How can the predatory nature of development efforts be tamed?

Many rural communities in low income countries are fed up with the predatory nature of external development initiatives. According to the WordWeb dictionary, a predatory animal is one that lives by catching and preying on other animals. Predatory tendencies also include living by or victimizing others for personal gain. When development agencies move into rural areas, local communities often have no reason to suspect that such agencies have a predatory agenda. Suspicions start rising when development agencies continue to recycle the same ideas under different names when rural people who continue to wallow in poverty in spite of millions spent in their name by development agencies.


Any development agency that has spent more than three years in one community has become a predator by becoming part of the local community furniture. A simple comparison between rural communities that have been working with NGOs for years and those that have not been working with NGOs reveals marked differences in terms of autonomy and self-determination. Very few communities have transformed from subsistence to commercial agriculture through development interventions. Instead, it is communities that rely on their own resources such as remittances that have a sustained presence in agricultural markets. Those supported by NGOs often stop producing surplus commodities for the market as soon as a development project comes to an end. To the extent development agencies use rural communities to get money and not fully develop those communities, such predatory tendencies are worse than money laundering. Unknown to development agencies is that rural people desire the good houses, health and nutrition associated with cities.

Predatory rural finance

Predatory patterns are more prevalent in rural finance initiatives. While it is said funding targeted at improving rural finance has increase, the majority of rural people remain outside formal financial ecosystems.  In fact, the majority of rural dwellers associate banks and other financial institutions with exclusion rather than inclusion. Many smallholder farmers, traders and rural entrepreneurs have nasty experiences with financial institutions. Some of the financial inclusion models have been introduced as contract farming arrangements where farmers receive inputs and other support services instead of real money.

Innocence and decency has proven fatal for most borrowers as they soon realize that private companies contractors working in cahoots with financial institutions and development agencies will have calculated their gains using tools whose underlying parameters are not made visible to farmers.  “When you think you have done what is needed, you are asked to provide more information. After signing off every document, most promises are not met and you are compelled to supplement agricultural activities with your other income sources.” The above lamentation is now common across Africa.

In several conferences and workshops, commitments to avail finance that can catalyze other sources of finance at the local level have been announced and documented for decades. There are even dozens of books and university courses on rural finance but on the ground the situation has remained the same. Local innovations like village savings and lending associations are not adequately used to anchor and stimulate local economies. Instead, such bedrocks of self-reliance and resilience are being cannibalized into mobile money through ICTs. This does not improve financial circulation in the local economy as  most of the money is drawn away to big cities, leaving the local economy resorting to traditional barter systems.

Harnessing multiple sources of evidence

If development agencies and financial institutions shunned predatory tendencies, they would be able to assist local communities in generating more income and better lives from local resources. They would realize that there is a difference between charity and transforming local communities through agriculture. They would also not waste money on policy making because they would know that policies can only go so far because they are tied to political regimes. No matter how brilliant a policy document is, a new political regime would dumb it and creates its own policies. They would learn from experiences in Mozambique where a development agency that thought mobile money was the solution was surprised. A local mobile network operator in Mozambique had even distributed 5000 mobile phones for free to a local community hoping people would automatically embrace mobile technology for financial inclusion. It soon became clear that local people preferred visiting the market and chatting to each other than just communicating through short message service, Whatsapp or calling over the phone.  Many people also changed sim cards frequently such that they could not be reachable.

Evidence should come from different scenarios and not be aligned with decision-makers’ needs. For instance, while millions of dollars have gone towards addressing post-harvest losses in Africa, food losses are said to be as high as 20% in developed countries, mainly in the form of food that is thrown away into bins and not eaten. This means all people, whether in developed or developing countries need a new attitude towards food. Perhaps the whole world does not have a food production problem but a food handling challenge. Solutions may not just be about policies but changing the way everyone looks at food through institutions, financial means and other positive practices. Post-harvest technologies are never enough because new challenges keep emerging.  Every action must be sustainable.

By treating smallholder farmers and rural people as victims or beneficiaries, most development interventions miss local people’s roles as active economic actors in their own right. Rural people are not just waiting for donations but busy analyzing their options, managing risks and making their own decisions even in the face of information asymmetries and unfavorable policies. When ordinary people finally realize that they have been preyed upon by government departments, financial institutions and development agencies, it becomes difficult to get new ideas accepted. There are limits to living by preying on unsuspecting farmers and rural people.  / /

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The seasonal appetite for knowledge demand and use in developing countries

It is not only revenue streams that tend to be seasonal for farmers in developing countries. The demand and use of knowledge also follow seasonal patterns. From leaking market sheds in Mbare market of Harare and makeshift stalls in Mitundu market of Lilongwe to landslides in the land of a thousand hills (Rwanda), Africa is an entirely different continent in the rainy season compared to winter. Just-in-time knowledge is critical in dealing with these situations as opposed to just-in-case knowledge.


During the rainy season, most African rural areas are completely inaccessible due to poor road networks and broken bridges. Some roads are turned into rivers as terrains fail to deal with sudden downpours. All these issues negatively affect the demand and supply of food. When farmers and traders are not able to bring food to the market on time, nutrition and incomes among poor consumers are compromised.


One engineer per 10 000 people

While some of the common expressions in development include one medical doctor per 1000 patients and one extension officer per 2000 farmers, engineering is one important profession that is not talked about in the same way. This is in spite of the fact that natural resources management at local level is definitely a mix of art and engineering. There have not been noticeable efforts to domesticate engineering into home-grown solutions. Rather than waiting for engineers to come and build bridges, roads and water sources, engineering knowledge should be distilled in such a way that local people can do some of the basic tasks  like diverting water for later use and averting soil degradation. Water harvesting is not enough without the associated engineering knowledge.


How do communities know what they know?

People can see the value of engineering and other forms of knowledge if they see it having tangible value in local settings and situations like muddy roads and water-logged fields. This is often when people call up knowledge they could have been filing away during winter. They do not know what they know until desperate situations like flooding in markets and fields demands deep and probing answers. Rainy seasons in much of Africa demand different types of knowledge and other resources. Vehicle break downs are common and some rivers are full for days, cutting entire villages from other parts of the country.


Desperate situations induced by the rainy season compel communities not to wait for knowledge or lessons to be volunteered by engineers local people have to go out and seek knowledge. Ideas and lessons compiled into manuals during winter may be found wanting during the rainy seasons, forcing communities to improvise and depend on their previous experiences.


The power of scheduling knowledge generation

Food losses tend to be high in summer compared to winter in many African countries due to challenges related to dealing with excessive rainfall. Instead of waiting until the rainfall season presents enormous problems, governments and development agencies should consider empowering communities to proactively seek and identify relevant knowledge on a continuous basis. When knowledge identification and sharing is scheduled, success and failure become components of every activity in ways that avoid big mistakes. Knowledge generation and sharing becomes a clear expectation for the entire community, forcing the community to monitor if the collective expectation is being met. This process also uncovers the knowledge that nobody knows they know, until they start discussing and solving real problems like poor water drainage and land degradation.


Ultimately, communities can begin to discover what they know, do not know and half-baked knowledge through answering questions like:


  • What are our major local challenges during the rainy season?
  • What are our local “hot issues” in summer compared to winter?
  • What knowledge would help us respond to conditions during different seasons?  / /

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Balancing gender with technology and rural industrialization

Developing countries that have made commendable strides in using formal education to avail equal opportunities to men and women still have a lot of work to move beyond white collar opportunities. While scores of women are now occupying managerial positions that used to be monopolized by men, a formula is yet to be found for extending opportunities to women in low income jobs that are mostly labor-intensive.  For instance, agricultural technology has remained gender blind to the disadvantage of women who do most of the labor-intensive duties.


However, the informal sector has done its part in generating women-friendly technologies and tools such as small scale peanut butter machines, soap making machines and machines for producing French fries for sale and household consumption. Although these machines and tools are still being improved, the informal equipment fabrication industry has revealed the extent to which mechanization and industrialization initiatives in most developing countries have ignored the needs of low income women and men whose economic contributions are in the form of manual labor.

Technological needs at the Bottom of the Pyramid

The majority of people at the Bottom of the Pyramid try to eke a living from agriculture. Unfortunately, national mechanization strategies have not developed close substitutes to the ox-drawn plough and the hand hoe which remain symbols of smallholder agriculture. In many households, men continue to use the plough for planting while women use the hoe to weed and replant when germination is poor. There have not been meaningful efforts to develop technologies that can enable men and women to cross traditional gender roles in agriculture. With most men leaving for mining and other opportunities, agriculture is now a domain for women and women-headed households but equipment manufacturers have not responded to this critical socio-economic trend.

Naturally, there are labor-intensive roles that can be fulfilled by men, for instance, on the agricultural production side.  Traditionally, there were also roles defined for women, for instance, winnowing and weeding while men focused on ploughing. These roles were defined according to the physical nature of men and women. Technological development has not addressed the physical expressions and requirements of men and women in ways that enable crossing of physical barriers so that women can do duties that were previously male-dominated.

Some women roles have remained locked in specific agricultural value chains like groundnuts, small grains and indigenous poultry. Unfortunately, technological developments have not followed these value chains which give women a sense of ownership and decision-making power.  For instance, the whole production, processing, preservation and marketing of small grains has not been improved from a technological perspective.  Women continue to face the same traditional burdens yet wheat, which is also a small grain, has become highly mechanized because it is a male-dominated value chain.

Technology as an expression of power

Where men become heavily involved, they end up exercising more power in decision-making because their input will be more than that of women. When mechanization and technology development initiatives support commodities like maize, wheat, sugar cane, tobacco and soya bean which need large land sizes, men end up controlling decision-making because they will be heavily involved. For instance, men can decide to buy machines like combine harvesters and sophisticated irrigation systems because they will be intuitively aware of what needs to be done in order to maximize production and productivity.

 Failure to recognize women as originators of recipes and innovations

In spite of women being originators of most food recipes, industrial technologies for adding value to agricultural commodities continue to marginalize women from the economy. As commodities go up the ladder, women recipes are hijacked by men who end up owning restaurants, food chain stores and beverage companies.  As if that is not enough, development organizations and gender activists whose main mandate is improving the status of women have failed to commercialize feminine ideas. They just support women to exhibit their recipes and ideas at food fairs and agricultural shows where men poach the ideas and commercialize them.

Women ideas are also limited in terms of finance where financial support to women still largely depend on approval from men (loan officers and husbands). Even if women own their own enterprises, once their husbands guarantee access to loans, the men end up controlling the business. It seems African countries have not done enough to enable women to independently make investment decisions without the approval of men and a whole male-dominated business culture. As if that is not enough, where technology is available, men tend to have better technology than women. For instance, the husband can have a smartphone while the wife has a lower class feature phone.  That means if 90 percent of women have feature phones, they cannot access or share information that requires a smart phone.

Toward women-centred value addition and rural industrialization

Modern rural industrialization should be about working with value chains within an ecosystem rather than transporting commodities from rural to cities and then export countries.  Such a colonial model has continued to lock women at production level and restrict their participation in value addition yet they are the generators of recipes.  Women cannot continue to be consumers of finished products processed outside when they could easily input their knowledge in the entire production and value addition process. Developing countries have to dumb the colonial value addition notion where agricultural commodities had to move from farming communities to districts, then to national levels and then exported to other countries. In the new fluid economy backed by data, commodities should move within Communities of Practice (CoPs) where different layers of value addition can easily happen.

If women are empowered through technology, they can produce and modernize different products and pack diverse natural foods. Urban industrial technologies have caused some commodities and sources to lose their identity, with the final product being associated with manufacturers while the original producers become invisible.  This can change if women are empowered with value addition technologies in rural areas where they stay.  At the moment it remains difficult for most women to follow their groundnuts or small grains to the city where more benefits accrue to male-dominated manufacturing industries.

Under the current industrial model, the price of value added products increases from urban to rural areas when it should be the other way round. For instance, potato crisps which can cost $1 in the city, cost $2.50 when they reach rural areas. Processing at source will reverse this pattern and ensure the price of finished commodities increase as they leave rural areas for cities and export markets.

How can technology tap into women’s intangible knowledge?

When society insists on knowledge being expressed through tangible assets like machines, it limits the expression of intangible knowledge which is mostly intrinsic in women. Male knowledge is more visible and tangible while feminine knowledge is more intangible and informed by intuitive wisdom. Intangible knowledge explains why women have powerful copying strategies. While men may be thinking about food in its physical form, women will be thinking about how to quieten a hungry child. In countries where social safety nets are absent or weak, social issues move from national to household levels where women are in the forefront of coming up with copying strategies using their intangible knowledge.

The promotion of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in many developing countries is a very noble idea.  However, to what extent will STEM address gender imbalances? Are there roots showing how STEM is going to assist ordinary women in the street and marginal communities? To what extent can STEM be informed by Indigenous Knowledge Systems in developing countries?  If not grounded in the needs of the majority, STEM will only go back to assist formal industries and reinforce the prevailing socio-economic injustices.  Rural women will continue to process small grains using pestle and mortar while men own and control processing companies.  / /

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