmers and agro-dealers who also know what farmers need.  Concentrating on the immediate client is a big mistake, particularly in the network economy.
  5. Identify niche markets – Invest in building relationships or ride on partners who have already built networks. That is how you can build more models and networks.
  6. Best use of resources – resource configuration.  Should you go and rent a building or work through agents?
  7. Identify core competencies – What are the skills, knowledge, abilities, expertise and attitude available for supporting all other pillars?
  8. Networks – You cannot work in isolation.  Which partners are you going to collaborate with?  Trying to dominate the whole value chain speaks to unjustified enrichment at the expense of other actors.

Some of the fundamental considerations in agribusiness models

It should be about capturing everyone.  Start with early adopters who can assist you in refining as you go.  Do not dream of creating wealth if you are not creating wealth for others. Starting with others builds a sustainable base for your wealth.  From early adopters you are able to refine your financial strategy. Most business models have too many messages which end up confusing potential clients. Concentrate on a core message and few benefits.

If tobacco farmers who come to the market once a year get preference for cash from banks, what about traders who are in the market throughout the year and drive food markets?  That ignorance is counter-productive because it lures many farmers into tobacco, leaving other potentially lucrative commodities.  Why don’t banks enable traders to also get cash when they need it?  That is why traders end up locking their money in the market with their relationships with farmers.  They know that once they bank it, the money will be given to external value chain actors who are not interested in agricultural markets.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

If acronyms were a solution, poverty would be history in many African communities

Almost all development interventions into Africa are framed into acronyms. eMKambo will not give examples because there are far too many acronyms to mention and you know what we mean. Although they are designed to make programmes easy to remember, most acronyms turn development interventions into slogans. As if that is not enough, acronyms have not become embedded into African idioms or metaphors through which Africans have traditionally filtered ordinary ideas into knowledge routines.


Failure to gauge readiness levels

Condensing programmes and projects into acronyms has masked the need to gauge a community’s readiness for a new intervention. The underlying assumption in every new community project is that communities are always ready for what comes from outside.  Yet in reality, readiness may take much longer than three years, at which point some programmes will be phasing out. African communities are not always waiting for new projects but continue innovating and coping with challenges whether new programmes come or not. Sometimes old knowledge prevents new knowledge from coming into the community.  It takes keen interest to make sense of that situation. A lot of resources have been wasted and continue to be wasted due to unwillingness or inability to figure out whether communities are ready for new projects/ideas/concepts/knowledge and practices.

Toward knowledge readiness indices

eMKambo is more than three years into identifying and codifying contextual readiness indices for agricultural communities. A critical question in this process is: What is the minimum level of readiness for farmers and specific value chain actors to understand principles and potential outcomes of an agricultural intervention? Without thorough understanding of readiness levels, it is easy to waste resources since adoption may not be achieved. Gauging readiness also implies understanding what people are currently engaged in, sources of knowledge, capacity to unlearn and accommodate new knowledge.

African communities have been exposed to too many ideas, mindsets and approaches from diverse sources including NGOs and politicians such that it is a mistake to assume that they will simply jump for any new idea immediately. It may take more than two years for readiness to seriously kick in. A related question is: How do we figure out the market’s readiness for new commodities or new finance? Acronyms cannot answer such a question, neither are they effective in creating awareness about a development programme’s principles and potential outcomes. They are not vehicles for skills or knowledge acquisition because that requires experiential learning.  That is why a readiness assessment index becomes very important.

Filtering community knowledge into engagement

Knowledge is most useful when it can be translated into meaningful community engagement and that goes beyond acronyms. It means communities have to be adequately informed in order to take part in a much longer and meandering path for increasing the quality, impact, and effectiveness of knowledge-driven community engagement. People may have all the information but that does not translate to community engagement without intentional efforts at brokering relationships.

A fundamental part of developing a community’s readiness index is building local people’s skills and tools in identifying the most relevant and credible evidence for their context. Whether communicating among themselves or making their case to policymakers and prospective funders, it is crucial that communities are confident in assessing and using relevant sources of evidence. Generating high-quality evidence is a community effort and is the result of everyone’s willingness to ensure members are fully equipped with the information they need. Rather than be passive recipients of what comes from outside, community members have to actively engage in the production and sharing of evidence.

Farmers and communities are not mere recipients of information

A community’s ability to evaluate the quality and credibility of information is becoming more important today as information sources are continuing to increase. It means they have to continuously update their evidence using their own individual and collective learning skills. Very few development agencies focus on strengthening communities’ ability to critically assess the information they receive. Instead, they continue pushing information to communities irrespective of readiness to receive and absorb such information. As a result, acronyms are forgotten as soon as the programme ends and communities go back to their routines and knowledge rituals.

When high quality evidence is available, farmers and communities can develop stronger awareness of the implications and risks associated with their potential choices. In this regard, the key imperative identifying and understanding what constitutes appropriate evidence and how to put that into practice.  In an era in which the availability of information is no longer a problem, African communities should be assisted to use credible sources of evidence.  Every time information is provided to farmers, it needs to be logical in structure and clearly communicate objectives and outcomes rather than be too general.

When farmers and communities are appropriately engaged in information generation and dissemination, they can facilitate professionals and researchers’ understanding of their needs.  In most cases, acronyms hide more than they should reveal in empowering communities. On the other hand, local knowledge sharing routines and rituals in most African communities are designed to enable heart to heart communication among all community members. That is how trust is built and community solidarity is enhanced. Rather than sticking with acronyms, developments actors can use these community approaches to reach more formal results faster, with less resistance to change. Each farmer or community member has a unique way of combining wisdom from diverse sources.  That is why an individual farmer absorbs knowledge from an agronomist, animal scientist, nutritionist, engineer, economist, environmentalist and many other professions and still continue to remain sane.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6