Making knowledge needs visible through agricultural markets

One of the biggest challenges besetting African smallholder agriculture is the fact that agricultural knowledge is invisible. By looking at a farmer or a trader, you cannot tell what knowledge these people possess or need. Two farmers can pass each other in the market, one possessing the solution to a problem that is taxing the other and they may not know it because their agricultural knowledge needs are invisible. On the other hand, most efforts to improve knowledge sharing in the agriculture sector are too sporadic to be sustainable. For farmers supported by NGOs, once a project phases out, that is the end of associated information sharing efforts.


If knowledge were a visible commodity like baskets of tomatoes, crates of eggs, portions of beef or bags of maize, it would be easier to manage. We would construct market stalls for knowledge and see the knowledge gaps in the market the way shortages of fruits or vegetables can be easily seen in the market. Farmers, traders, transporters and consumers would simply buy the knowledge they need. Since that is not the case, there is too much judging of the book by its cover.  People may not see how knowledgeable someone is by looking at them.  Some of the knowledge becomes visible when someone is asked and starts answering a question.  That’s when you can discover, “Oh my, this farmer is a Professor!”

Making knowledge needs visible through a knowledge market

Making knowledge needs visible is the heart of eMKambo activities.  A critical activity in this direction is tracking and monitoring the supply and demand of knowledge in commodities that flow into particular markets regularly. Informal agriculture markets are not just for agricultural commodities but they have also evolved into knowledge markets where the demand and supply of knowledge can be tracked back to production along the whole value chain, informed by feedback from the market. When farmers bring commodities to the market, a wide range of knowledge pathways are made visible and these include: farmer to farmer, farmer to trader, trader to trader, trader to farmer, farmer to consumer, consumer to farmer, farmer to consumer, consumer to trader, transporter to farmer, farmer to transporter, consumer to transporter, transporter to consumer, etc. Both existing knowledge and knowledge gaps are made visible.

The commodity in the market is enough advertisement for the quality of knowledge possessed by the producer.  Most farmers do not need a poster listing their knowledge but the knowledge can be seen through the quality of commodities which consumers and traders can actually see or touch and decide to buy. By making knowledge supply and demand visible, agricultural markets promote interactions between farmers, traders, consumers and other actors.  Ultimately every participant’s world view is enriched. It is unlike in agricultural training workshops where the trainer pretends every participant requires the same knowledge, provided the same way.

The benefit of using the agricultural market as a knowledge market is that it makes knowledge demand and supply visible and public. This ensures opportunities for knowledge sharing are  identified for follow-up.  Every agricultural value chain actor can make sense of the whole agriculture sector through the market. Based on activities in Lusaka-Highfield market of Harare, eMKambo recently processed market intelligence into the following charts depicting the power of data and evidence. The charts show information such as types of commodities, revenue per given period and the gender dimension of agriculture markets.




Lusaka- Highfield Market Analysis – January to December 2015

A total of 45 produce types were supplied into the market from January to December 2015.



Besides making knowledge needs visible, data from agriculture markets can reveal the impact of investment in agriculture production. Agricultural shows should function as knowledge markets towards addressing sporadic information sharing by many organisations, all targeting the same farmer.


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

African countries grappling with practical aspects of food loss

Last week agricultural experts from across Africa and Western countries gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe to design strategies for reducing food losses affecting African smallholder Agriculture.  The event was convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  Participants heard that Sub-Saharan Africa loses grain valued at US$4 billion annually, enough to feed 48 million people.   In fact, post-harvest food losses exceed the amount of food aid provided by development partners.  Adding to the startling statistics is the fact that 95% of research funding continue to be directed at agricultural production and a paltry 5% to post-harvest losses research.


What do we mean by food loss?

While the Harare gathering did not dwell so much on definitional issues preferring to focus on trying to understand the magnitude of the problem, working with farmers and traders for many years has awakened eMKambo to various notions of food loss. The way farmers understand food loss is different from the way academics and practitioners do.  Nutritionists also bring another dimension of food loss which should be taken into account.  Post-harvest losses research has focused mostly on decrease in volumes and physical damage at the exclusion of nutritional losses – how much carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins are lost due to poor production practices, market failure and other reasons?

Ecosystems view of food losses

The majority of smallholder farmers embrace an ecosystems approach to food production such that what researchers think is loss may not be considered a loss by farmers. When a farmer grows maize s/he is either growing for household consumption, for the market and for livestock.  This is the basic ecosystem at farmer level.  If the farmer grows a hectare of maize, s/he can meet household needs first, then consider surplus for the market and some sub-standard produce goes to livestock.  Where exactly can you identify the loss? Household consumption is not a loss and so is feeding livestock.  Either you go all the way to analyse the value of the beast to which crops are fed and translate that to maize quantities that could have been harvested.  Given that smallholder farmers use manure, feeding livestock contributes to manure which also contributes positively to production.  Where a farmer was supposed to spend $30 buying a bag of fertilizer, s/he uses manure resulting from crop left-overs that were fed to cattle.  In this scenario, a farmer will be surprised if you talk about loss.

Loss from whose perspective?

If you look at a maize cob, it is impossible to incur 100% loss.  It’s a question of how other by-products are used.  If some by-products such as the outer skin or grain damaged by weevils are fed to chickens, you can’t say it’s a loss.  You have to track alternative uses to which a commodity is subjected before concluding that there has been a loss.  Smallholder farmers have a long history of environmental awareness which they take into account when assessing food losses. From an environmental point of view, when you feed nature like birds and insects, you are not incurring a loss, according to farmers.  Butterflies and bees which end up pollinating your crops feed on some of your commodities.

The only loss that is beyond the capacity of farmers and other actors is drought-related.  If post-harvest loss is recorded as 30%, where did that produce go? In the market, it is possible to say 30% loss resulted from gluts but this requires rigorous analysis. If from 60 bags of maize, two bags are lost to weevils, it is important to track where those two bags end up.  They may not be thrown into the bin because farmers are good at managing their resources.  Without thorough evidence, there is a danger of exaggerating post-harvest losses when the most significant losses may be at production level.

Market-related losses

While a box of tomatoes can fetch $8 when the market is favourable, the price can go down to $1 or 50c when there is a glut.  This is often due to a mismatch between supply and demand and very poor quality product on the market.  Where a farmer doesn’t achieve $8/box because s/he did not use appropriate varieties, inputs and adequate skills, resulting in 50c or $1/box, s/he can’t say s/he has incurred a loss because s/he did not lose money in acquiring inputs.  The most painful loss of value is related to gluts in the market when the farmer has done everything correctly.  At the moment, every farmer wants to get $8/box of tomato even if they have not applied the same resources.  That is an unjustified profiteering mind-set.



There are much better options in averting losses at production level than when a commodity is already on the market.  The rural ecosystem is made up of wild birds, animals and poor households who can be given food before it gets bad.  This is how loss can be averted.  There is also a social and relationship-based benefit in giving food to neighbours. Comparatively, in urban markets physical losses are mainly caused by poor infrastructure, off-loading and over-handling as well as packaging which often destroys fragile commodities like tomatoes.  For instance at Mbare market in Harare, at least three 7-toner trucks of produce are taken out as waste daily due to these factors.  Such high losses are not found in rural areas because the ecosystem doesn’t allow food to be lost.

Horticulture-related losses

Perhaps where loss issues can be talked about is in horticulture.  After working on field crops, most smallholder farmers migrate to horticulture gardens which, besides being a source of nutrition, are also sources of income.  Losses from planting to marketing are high in horticulture particularly where farmers lack the right knowledge on choice of variety and management practices.  Some of the critical post-harvest questions include: How many farmers know how to appropriately harvest a tomato fruit? What is the timing and methods of removing the fruit from the plant?

Need for thorough longitudinal research

There has not been significant research aimed at understanding appropriate packaging for horticulture commodities. For instance, what is the percentage loss caused by wooden boxes?  What percentage loss can be attributed to bad roads? What is the potential of baskets as containers of tomatoes?  What happens to tomatoes in terms of nutrition and quality when put in a wooden boxes or crates over a period of time?  What about if wooden boxes are stacked above each other?  This calls for research on how packaging contributes to both physical and nutritional losses. Another critical research issue is transportation. How appropriate are available trucks for transporting tomatoes and fruits?  How much does a 30 – 50km dusty road contribute to losses?  Uncovering this will strengthen arguments about the need for improving road infrastructure.

Who is driving post-harvest losses research?

Unfortunately, most of the research is driven by the needs of researchers as opposed to being farmer-driven. Such research satisfies the professional egos of researchers at the expense of addressing real farmer needs and policy priorities.  It’s more like a solution looking for a problem. Unless we build farmers’ capacity to deal with surplus commodities, researchers will continue bringing forward narrow research themes aimed at pleasing their peers instead of addressing pressing post-harvest issues. You can’t treat loss in isolation.  Is it physical losses, losses in quality which results in reduced value or loss in gluts which results in give-away prices?  To what extent do aflatoxins cause serious losses that would warrant a lot of attention more than other post-harvest issues?


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

To what extent are food vendors an extension of African agriculture?

A big picture of African agriculture cannot emerge without analysing the role of food vendors. In almost every African country, food vendors have a distinct position between the market and end-users or consumers. The free dictionary ( ) defines vending as engaging in selling or supplying a product/service to a business for a fee. In big African cities such as Yaounde, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Maputo, Harare, Accra, Cairo, Lagos, Lusaka and Addis Ababa, food vendors are always seen early in the morning, buying fresh agricultural commodities from people’s markets and taking the commodities to residential areas or streets. Major food commodities they buy and sell include tomatoes, leafy vegetables, eggs, meat, fruits, fish and all kinds of juices. The main difference between vendors and traders is that most traders have permanent stalls in the market while vendors sell from high density areas or in streets. However, since vending can be more of a practice, there are times where traders also act like vendors.
How food vendors come into agricultural value chains
From its work in agriculture markets of Zimbabwe, eMKambo has discovered the unique role of food vendors in agricultural value chains. Given similarities between African agro-based economies, these findings may resonate with many African countries which are also trying to modernise agriculture.


Among all agricultural value chain actors, vendors are more close to end users. The only difference is during few cases where end users buy directly from food chain stores or the wholesale market.  Vendors have a particular niche market comprising households with particular tastes and preferences.  They even have specific information about particular households including details like income sources and income levels. They also have an acute sense of demand in terms of standards, specifications and volumes.  When a 30 toner truck of potatoes gets into Mbare wholesale market in Harare, for instance, three quarters of the commodity ends up with vendors whose understanding of consumers result in the consignment being classified into at least three grades by quality and quantity.

Since they are close to end-users from whom they take orders, vendors can also adjust orders accordingly.  They even know how many tomatoes are consumed by a particular household.  This intimate awareness informs the arrangement of tomato fruits in terms of size and number in a pile.  For three to six months each vendor can use at least $50 to buy commodities and still get the same profit margin. They are also good at adjusting and balancing the demands and supply trends.  If they find tomatoes very expensive in the market, they can use some of the money to buy a cheaper fruit such as a banana or go for lower grade tomatoes which they are sure end-users want.


Vendors as knowledge brokers

Statistics from vendors are more accurate and represent effective demand as an expression of end users’ ability and willingness to purchase.  Since it is often very difficult to determine effective demand from the supply side, vendors close the knowledge gap.  If five tons of tomatoes are delivered in the farmers market, up to 20% can be lost in the marketing process through offloading, re-loading and mishandling.  Less than 5% is lost at vendor and household level.  In fact, the loss at vendor and household level is not in the form of throwing away. Some commodities can be given customers on credit to avoid complete losses.

By conveying important feedback from consumers to farmers through traders and the whole market, vendors have become important knowledge brokers regarding consumption patterns and consumer preferences.   The strong relationship between vendors and end-users creates room for unique credit models based on specific orders.  Vendors can show different classes of consumers, their levels of income and preferences.  This is very important for every producer to know.  A quick survey can show three to four different types of vegetables on the market in high density areas – leafy vegetables, tomatoes and onions.  Fruits are there but sometimes rare.  If you go to high density areas, leafy vegetables on the market are in the form of lettuce, broccoli, fine beans, etc.  This means vendors can show and define incomes and preferences in particular areas.  Vendors also extend knowledge on food preparation to young mothers who, for instance, struggle with cooking pumpkin leaves and okra.

Because they have a lot of time to interact with consumers, most vendors are good marketers.  More than 80% of food goes through vendors to end-users.  The growth of SMEs is supported by vendors who provided mobile food catering services. Unfortunately, conventional agricultural production models being promoted in Africa overlook the importance of understanding actors like vendors at a granular level. It seems the preferred notion of value chain is more about contract farming and super markets, ignoring the mass market where vendors are critical actors.

The expansion of food vending into rural growth points and business centres is in response to rapid urbanisation and an increase in youthful population now residing in these centres. As a food distribution mechanism, rural vendors take commodities from urban markets to rural areas where nurses, teachers and other government employees are the main market. While you can place an order with a vendor and be assured of a commodity coming, you cannot do the same with food chain stores.

Towards vendor-driven finance models

Vendors are the main conduit through which money is collected from households to major markets such as Mbare or Bulawayo and then to farmers.  Wholesale markets on their own may not be viable without vendors. It doesn’t help to finance big actors while ignoring vendors.  Vending is another  way through which young people can develop a passion and an entrepreneurial mind set around agriculture.  Children of vendors can automatically see how agriculture is a source of employment more than those on the production side who sometimes do not see income from agriculture activities.  Vendors determine 70% of prices of commodities on the farmers’ market using feedback from end-users.  They can increase or decrease volumes based on orders from end-users or how yesterday’s consignment performed.  They are also good in managing liquidity issues and can loan out commodities to households based on relationships with payment being done later on.


Formal companies which specialize in eggs, bananas and all kinds of juices depend heavily on vendors for higher sales. The vendors also influence packaging.  For instance, some beverages which used to come in 500ml containers can now be seen in 100ml containers.  These changes come from vendors who know consumers’ buying power and preferences. The smallest unit of measurement can be found at vendor level.  They add value and provide the exact preferences in terms of quantities. By bringing food closer to homes, vendors minimize losses and ensure freshness of commodities.  For some consumers, refrigerated tomatoes don’t taste as good as fresh ones from the market or farm. Value addition at the vendor level should also be a serious consideration.  Because they know customer preferences, vendors can produce the right tomato puree and fruit juices that really meet customer requirements.

How understanding food vendors can inform policy making

There is a dominance of women in the vending business because the business is closer to food preparation, which is a domain of women.  Women vendors know perishability characteristics of diverse food items as well as quality issues to minute detail.  Destroying vending as a business affects women more than men.   In recognition of vending as an important agribusiness, local authorities should ensure vending stalls and related structures are part of every business ecosystem.  It is very important for policy makers to understand linkages between food vendors and formal organisations such as wholesalers and processors.  The prevalence of many stories about vendors in African cities being chased away from streets or relocated to areas where they eventually run away suggests that policy makers and local authorities do not see vendors as part of modern African cities. While there is a tendency to think that vendors operate outside regulations, the majority operate within by-laws and regulatory frameworks. However, they lack effective legal rights and bargaining power on important issues like security of workplace and access to basic infrastructure. A firm grasp of vendors’ daily work processes can result in urban planners designing appropriate structures for a more supportive and dynamic agriculture-supported urban African economies. Making basic infrastructure such as running water and toilets available to vendors would help keep food markets more hygienic. Adequate shelter and storage facilities would help vendors protect their goods from spoilage and theft, in turn reducing the necessity of borrowing from informal moneylenders to replenish their stocks.

Towards a human – centred policy approaches
Local authorities and policy makers should embrace a Human – Centred Design approaches to urban planning where they spend significant amount of time and resources understanding vendors and other actors. Policy makers should try to get out of their heads and look at challenges from different perspectives. Jumping to solutions is not a smart solution. To accurately deliver services in the knowledge economy, decision makers have to understand what really happens to food when delivered in the market. A farmer should not just be satisfied with ending at the market. It is becoming important to get insights from end-users. Modernising agriculture is not just about mechanisation but understanding what happens to food from farm to consumer.


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