Principles of demand-driven agricultural practice

A significant portion of billions of dollars that have gone into agriculture in developing countries have been absorbed by supply-driven information systems.  With each organisation beating its own drum, tons of publications, videos, manuals and websites continue to be produced. All these are directed at telling farmers what to do and how to do it. To the extent that much of this information remains unused, most organisations blame farmers for not using it to pull themselves out of poverty.

Towards understanding demand-driven agriculture

While farmers are, in most cases, expected to narrate their work, for most good farmers, agricultural practice is an unconscious process which they may not be able to express to anyone in words.  Working with farmers and traders has awakened eMKambo to a number unnoticed principles that influence how farmers interface with knowledge. Understanding these principles will enable development agencies and policy makers to engage appropriately with farmers and traders.


  1. Farmers and traders value knowledge that they request more highly than knowledge that is pushed to them.  It seems the best way to get knowledge into the heads of farmers and traders is through answering their questions. Instead of resorting to supply-driven training workshops, question and answer sessions generate more usable knowledge for farmers and traders. Agricultural organisations should direct more resources to stimulating and answering questions rather than publishing ideas whose demand and use is not very clear.
  2. Farmers and traders do not pay attention to knowledge until they actually need it. Like most people, farmers will not absorb knowledge until they are ready. They will not be ready until they feel a need. They can clap hands and ululate after you have said something but that does not mean they have absorbed what you have said because it may not be useful immediately.  Agricultural knowledge should be provided just when it is needed rather than documenting case studies on the assumption that farmers may use them later on.  Such knowledge will easily be forgotten.
  3. Most farmers and traders will not use knowledge unless they trust its source. They do not trust what is not invented in their communities of practice. They need either to trust the individual or the organisation which brings the knowledge. It is important for agricultural organisations to spend time building credibility and trust. This may not happen within two to five years which is the duration of most development interventions.
  4. Knowledge has to be reviewed in the farmers’ and traders’ own context before it can be received.  The first question in the farmer’s mind upon receiving new information is: “Is this relevant to me?” Every farmer and trader always feels their own context is different even though the difference may just be an assumption. They need to test the knowledge for relevance before they really pay attention.  Transferring knowledge in a written form is difficult, unless you can introduce a process by which farmers and traders can interrogate this within their own context.
  5. One of the biggest barriers to farmers and traders accepting new knowledge is old knowledge.  They have to unlearn, before they can learn.  Old assumptions, old habits, “the way we have always done it in the past” may all have to be challenged before farmers and traders can absorb and make sense of new knowledge.  This is often a very difficult process which is connected to cultural and power dynamics in some farming communities and agriculture markets.
  6. Knowledge has to be adapted before it can be adopted. If farmers are provided with guidance, tips and hints, they will always tweak this information in order to make it theirs. Sometimes this tweaking and adjusting is necessary to fit the knowledge to their own context. Sometimes it is unnecessary in practical terms despite being necessary in emotional terms. So when you are providing farmers and traders with guidance, tips and hints or even a recipe, you have to give them some idea of where they can adapt it. There are so many cases of farmers adapting ideas the wrong way.
  7. Knowledge will be more effective the more farmer and traders make it personal. The more personal, emotional, and highly charged the learning situation, the more the knowledge will be easily adopted by farmers and traders.  Discussions, story- telling and coaching can be personal, emotional and highly charged, but this is often very difficult to translate into the written word.  That is why video is becoming very helpful in some situations.
  8. For farmers and traders, seeing is believing, trying is trusting and doing is internalising. When farmers or traders try things and find they work, this reinforces the belief that knowledge from others is of real practical value.


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

How digital technology purifies demand and experiences through agriculture markets

Given the disparate nature of smallholder production in developing countries, it is often very difficult for buyers, development actors and policy makers to get an accurate sense of the scale and demand for agricultural services including inputs. Equally difficult is estimating the volume of commodities that can be consistently supplied to the market by a farming community for a particular period.  In short, verifying and purifying demand, experiences and expectations remains a mammoth task.  Without granular details, most agricultural interventions are equivalent to shooting in the sky.

Enter digital technology

While many formal organizations such as financial institutions and supermarkets think they can continue influencing farmers and consumers through traditional advertising, digital technology is forcing them to re-visit their strategies. Farmers, traders and consumers are increasingly becoming empowered to personalize their information, thanks to social media. Using social media, farmers can now hear what others are saying about particular agricultural inputs, markets and products more than was the case a few decades ago.  Through online agricultural platforms, digital technology is opening up exciting possibilities for farmers and traders to influence each other seamlessly. Input providers and equipment manufacturers have to start going beyond road shows, radio and newspaper advertisements to influence farmers and other actors.  Farmers and consumers are becoming empowered to tease out reality from hype. They are no longer passive recipients of whatever comes and can see that some products are promoted as if they perform wonders when the reality is different.


Agricultural switch board

Regular messages enable farmers, traders and consumers to verify and purify the demand for commodities in the market. This is unlike in formal organizations where messages are expected to trickle down from head office to the grassroots. Agricultural platforms are increasingly becoming switchboards for messages.  The platform can expose the truth and hold input providers such as seed companies and banks accountable. An accurate picture of farmer capacity is also revealed.

Increasing awareness of opportunity costs

Through a digital platform, farmers can take their cue from their peers who participate in the market regularly.  A farmers’ decision to stay with a particular commodity now depend on ability to find meaning and purpose in it.  Using ICTs to communicate with each other and make a few calculations, farmers can tell that they are receiving a raw deal from contract arrangements. They are now also more aware of opportunity cost as a determinant of success. Receiving less money today is better than receiving more after two weeks, according to farmers and traders in Mbare market of Harare.

Enhancing the power of stories

The use of podcasting and video technology is retrieving and gathering stories from farmers and traders in real-time.  Given their reliance on memory, for farmers and traders, stories are the best ways of remembering agricultural activities.  Through stories captured on digital platforms, farmers and traders have a sincere feeling of being involved in agricultural transformations that shape the direction of their farming activities. They can engage in online debates about agribusiness opportunities. Such deep conversations cannot be sufficiently harvested through formal media.

 In the market, each farmer and trader contributes stories and jokes which spice collective experiences. Interpersonal relationships that are built have a bearing on how well farmers and traders perform. Powered by mobile technology, farmers and traders are able to grow their networks through crowd-sourcing new ideas.  Connectivity in the market enhances market research. Individual and group experiences filtered and purified for every participant’s benefit.  Where a newspaper would devote less than a page to agricultural stories and radio would just have a brief session on agriculture, dedicated agricultural platforms deepen experiences by focusing entirely on agriculture issues.

Through agricultural platforms, farmers and traders can a chance to ask thought-provoking questions that are designed to help them promote themselves. Some farmers and traders stand out and get known as experts in particular commodities. This helps them make key connections and grow their agribusinesses.  Most connections made online develop into deeper relationships when they move offline.  Farmers who start off as shy gradually become vibrant contributors.  The majority of farmers join agricultural platforms primarily to cultivate meaningful relationships, learn more about the market, buyers, consumers and other actors as well as position themselves for economic opportunities.  Besides being an excellent source of quality connections, market-based agricultural platforms are outlets for constructive social listening.

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

Farmers and traders with diversified sources of information are more successful

In many developing countries, farmers who diversify their sources of information and knowledge are more successful than those who rely on fewer sources. These are some of the issues, eMKambo has uncovered through social listening and sentiment analysis in farming communities and agriculture markets. Another critical observation is that farmers and agricultural organisations struggle with collecting, analysing and acting on feedback from the market and consumers yet such feedback should be integrated into decision-making.

The most important predictor of success in agriculture is becoming the amount social interaction among farmers and other actors.  Exposure to peer activity drives learning and changes in behaviour. While cohesive groups of farmers and traders are able to come to an easy consensus for taking action, they have to avoid falling into groupthink where the wrong ideas get reinforced just as much as the right ones are also reinforced. This is often visible through a copycat syndrome where farmers produce the same commodity rather than diversify for the market. Too much imitation among farmers  has become a double-edged echo chamber. Farmers exposed to the same sources of information such as field days and the same extension officers often come to a strong consensus on innovative strategies. Unfortunately, they end up merely parroting each other.  The same ideas reverberate throughout the whole community, leading to imitation.


It is not easy for farmers who have produced tobacco for years to immediately stop and switch to horticulture. Because useful agricultural knowledge is more complex and contextual, it should be shared through conversational processes.  What can make farmers or traders perform better is a mix of cohesiveness and diversity supported by meaningful conservations. Some farmers thrive because they have honed their skills to do few things really well. They have also realized the importance of outside information filtering into their networks.  For both farmers and traders, building networks that have financial and social incentives is fundamental.

Mobile technology versus conversations

In spite of the explosion in social media in many African farming communities, holding a conversation remains one of the most treasured skills among farmers and traders. While youth are increasingly relying on their phone screens for communication, you will never find serious farmers pecking at their smartphones when an important conversation is underway. With many youths getting into agriculture, one of the critical skills eMKambo and other agricultural knowledge brokers will have to promote vigorously is the capacity of youths to communicate about agricultural issues in real time through conversations not mobile phones.

Conversational competence is becoming one of the most important skills in agriculture. Mobile technology will never replace this age-old natural skill.  Unfortunately it has become the single-most overlooked skill in formal educational institutions such as universities and agricultural colleges.  Due to the advent of mobile phones, students and youth spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through mobile phones.  Rarely do they have an opportunity to hone their interpersonal communication skills, even at home.

Leveraging digital technology

All agricultural markets require a thoughtful presence and an ability to think on your feet.  Significant agricultural decisions cannot be made over the phone where discussions are fragmented until they are integrated. That is why although cell phone use is rampant in most farming communities, face to face communication remains more important than texting messages. Rather than trying to customize agricultural projects into tablets and laptops, it is important to continue honing farmers’ conversational skills so that they are able to think and communicate in real time.  Text messages and other online discussions such as Whatsapp and twitter do not engage agricultural value chain actors in extended critical thinking and conversation. On the other hand, face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly and teaches patience which is the hallmark of agriculture markets.

We should leverage digital devices to capture and teach the art of conversation towards diversifying sources of knowledge for agricultural value chain actors such as farmers and traders. Mobile technology should be used to encourage farmers to strike a balance between digital literacies and interpersonal conversation.  Perhaps the main challenge is identifying farmers and other value chain actors who are more creative in dealing with complex problems and identifying new opportunities.  In spite of the explosion of mobile technology, cows still need personal attention.  Farmers want to be in a position where they see their entire work system and make it better. This is where conversation is critical because it rides on creativity, curiosity and empathy.  Rather than trying to fight existing realities, technology developers should think more like farmers who look at work more holistically and make changes where they make sense.


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

Surfacing the shared identity of crop and livestock production in African agriculture

While the relationship between crop and livestock production seems obvious to some people, a lot of lessons are hidden in how these commodities are marketed in many African countries. In almost every African country, where there are people’s agriculture markets, the horticulture and field crops market is relatively more consistent and dynamic than the livestock market which is often sporadic. The nature and use of these commodities influences their marketing patterns and structure. For most households meat can be a luxury while tomatoes, leafy vegetables and maize meal are a necessity. In other words, you can go without meat for a week but you need tomatoes and vegetables every day. That means necessities have different market patterns from luxuries.



Cattle as long term investment

Investment in livestock does not just look at monetary value but other benefits such as milk, manure and status. Cattle are mostly used to invest in other long-term ventures such as marriage (for dignity and social acceptance) and education. To show that investment in cattle looks beyond monetary gains, it can take three years for a beast to grow and be sold for $300. While this money can be spent in one day, its other values are considered more than cash. Many farmers narrate their economic growth patterns from horticulture to ending up with cattle as a store of value. It is common to hear a farmer say: “From growing and selling tomatoes I bought chicken, then four goats and now have 10 cattle.” This means cattle are an indicator of success in horticulture farming. Again, the majority of smallholder farmers are more comfortable storing their wealth in cattle than in banks. That is why, among the Shona people of Zimbabwe when one sells a beast s/he says: “Ndaputsa mombe”, which literally means I have destroyed what I had put together over time.

What motivates people to sell or buy livestock?

Many development partners and private companies are directing enormous effort at building livestock auction systems in rural areas. Unfortunately there has not been deep research on what motivates smallholder farmers to sell their livestock such as goats, sheep and cattle. In Zimbabwe, for instance, livestock marketing is heavily influenced by socio-economic and cultural factors. While horticulture crops are more of consumptive commodities, livestock such as cattle are more of an investment. A number of cattle auctions do not function as anticipated because selling livestock is more of a consultative process where decisions are made in circles unlike selling tomatoes. If a beast is sold at a much lower prices, that decision affects the whole family.

There are hidden negative consequences of creating an auction in a rural area. When 400 cattle are bought by external buyers from one community, the money injected in that community often drives up prices of other commodities such as maize and some goods in local shops. Another hidden negative impact relates to reduced collective draught power. The more cattle leave a particular community, the increase in the number of hectares that will be rendered fallow as farmers run out of draught power. Collective marketing of goats and cattle also tends to have numerous unforeseen issues. It is sometimes better to facilitate individual marketing because each person has his/her individual needs which can be met at different times, taking all social and other factors into account.

Rarely is every farmer willing and ready to sell cattle in a community. Livestock auctions sometimes create a bandwagon effect where farmers sell their goats and cattle only to realize that the community has run out of livestock and favourable breeds – draining wealth which has taken generations to build.   However, a critical market dimension that is waiting to be explored in many smallholder farming communities is that for breeding stock as opposed to slaughter. Although many rural areas have diverse breeds and phenotypes of local chickens, goats, sheep, cattle and other livestock, marketing is still to be aligned to different breeds or phenotypes so that superior breeds or phenotypes command higher prices. In crops, superior breeds of maize, tomatoes, potatoes and different types of fruits attract different prices in the market. On the other hand, size and weight still determine price in goats, cattle and other livestock. The majority of smallholder farmers are still to be adequately knowledgeable about classifying and categorizing their livestock breeds and phenotypes.


Addressing depletion in livestock breeds and using livestock as collateral

Livestock are adaptable to particular areas but, when buying for keeping, most people depend on guesswork to the effect that a farmer thinks a goat from Mwenezi will obviously survive in Guruve. There hasn’t been as much research on linking livestock breeds to environment and market. The effect of environment on meat or milk quality has not been researched upon as well. To what extent does cold affect milk yield and quality?

Most rural communities are losing their best livestock breeds due to the absence of incentives for the best local breeders. The decision is left to a household whether to sell a beast and, since buyers select the best beast, that is how the best breeds disappear. One way of saving local breeds is using cattle as collateral so that a farmer does not have to sell a whole nice breed just to buy fertilizer or pay school fees. The farmer can be enabled to access income for covering these needs without disposing of a whole beast. It is important to start recognizing livestock as a form of wealth that can be used as collateral. While buildings and land leases are being used as collateral, there is no suitable collateral for smallholder farmers whose notion of wealth is tied to livestock. Many farmers sell their cattle in desperation yet they could be assisted through collateralizing their livestock. It takes 3 years for a farmer to grow a beast yet someone can buy it for $300 and goes away to make three times profit.

Lack of livestock market intelligence

Horticulture markets ensure farmers communicate regularly through frequent participation. Unfortunately that is not happening to livestock producers due to the erratic nature of livestock marketing. Rather than farmers continuing to sell whole beasts, there is need for livestock valuation mechanisms which provide options for unbundling value. For instance, convening a market where other input providers such as seed companies and those selling farming implements bring their items to cattle sales will enable farmers to see the number and value of items that a beast can buy rather than just resorting to cash payment. For example a farmer can see that his beast can afford him 10 bags of fertilizer, a sprayer, a plough and 4 x50kg seed. This unbundling of value can be more satisfying than receiving $300 from a buyer who goes away to make more.

The role of advocacy and lobbying

There is also need for vigorous lobbying by livestock farmers so that buyers are seen upgrading pastures, deep tanks and other assets as social corporate responsibility. Lobbying and advocacy can also result in cattle sales happening over at least three days rather than just one day. A longer sale period provides room for farmers to negotiate and make informed decisions unlike selling in a hurry, within four hours of the auction. Farmers must have enough room to consider other factors before deciding to sell. Ambushing farmers is not a sustainable marketing strategy. On the other hand, destocking efforts are not advising farmers how they can keep their money for better returns after destocking. It is not helpful for a farmer to destock and buy a house at a growth point like Lupane or Muzarabani where properties are entirely valueless due to absence of title deeds.

Destocking has to be more controlled and implemented as a last resort because by destocking you are depleting wealth that has taken years to build. Perhaps destocking can be linked with horticulture which is a rapid money-spinner. The synergy between horticulture and livestock is not apparent to many people yet it’s very important. Farmers who destock would rather invest in horticulture which can provide the capacity to restock one step at a time. It can also enable farmers to buy livestock feed and other inputs. / /

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