Market literacy is more important than financial literacy

Market literacy is more important than financial literacy

Financial literacy has gained prominence as a necessary intervention in most developing countries. However, what has become clear in most agro-based African countries is that market literacy is more important than financial literacy because the market provides the broader context in which financial literacy can be understood.

While almost everyone can grow crops or keep livestock, very few people are literate enough about market processes to be able to earn incomes that sustain their agricultural operations. This is because dynamics in agricultural markets go beyond what is taught in farming as a business courses or what is written in text books that are used in schools or colleges.

The power of literacy about market processes

In most cases farmers and value chain actors lack critical literacies on market processes. Ideally, such literacies should start at harvesting when farmers should carefully think about how to handle commodities in ways that will meet the needs of different markets (formal and informal markets). This is will prevent cases where the majority of farmers who take their commodities to African mass markets like Mbare in Harare or Makola in Accra have no idea who they are going to meet and how the commodities will be received. 

Farmers should also strive to know operating hours for different markets as well as shifts in those operating hours depending on seasons and other factors. For instance, most African farmers mass markets open around 4:30 – 5am and close between 12 noon and 1pm so that farmers go back to the farms on time. Usually the wholesale market sells to consumers what will have been hoarded from farmers. There are also instances where the retail and wholesale markets operate concurrently. However, shorter trading hours for farmers have a bearing on the number of farmers who should be in the market per day as well as volumes that should be brought by those farmers.

Knowledge around measurements and packaging

Measurement and packaging is often used by middlemen to get more commodities from unsuspecting farmers for less money. That is why farmers should be aware of different types of measurements and packaging used in the market before they bring commodities.  For instance, in Zimbabwe, more than 45% of potato pockets are now sold from Mbare market.  There are specialists who import and sell much cheaper than formal companies.  They are the same pockets used to pack onions, butternuts and garlic. Plastic polybags are used in the market, mostly by vendors wherever they do their business to pack chilli pepper, okra and other commodities.

Although there are companies which produce sacks, Mbare handles more than 50% of the 50kg bags in circulation, all types, some new and others re-used. Companies that import bran, flour and feedstock often dispose of the sacks which end up in Mbare. Popular measurements are sacks called Saseka or Semia. Like most packaging, choices for saseka and semia where informed by vendors of butternuts and cucumber. When these vendors tried to break bulk from 50kgs into heaps they discovered that the 50kg bag contained less commodities and as they looked around they stumbled on the 62kg saseka which landed itself very well to breaking bulk, heaping and other forms of repackaging that happen in smaller residential markets. The other influence came from transportation where it was discovered that given that transporters charge per bag and not per entire load, the 50kg was expensive to transport although it contained fewer commodities. 

Another permanent feature in mass markets is the wooden crate. The introduction of the wooden crate into the market was driven by communal tomato production but are gradually being replaced by plastic sandaks.  The 8kg wooden box is also targeted at low income consumers who cannot afford large packages. No one is researching the possibility of coming up with an alternative container that can replace the wooden box and of smaller weight.  Manufacturers are not investing in research and development and the market has not strongly expressed the need for that to happen.  However, the wooden box is slowly moving out as most communal farmers engage with traders who are bringing 30kg plastic crates to the farm as standard measurement. The nature of the product exchange at the farm is replacing the role of the wooden box.

Understanding market processes is key for policy formulation and enforcement

When financial institutions lack literacy on market processes, chances of financing over-subscribed commodities and agribusiness models are very high. That is why financial institutions should finance the development of robust information and knowledge ecosystems around agricultural markets.  It is not enough to invest in piece meal corporate social responsibility initiatives mainly designed for marketing or self-promotion. On the other hand, in order to come up with the right market policies, policy makers should be adequately literate about prevailing market processes.  / /

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Reimagining a new socio-economic fabric for African informal economies

Social safety nets will not be able to cover ordinary people’s coping mechanisms. Where economies were functioning normally, many farmers, traders and other entrepreneurs were busy servicing loans taken from banks and Micro Finance Institutions. What is going to happen?

Importance of careful business profiling
The biggest challenge for policy makers is navigating difficult trade-offs between promoting public health and stimulating socio-economic revival while competing for limited resources. Widespread informality and information asymmetry in most African countries makes it easier for government to mistakenly subside what is in abundance and miss sectors that need critical help. For instance food distribution remains an unsustainable option when it is better to provide resources to communities so that they can produce their own food in gardens, wetlands and production zones.

Teasing out all these issues requires careful profiling of people, communities and available resources. A biggest headache for countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe where the informal economy employs more than 80% of the population is how this economy can be re-opening during the lockdown and post-COVID19. The importance of careful profiling of economic actors in the informal economy cannot be over-emphasized. The following is how a detailed and meaningful profile will look like for each actor:

Capture covid

Profile element Justification (why it is important)
Personal details  
Name and sex Name is about identity. Who are we dealing with?  In the final analysis, sex reveals the extent to which the informal sector is dominated by women, for instance.
Age This has economic implication for business. What has been the impact of closing businesses on youth in response to COVID-19? What is the impact on the elderly pensioners?  How many young people have become unemployed due to the lockdown?
Marital Status COVID-19 has had a different impact on the married, unemployed single mothers and widows.
Household Size Household size has an influence on the pace at which small enterprises can recover from the pandemic. For most SMEs, more than 90% of the business income is more of a salary for the household.
Level of Education This has a bearing on the introduction of financial literacy and provision of technical skills.  How many graduates and school drop outs are in the informal sector?
Home Address (Location) Where do informal traders and SMEs stay? If staying in Epworth, why do they prefer selling to Mbare? What are the business factors for staying in Epworth and doing business in Mbare? This is a description of the ecosystem.  While policy makers may want to be directed by availability of land and by-laws in allocating work spaces, traders and SMEs know what should be considered in setting up a business.  They know the behavior of their customers and target market.
Mobile Number This is becoming a key unique identifier.


Business Information  
Business Name and Location Where is the business operating from?  This assists in mapping and revealing the concentration of SMEs.
Is the premise a. rented from i. private property ii. Council property. owned c. home This will assist in assessing risks. If one is renting at a private property, does the by-laws allow or property owners are just taking advantage of desperate SMEs. In most countries private property owners have become more of tax collectors. What plans can be put in place to bring commodities closer to consumers and de-congest Mbare? How can some premises be combined into industrial parks that accommodate street vendors and those operating from home? If you chase street vendors you are saying where they bought is also illegal.
Year business started This provides landscape in terms of experience as shown by years.  Are SMEs growing? What is dominating in terms of years?  What is the age of the business? How old is the SMEs?  If an SME has been running for 20 years but policy makers still do not recognize it, there is something wrong with government policy not with the SME. One cannot continue to be called informal merely because s/he has not been given works space or there is no supportive legislation. For instance what company registration is needed for brick molding? Youth enterprises should not be called projects but enterprises.


Average monthly sales How much is a SME contributing to the economy? Such information will provide a basis for clustering. It will also lays the foundation for creating a growth path. If someone has been in business for 20 years but sales are going down, it could signal lack of adaptation or existing knowledge has reached a limit.
Number of employees: a. full time b. part time This is a key component of economic growth.  By closing SMEs, how many families have been affected?  Any support required may not just be for the business but enhancing employment creation.  Job losses need to be accounted for as SMEs may not be able to sustain full-time employees post-COVID19.


List of assets and estimated value This shows production capacity and contribution of the SMEs to national economic growth.
Do you have any running loan? If yes state amount and lender? What is going to happen to enterprises that had acquired loans pre-COVID?  Their reputation with financiers is likely to get sour?  If more than 60% had loans, how are they going to be repaid?
What kind of support does your business currently need? Provide details This is critical. Most countries do not have fluid needs assessment management systems for the SMEs sector. In most cases there is an assumption that SMEs need loans when they probably need knowledge and skills.  Some have their own knowledge and should not be locked in five day training courses. Others are always learning from each other and can produce items without having gone to college.


As technical people, SMEs know what equipment is lacking.  In clustering SMEs, policy should be informed by existing type of equipment or come up with special grants that can enable SMEs to import appropriate equipment. A supply chain for equipment can anchor rural industrialization with no need for every aspiring entrepreneur to visit the capital city for everything.


Clustering as a success factor

The above profile is critical for clustering business according to services and products. The SME sector should work hard to classify commodities towards clustering. Profiling is important for systematic formalization. The informal sector is already in motion and most SMEs in urban centers are now very dynamic. If government policy says passports can be applied online from today, everybody will apply. Likewise, SMEs should be able to take advantage of ICTs by filling in their profiles online and send completed forms digitally without travelling to towns and cities for such simple processes.  / /

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The power of clear role definition in African food systems

COVID-19 has revealed the importance of understanding roles of different actors in Africa’s food systems. When roles and responsibilities are unclear, smallholder farmers are exposed to conmen.  For instance, in Zimbabwe farmers are losing produce to unregistered buyers. The situation would be better if all buyers were registered and the trading of all agricultural commodities was properly regulated.


Due to lack of coordination, there is so much overlap and duplication of roles.  Farmers need value added services and these can come from knowledge brokers. There should be an institution whose core business is knowledge brokering and consolidating knowledge in ways that show overlaps in service provision.

Role of the Reserve Bank: Farmers and other value chain actors think the reserve bank and ministry of finance in each African country should have a budget for information or knowledge gathering and processing if it is to really unlock the potential of agriculture and food systems.

Farmer unions: While their role seems clear, it is still confusing when considered in the same breath with other service providers.  Since unions are membership-driven, they should become a local hub for information dissemination to their members.  This can be their main value added service and they can be a conduit between their members and other service providers and markets.

Agricultural marketing authorities: These should regulate brokers and service providers in the market.

Agritex extension services:  Their role should shift to monitoring farmer activity at grassroots and providing generic information, mainly for new farmers or those getting into a particular commodity for the first time. For learning purposes, extension officers can ensure knowledge barriers are  lowered so that a farmer can obtain the basics before becoming an expert.  Most farmers, particularly those new into a particular commodity, may not know what they need to know.  Self-learning works where farmers have acquired enough basic knowledge to know what they need to know.

Associations: Ideally information should travel from the farmers/associations to brokers to buyers/processors/end-users.  Associations can provide vital information required by markets. Ideally commodity associations can be built in the framework of farmer unions.

Knowledge brokers: As a way of controlling costs that farmers may end up incurring, knowledge should facilitate information movement between informal markets and processors who often find it difficult to consolidate information in terms of what volumes, quality and types of commodities in the market.  Markets also find it costly to get information from the production side, especially for specific commodities. The broker can consolidate all this information and share it with all actors including marketing authorities who can use it for policy review and crafting responses to COVID-19.

Chambers of commerce:  These should have sectoral representations from farmers unions/associations, manufacturing, input suppliers, equipment manufacturers, etc.

NGOs: These should focus mainly on social enterprise so that vulnerable groups are not left out of socio- economic activities and interventions.

Responding to a dynamic environment

All the above categories of institutions are targeting the farmer. However, if a farmer is to belong to an association, farmer union or chamber, what services does a farmer get from an association which s/he cannot get from a chamber of commerce?  There should be levels of membership and service access.  An association should provide well defined services different from what can be obtained from a chamber or marketing authority. If these roles are not neatly defined, farmers will continue losing through membership fees.

Given than the benefits of belonging to one category are not clear, farmers end up trying to belong to all and thus ending up belonging fully to none. Farmers who used to produce major staples like maize had no reason to worry about market information because prices were set by the government for the entire season. In addition to new farming dynamics associated with horticulture and other high value commodities, farmers have to keep monitoring prices and other changes.  This is where ICTs like mobile phones have potential to provide solutions beyond just calling, short message service and Whatsapp groups, some of which are leading to information overload due to lack of fresh content.  / /

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Pitfalls of embracing a natural farming region approach to agriculture development

Pitfalls of embracing a natural farming region approach to agriculture development

Agricultural practices in much of Africa have always been done in line with natural farming regions. While this approach is sensible, it has consistently disadvantaged dry regions. There has been a tendency to think that drought-prone areas do not have resilience pathways that can be commercialized. Most agricultural decisions continue to be influenced by rainfall patterns as drivers of investment.

Artificial boundaries

Looking at what happens in African mass markets, it is possible to conclude that boundaries between dry regions and high rainfall regions may just be artificial.  There are strong synergies between the two.  Just as drought-prone areas are a market for food from high rainfall areas, high rainfall areas also constitute a huge market for commodities like small grains that do well in dry regions. An integrated approach to building food systems will ride on the strengths of both regions.

However, most African countries are yet to tap into the existing and potential strengths of dry regions. For instance, most mechanization investments are directed at high rainfall regions at the expense of dry regions. Instead of identifying appropriate mechanization for dry regions, governments have tried to foist crops that do well in high rainfall regions on dry regions together with associated equipment like combine harvesters and heavy duty tractors. Crops like wheat that consume a lot of water are often imposed on dry regions where small grains grow naturally but there have not been efforts to support the necessary innovation that would see small grains being produced under irrigation, possibly in winter.

Mapping of existing resources

Agricultural investments should be guided by careful mapping of existing resources like land, soil types and water sources including forests which also contribute to local food systems. Such efforts should also look at knowledge and human skills. Dry regions have been left with old people as the young generation migrate to high rainfall areas because they do not see agriculture-related opportunities in dry regions.  Youth from dry regions are often found working in horticulture plantations of high rainfall regions and sugar cane farms when they should be applying their knowledge in their home areas.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) also have to be carefully mapped so that such knowledge does not completely disappear with the old generation. Much of the land in dry regions is lying idle as the old generation which has the knowledge on how to use the land in producing traditional crops no longer have the energy to work the land. The old generation has abundant knowledge in producing small grains, indigenous vegetables and indigenous poultry but youths are not available to receive that knowledge.

Infiltration and dilution of IKS

A disturbing trend is the infiltration and dilution of indigenous knowledge systems by modern companies scrambling for relevance. For example some livestock feed manufacturing companies now claim to produce road runner feed suitable for indigenous poultry.  How authentic is that feed and why are African researchers or innovators not upgrading and commercializing indigenous poultry feed that has been produced traditionally for generations?  What value is being added by local universities and tertiary institutions that are located in dry regions?  How much of their curricula or content comprises local knowledge or IKS? Rather than adopting foreign syllabus, these institutions should be focusing more on contextual issues like developing local food systems for local, regional and global consumers.

Which supply chains are informed by small grains, indigenous fruits, indigenous vegetables, indigenous chickens and many other local resources that can drive growth? Serious efforts should go towards developing appropriate supply chains and markets. Many development organizations are promoting production of small grains and indigenous chickens but they are not developing markets. If a region has enough potential to produce its own food, 10% can be local consumption while the rest goes to markets.

Opportunities in value addition

Appropriate technology for small grains is lacking and that presents a challenge for commercialization.  Most few quantities produced for surplus get to the market through public transport which is uneconomic for every farmer to come with his/her bucket of small grains. Better markets tend to be distant from smallholder farming areas.

Given that much of the production across Africa is seasonal, there is no control over production cycles and supply is rendered inconsistent. Preservation of indigenous fruits for consistent and organized supply to the market is also lacking. Universities should participate in promoting the utilization of wild fruits, indigenous vegetables and other crops that are abundant during rainy seasons. Seed for propagation of indigenous crops and wild fruits is another critical pursuit. Small grains have remained labour-intensive for generations, making the crops unattractive to the youth.  Why do we not have plantations for indigenous fruits which do not need too much attention and can give young people time to multi-task? Building on existing IKS is the best way of developing dry regions rather than bringing foreign innovations and knowledge which cannot tap into these areas’ competitive advantages.  / /

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COVID19 has worsened the plight of disabled agricultural value chain actors

COVID19 has worsened the plight of disabled agricultural value chain actors
For more than 10 years, Samson Mundodzi a gifted blind farmer from Nyazura in Manicaland province of Zimbabwe used to be accompanied to Mbare market for selling his commodities. Like all other farmers, Samson would have his commodities loaded onto long distance buses that passed through his home and get to Mbare market in time for consumers to snatch his commodities before returning home with the same buses.

By banning long distance buses as part of measures to contain the spread of COVID19, the government of Zimbabwe unknowingly cut the livelihood for Samson and thousands of disabled people like him. While the pandemic has turned the economy into a survival of the fittest ecosystem, where able bodied people can walk long distances to scavenge for transport or jump onto the back of trucks, disabled people cannot even attempt such tricks. The level of hassling induced by COVID19 is beyond the vulnerable.

The pull of agriculture and need for targeted responses
Given its low barriers to entry, most disabled people across Africa have found a home in the agriculture sector and agriculture-related income generating enterprises. Where governments have tried to introduce cushioning allowances for the SMEs sector, such measures have not been carefully disaggregated to cater for the needs of people with different levels of disability. If the state of infrastructure has been unbearable for able-bodied people for a very long time, what about the disabled who have many other challenges?

COVID19 has presented an opportunity for policy makers and development agencies to look critically at some of these issues with a view to developing better solutions post-COVID19. Besides being a moment of truth, the pandemic has revealed how African mass markets are a better expression of interdependencies that bind food systems and society together including different forms of disability.
The power of addressing widening inequalities
The first step for policy makers and development agencies to change the current system that is characterized by exclusion is to recognize that they are part of it. The COVID-19 pandemic forces has exposed interdependencies and inequalities that threaten to widen if not carefully addressed. Business have been presented with an opportunity to be a force of good beyond public relations gestures such as being captured on camera donating COVID19 masks as part of corporate social responsibility activities aimed at getting media publicity for marketing purposes.

To the extent COVID19 is a warm up training for society to deal with a changing climate, private companies and development agencies are being compelled to consider the impact of their decisions on communities and the environment. There has to be more purpose than making money or appetite for donor money through writing reports that paint a rosy picture when things on the ground are different.

Instead of embracing interdependence, Pre-COVID19 there has been an increasing tendency by development agencies to muscle out government and the private sector from rural agricultural ecosystems by creating consortiums that distort markets and grab roles that should be played by government and the private sector. Just as the pandemic is compelling the private sector to think deeply about how to build businesses that have a positive impact on society, the development sector should be doing the same by ensuring development programs are more inclusive to all members of the society including the disabled who should also own interventions not just be considered beneficiaries.

However markets cannot solve everything
What has also become clear through COVID19 is that markets on their own cannot solve all shocks. For instance, while in the early days of the 21 day lockdown period formal markets like supermarkets were allowed to operate, they could not meet the needs of most consumers in terms of diversity and quantities of food required. Neither was there space for the disabled to get what they wanted ahead of everyone. Some entrepreneurs and businesses may have tried to practice business differently but were constrained by the culture and rules of the market.

In the mass market it became clear that the right infrastructure did not exist to understand whether food supply chains were having a positive impact on society and lessening shocks on different actors including the disabled like Samson Mundodzi. The pandemic has shined the spot light on the need to change the system so that markets create value for all actors and different classes of consumers. Without the right comprehensive infrastructure it is difficult for farmers, consumers and other value chain actors to understand whether the agriculture sector or a particular value chain is having a positive impact on society.

That is why, post-COVID19 should see drastic changes in the marketing system so that agriculture can create value for all value chain actors, not just for funders and middlemen. Appropriate infrastructure can also enable data collection -making it possible to see who is positioned where and who is doing what as well as who is being excluded. Such immense systems change requires some interdependent combination of behavior change, culture shift, and structural change. Unless government, the private sector and development agencies commit to changing the rules of the game, outcomes will remain the same for value chain actors including the disabled and poor communal households.

When development organizations empower communities to produce their own food and add value to existing resources, they contribute in building strong communities and minimize government spending to solve problems being created by externalities like environmental damage. The same applies when private companies and financial institutions provide better incomes and unlock opportunities that prevent environmental damage caused by low wages and limited sources of livelihood. Such interdependencies are rarely explored as most private companies and development agencies are obsessed with pursuing isolated impact.

The best thing the private sector and development agencies can do is creating a socio-economic system that enables people and communities to be resilient in the face of future shocks. Dealing with COVID19 is a good training for dealing with climate change which certainly presents a much bigger disaster because it cannot be cured with a vaccine like COVID19 to limit its impact.

Business can still much for social good
The tendency by African countries to appeal for support to the donor world runs the risk of underestimating how much business including local businesses such as SMEs can do for social good if the system is structured in the right way. While COVID19 has shown that there is a limit to what the free market can solve, when properly organized African mass food markets can solve much more than they are currently doing. As part of the private sector, agricultural markets have enabled the agriculture sector achieve more than what the development sector has done.

Using agriculture as the main catalyst, the private sector has pulled millions of Africans out of poverty and created innovations like value chain systems that have improved many people’s loves. There is no doubt that if restructured properly post-COVID19, the private sector can become a more powerful force for social good. The private sector cannot solve all problems because there are plenty of challenges that the market cannot solve by itself. For instance, disability issues cannot be fully solved through private agricultural enterprises. To a large extent, all countries class and social justice issues that the market is not able to solve by itself.

Some elements of the environmental crisis we are currently facing are not going to be solved solely by business behaving differently. Such issues ae going to require public-policy solutions. This is where the government and the not-for-profit sector like development agencies are absolutely necessary in generating collective solutions. That will ensure Samson Mundodzi and millions of disabled people in the developing world will do not continue to remain marginalized. / /
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Harnessing the power of needs assessments in African countries

Harnessing the power of needs assessments in African countries

Needs assessments are some of the most under-rated and underutilized resources in African countries.  Development agencies that often start some work in communities with a baseline study often do so for purposes of getting donor money as opposed to fully informing and guiding their interventions. In some cases the baseline study is conducted when donor money has already been received, which begs the question: What informed the proposal for which donor money was provided?

Basing decisions on gut feelings

If development agencies full of educated people cannot collect reliable data, what about poor farmers grappling to feed their families?  After spending decades working in the same communities, one asset development agencies should strive to build is a strong culture of collecting and using data at local level. COVID19 would have found most farmers having switched from relying on gut feelings for most decisions to using data and evidence.

Who are the audiences for government statistics in Africa?

What has also become clear is that African countries do not assess the data needs of different actors like farmers, traders, processors, transporters, agro-dealers and many others who should benefit from carefully collected, interpreted and packaged data. Failure to conduct needs assessment is one of the main reasons why data analysis ends at provincial and national level when farmers and other people at the local level are the ones who need the data most for their own decisions. For instance, unless farmers know collective volumes of commodities produced in their community, they will continue making poor production decisions. 

In most African farming communities, at one point commodities are so abundant that they are sold for a song. A few months down the road, prices of the same commodities are tenfold. Assuming some of the food gaps used to be supplemented by imports pre-Covid19, what are some of the supplements during the Covid19 era which has disrupted imports?  Such questions can only be answered using data.

A case for keeping data fluid

Ideally information and raw data generated through annual national crop and livestock assessments should be kept fluid so that people who want to re-purpose it can easily do so.   Unfortunately, most national reports are closed and converted into portable document format. One cannot make sense of the situation through a string of tables and numbers with no clear context.  By the time a crop and livestock assessment report is published, the situation on the ground will have changed. 

Volumes are expressed in metric tons which is not how quantities are expressed at grassroots where communities talk in terms of bags, baskets, buckets and other contextual measurements. One of the challenges is that statisticians are not implementers on the ground who can provide contextual nuances. They just punch numbers in a machine and generate some numbers which may easily take the information out of context.

Naked figures are meaningless without stories

African agriculture comprises many moving parts which cannot be understood through historical data only. A string of naked datasets provided by national statistical agencies without nuanced interpretation tends to be meaningless for the majority.  Interpretation is what brings out lessons which can be converted into opportunities.  Farmers may not express their experiences or knowledge in figures or percentages but their decisions are intelligent and meaningful. For instance, they may prefer selling their maize to the informal market where they earn 30% less income which comes on time than wait six months for a higher payment which comes late. If the time-lag is carefully calculated and expressed in monetary terms, it may reveal that earning less on time is better than earning more after waiting for several months. 

The quality of answers is as good as the questions asked

Just as primitive and rudimentary tools make it difficult to mine minerals like diamonds, gold and platinum, primitive information gathering tools and interpretation frameworks makes it impossible for anyone to mine knowledge bases in many African communities. That is why most reports produced by governments and development agencies end up gathering dust because no one has invested in identifying users and their needs.  The same information end up being recycled at policy level because pathways for embedding it into communities have not been created. Crop and livestock assessment reports fail to speak to local communities who are the main sources of information and can enrich the reports if kept fluid.  / /

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Rediscovering the value of indigenous knowledge through COVID-19

By restricting movement between rural and urban areas, there is no doubt that lockdowns in African countries have weakened domestic trade and social fabrics that sustain most low income economies. Contrary to views from policy makers, African economies are not sustained by international trade but domestic commerce and social capital. COVID19-induced lockdowns have made it difficult for urban dwellers to get bags of Nzungu, Nyimo and Mumhare from parents in rural areas as long distance buses have been stopped from operating. Neither can they taste favorite indigenous fruits like tsvubvu or herbs like Zumbani and others famous for fighting flue which is common in winter.  However, that is where the bad news ends.

covid kta

Going back to the roots

Failure to transport perishable commodities to cities is beginning to inspire a new sense of self-reliance among farmers and rural people. So important has become traditional ways of preserving food that most farmers are wondering why they were always rushing to sell their valuable commodities for a song when they can wait and add more value. On the other hand, urban consumers who have previously over-depended on imported food systems to the point of associating mufushwa with poverty are beginning to look for it to fill gaps created by absence of fresh vegetables from rural areas. Those in the fresh meat and fish industries are dusting their knowledge on drying beef into chimukuyu which after all is said to be superior because it does not cause gout. Pre-COVID-19, the promotion of indigenous food was labelled informal food vending – of Mutakura, Mahewu, road runners and Mazondo.

Drawing lessons from COVID-19, if African policy makers had promoted a very strong culture of food preservation, the impact of the pandemic would be softened.  More than 90% of our major staples in Africa are rain-fed which means they are seasonal. The same applies to indigenous vegetables like nyevhe as well as fruits like mawuyu, nyii, tsvubvu and masawu which come in abundance leading communities to suffer economic losses.

Unfortunately policy makers’ notion of preservation is just about storage and warehousing yet food should be warehoused when already preserved. African grandmothers made different kinds of mumhare and mufushwa to last until the next harvest. Sweet potatoes were preserved in pfimbi and ripening of fruits through kupfimbika remains a very common practice today in Zimbabwe, for instance. All that knowledge is now due for assessment and improvement although preservation technology is yet to fully embrace indigenous knowledge systems.

No need for preservatives

A major attraction for indigenously preserved food is that it does not have preservatives which are said to be causing different kinds of cancers that are claiming the lives of many eminent Africans. There is a strong emerging view that if properly done, preserved indigenous food can go through the retail supply chain involving agro-dealers who are an integral part of processed food distribution chain.  Farmers have observed that the growth of the modern food chain like fast foods is not contributing much to the growth of smallholder farmers. Recipes and spices used by fast food outlets are meant to promote producers from source countries. For instance, recipes and spices that go into pizzas and niche restaurants are not produced locally as a way of preserving global supply chain from which fast food chains originate.

Upgrading and simplifying indigenous value addition knowledge

Developing countries have not looked at appropriate technology that can simplify value addition knowledge especially traditional knowledge such as on drying mufushwa and brewing mahewu. Consequently there has not been much preservation and quality improvement of mufushwa and other indigenous foods into ready to eat products for better domestic nutrition and export. At national or regional level there has not been meaningful efforts to add value to traditional knowledge on preservation methods.

There is still overwhelming preference for imported knowledge like canning beef and beans as well as tomato sauce which process requires hitech. Africans who grew up in an agrarian society remember producing their own baobab yoghurt through mixing with cow milk while herding cattle.  It is possible that such indigenous knowledge was poached and commercialized.  Now it is not clear who is coping who in producing yoghurt. Mahewu was brewed using chimera but now some companies are producing mahewu but have kept the original sources of knowledge invisible.

For how long are African food systems going to remain locked in specific areas or regions?

This is another fundamental questions triggered in people’s minds as they grapple with the consequences of COVID – 19 on their food systems. Suddenly they realize how their food systems are still locked in specific rural areas and production zones and why they need to develop supply chains through which different production zones can enrich each other. Another telling observation is that more than 50% of the urban population lack rural knowledge. Little knowledge of what urban people are aware of is obtained through informal markets like Mbare in Harare and many others across African cities. However, Zumbani and Mufandichimuka cannot be found in supermarkets where the majority urban dwellers shop.

A lot of knowledge gaps exist between the young generation and local food systems. By not cultivating such knowledge, Africans are killing future demand for indigenous food. The young only know about pizza and Ice cream but very little about sources of food. In terms of demand it is not about young people knowing the plant but developing taste and appreciating home-grown food and associated advantages. Another mistake being corrected is packaging food in modern measurement like calories, kilograms and alcohol content, among others. “Our own knowledge systems should empower us to desist from expressing our food through medicinal properties because the food end up being associated with diseases or illnesses. We should elevate the nutritional side associated with wellness although we are aware of medicinal properties in the food”, one farmer from Mutoko district of Zimbabwe told eMKambo.

 Combination of medicine and nutrition

Farmers added that nutrition and medicinal properties are closely linked in the African sense and knowledge systems. However, many lamented the fact that when food is expressed as medicine through modern science it is taken like a drug although it has preventive elements. On the other hand traditional foods like small grains are mostly promoted from a nutritional perspective while their medicinal angle is not elevated. When food is a combination of nutrition and medicine it is consumed as a package as opposed to imported practices where Vitamin A tablets can be consumed separately.

These are some of the discussions happening between farmers and traders trying to continue trading during and after COVID-19. While the majority of African mass markets may have been closed physically, trading of knowledge and real commodities is continuing underneath as part of economic self-reliance and keeping indigenous food trading vibrant.  / /

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Reflections on costing of agricultural commodities – thanks to COVID19

In addition to disrupting food supply chains, COVID-19 has presented a pricing headache for smallholder farmers in African countries. If government directs supermarkets to revert back to pre-COVID19 prices they can easily do so because they have a tradition of keeping records on stocks and prices.  On the other hand, mass markets will not be able to do the same because there is no institution responsible for keeping records and tracking prices. Neither can local authorities like municipalities provide such records because their main mandate is collecting revenue through providing trading space without bothering to collect commodity prices.

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Worsening an already bad situation

PreCOVID-19, fluid interaction between supply and demand in mass food markets at scale assisted farmers and all value chain players in setting prices.  For instance the demand side was made up of specific urban populations which guaranteed uptake for huge volumes of commodities from smallholder farmers. In fact there was a neat match between demand and supply.  However, following lockdown induced by COVID-19 commodities from farmers started flowing to cities through middlemen since the majority of farmers have been restricted from coming to the market in huge numbers.

This scenario has destroyed the previous playing field where demand and supply used to meet in ways that determined prices fairly. Where some farmers try to price their commodities when selling locally, it is difficult unless they are aware of prices in other areas they are competing with in producing the same commodity. Due to the lockdowns, food supply chains are being controlled by opportunists who are determining prices that can be given to farmers desperate to get rid of perishable commodities and prices that consumers desperate for food have to pay. Consequently, there is a big difference between the selling price and the buying price. While farmers are getting very little for their commodities, consumers are enduring very high prices.  Opportunists are the ones reaping abnormal profits. These challenges can be addressed if African countries build robust food supply chains in which every actor’s role is clearly defined.

A case for contextualizing costing in the agriculture sector

Agricultural extension methods in Africa are yet to design dynamic costing models taking into account all commodities produced by smallholder farmers in diverse production zones, especially for informal farming systems and their ecosystems like informal markets. Costing is still based on formal farming systems informed by inputs like fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, cost of water as determined by ZINWA, gazetted labor costs based on representations by National Employment Councils and General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) or their equivalent in other countries.

There are still no formulas that take into account major production cost components for smallholder farmers and informal markets. For instance, the majority of smallholder farmers still depend on natural resources and their own resources for producing commodities. Such resources whose costs have not been calculated by extension agents include communal land, livestock manure, rainfall, family labor or Nhimbe, retained seed, draught power and many others.  Farmers still struggle to convert most of these inputs into monetary value for easier costing.

It is a huge anomaly for African economies not to have costing models for smallholder farmers and informal markets in which the majority trade.  That is why most smallholder farmers have remained price takers for decades.  Usually when farmers sell their commodities, their pricing is based on the gravity of challenges they wish to solve not how much has been invested in agriculture production. A typical question in the smallholder farmer’s mind is: “How many bags of groundnuts or maize can I sell to meet school fess worth $1000?”  In this case, selling commodities is not related to farming as a business but solving external needs like school fees, meeting basic needs like sugar, cooking oil or travelling a long distance to attend a funeral.  Any surplus income from trading commodities is by chance.

Closing a huge knowledge gap

Lack of statistics from the mass markets is a big knowledge gap that every African country should strive to close. By not collecting statistics from the expanding Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector of which mass markets are a key component, African countries are under-valuing their economies and piling pressure on the fiscus to provide social safety nets. The best brains in African economies have remained concentrated on the production side, for example agronomists, equipment engineers and economists, among others. Conversely the market and commodity handling side has been left to illiterate and semi-illiterate traders whose interest is mainly to maximize profit.

Such traders can only deal with food and markets to the extent their knowledge allows them to do so. Given the knowledge-intensive nature of food and markets, most traders cannot be expected to come up with solutions beyond their levels of knowledge and expertise. For instance, trader may not see anything wrong in selling all commodities using sacks, wooden crates and baskets yet that is a major avenue through which farmers lose income.  / /

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How COVID19 has exposed limitations of colonial food systems in Africa

The majority of developing countries are still to tear themselves away from the colonial set up where major food markets were located in cities or towns in order to provide food for low income people working in formal industries. Under that arrangement food had to travel from rural areas most of which were 100km away to cities where the main distributors were pro-poor mass markets like Mbare market in Harare. While the majority of urban consumers depended on pro-poor mass markets for food, supermarkets were for the elite and middle class. With the emergence of COVID-19, international standards of dealing with the pandemic have compelled African countries to close mass food markets. However that has happened at the expense of the urban poor on depend on these markets.

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Disruption of natural remedies

COVID-19 has dealt a heavy blow on poor people’s access to natural remedies. Over the past few years, African mass markets have witnessed an increase in the supply and demand for seasonal indigenous fruits, tubers and herbs that have provided stiff competition to exotic colonial foods. The marked increase in the consumption of indigenous foods has revealed urban consumers’ preference for natural remedies. Since most of the indigenous foods and herbs are not sold through modern supermarkets, the closure of mass markets as part of combatting the spread of COVID-19 has denied urban people access to the natural foods and remedies they have become accustomed to over the years. Farmers and rural people who were earning income from harvesting indigenous fruits, herbs and edible insects for sale in mass markets have also been left in the cold by the closure of mass markets.

Urban dwellers who had become accustomed to consuming tsvubvu, matufu, nyii, nhengeni, nhunguru and other fruits that ripen at the same time as field crops have not been able to get such fruits due to COVID19-included lockdowns and restrictions in movement of people and commodities. According to many consumers, indigenous fruits and herbs have medicinal properties that cannot be substituted with pharmaceutical products that are also beyond the reach of the majority.

Towards resilient food supply chains

In the wake of challenges caused by COVID-19, many African countries no longer have money to waste on ill-conceived agribusiness models. That is why the government of Zimbabwe and its partners has started putting in place carefully thought-through food supply chain systems. Besides assisting to cope with immediate, medium term and long-term impacts of COVID19, a robust food supply chain system is envisaged to have meaningful benefits for several value chain players as explained below:

Food supply chain benefits for farmers – A resilient food supply chain will enhance production planning guided by market volumes and trends.  Most farmers do not know market trends and start looking for the market when commodities have ripened or already in the truck at the market.  That should be a thing of the past.  Information generated along the food supply chain is beginning to make farmers aware of the diversity and volumes of commodities consumed by each market, enabling farmers to plan their production in ways that minimize waste of inputs by producing what does not have a market. Aggregation centres are being set up in production zones so that farmers with smaller volumes of commodities sell closer home and do not have to incur losses by travelling to distant urban markets.

Benefits for seed companies – Seed companies in Africa currently compete to produce more seed than farmers can use. That is why a lot of seed is seen in retail shops well after the planting season is over.  Some seed companies end up persuading government to embed their seed volumes in government input programs. A clear supply chain will show the actual demand for seed and help seed companies to plan their seed production properly.

Benefits for nurseries – By showing quantities of food produced and consumed in different areas, the supply chain will assist nurseries to produce seedlings in the right quantities unlike producing more than is needed, leading to throwing away of some seedlings due to absence of demand.

Benefits for stock feed manufacturers – The supply chain will show statistics about livestock producers and their volumes, enabling stock feed manufacturers to produce and distribute stock feed to known potential buyers unlike sending stock feed to communities where demand is not clear. When smallholder farmers produce maize, their major priority is meeting household consumption. They do not plan for livestock unless they are contracted. By revealing volumes for human consumption in particular communities, the food supply chain is beginning to show volumes that can be set aside for livestock.  At community or ward level, the supply chain will soon enable people to plan for household consumption, livestock consumption and surplus for the market so that they do not run out of food.

Benefits for supermarkets, food processors and fast food chains – Most of these players have depended on middlemen for years.  If they put their needs and specifications on the supply chain they will get what they need on time.  Their volumes are often too low to the extent that it does not make economic sense for them to go and fetch commodities on their own from farmers in distant areas.

Benefits for financial institutions – The days of banks giving loans to agricultural clients based on bank statements are over. The supply chain will show statistics of each player’s participation and such evidence will be used as collateral.  In fact the supply chain itself will be a collateral for the entire food system.

Characterizing traders and flushing out unscrupulous ones – By separating genuine traders from the unscrupulous lot, the food supply chain has started eliminating inflation caused by middlemen who merely exchange commodities and increase prices before passing on the prices to the consumers. When negotiating with farmers most middlemen have become used to cite high transport costs as the reason why they should pay less to the farmer but a critical look at transport costs would show that they are not as high as claimed.  In any case, why should the farmer meet the trader’s transport costs?

Who says butternut, sweet potato, carrots, green beans, green pepper and many other bulky commodities should be sold in a 60-70kg bag called a semia or saseka?  In Zimbabwe such measurements have been  distorting value to the farmer’s expense for decades.  Instead of allowing traders to set rules of the commodity trading game, the supply chain will introduce proper standards and measurements starting at local aggregation centres. Most of the bad trading practices are not market-driven but introduced by cartels of traders. For how long are African farmers going to continue selling their commodities in big sacks some of which are over-filled in ways that disadvantage smallholder farmers? Introducing modern measurements like weighing scales at local aggregation centres will sweep bad trading practices away.

Time to build home-grown social safety nets

Among other knowledge and resource gaps, COVID19 has revealed the need for African countries to revisit colonial food policies that have continued to guide decisions about food production and supply without fully taking into account the important role of pro-poor mass food markets. To the extent COVID19 has first attacked donor countries and sources of food aid, low income countries have to urgently start building home-grown self-sustaining social safety nets and resilient food supply chains. Currently, smallholder farmers do not originate units of measurement because they lack a basis for doing so. Most elements for pricing and price determination come from the market. What policy, institutional or operational measures can governments put in place to transfer the power of originating units of measurement from traders to farmers?  This is a powerful avenue for building resilient food systems.  / /

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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.

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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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