How can we build equilibrium knowledge ecosystems in developing countries?

There are many reasons why developing countries suffer from a severe mismatch between knowledge supply and demand. Less than 20% of knowledge in African countries has been documented.  Besides driving policy and economic development, such knowledge is trying to influence the 80% tacit knowledge which is undocumented. While computerisation and digital technology are expanding in many African countries, they will only go far in capturing habits, feeling and behaviours that motivate action among local people.

The whole African consciousness, empathy, intuitions and memory cannot be captured and fully expressed through machines like laptops, smartphones and other forms of social media. That is because Africans have a diverse socio-economic vocabulary which may not be captured until technology is fully domesticated.  It is not clear how long that will take. Although robots and digital technology try to express emotions, machines do not have a sense of humour.  Yet humour is a powerful knowledge vehicle in African communities. Machines are also not able to deal with surprises which are also a critical part of how Africans learn. We must therefore be very careful about over-hyping the power of technology in transforming African countries.

As knowledge users, African farmers and traders apply knowledge through their activities. They either apply their own personal knowledge and experiences or they look elsewhere for knowledge before they start anything. The more knowledgeable they become, the more they are able to avoid mistakes. While all this learning happens through memory, no machine can capture it fully.


As knowledge suppliers, these actors also create knowledge through reflecting on their experiences shared in the market. This is how mind-lines, rules, rituals, theories and doctrines are derived.  Besides individuals and teams, knowledge is also created by experts and communities of practice such as commodity associations reflecting on the experiences of many individuals in the ecosystem.

Towards a knowledge market

In the agriculture sector as a knowledge market there is no monetary price payable for knowledge. The price that farmers and traders pay for knowledge is the degree of effort they put in getting it as well as the amount of searching, asking and filtering they do.  Those not keen to put a lot of effort in searching for knowledge are trapped in poor knowledge circles. Where there is low supply and low demand, there is no knowledge market. On the other hand, where there is high supply and high demand, there is an equilibrium knowledge market.  To a large extent, most informal agriculture markets are equilibrium knowledge markets.

The same notion can be extended to the African formal education system where high supply and low demand for university graduates, translates to knowledge oversupply. Many graduates are stuck with certificates they will never use, some organisations have huge databases nobody ever reads, and some development organisations have massive lessons learned systems with no lessons re-use. This oversupply introduces blockages and waste into the knowledge sharing system, thus destroying the value of knowledge.  Oversupply would not be a problem if the price of the knowledge dropped to compensate.  Unfortunately the opposite is happening in Africa. The more oversupply of knowledge, the more time and effort it costs to search, sift and sort through until you find the knowledge you need. In this case, oversupply increases cost and decreases demand even further.

We are dreaming of a situation where there is low supply and high demand for knowledge. This will ensure we have many people looking for knowledge with little knowledge to find. The effect of this undersupply will make knowledge seekers look harder and seek for knowledge even if it is not yet documented. They will start by asking people, talking farmers and local communities before they eventually find tacit knowledge in its richest state. When this tacit knowledge is ultimately documented, its value will increase.

In order to fully benefit from their natural and human resources, developing countries should build  an equilibrium knowledge market by stimulating supply first. This can happen through encouraging capturing of knowledge, rewarding knowledge publishing among graduates and cultivating a knowledge sharing culture starting from community levels.  We cannot continue stimulating supply without stimulating demand because that has led to the current oversupply of graduates whose knowledge is being devalued.  It is better to have knowledge seekers outnumbering knowledge sharers since that increases the value of knowledge as seekers find what they need and apply it. Beginning by stimulating demand avoids the current pitfall of the knowledge glut and devaluation of knowledge.

Some of the scarce knowledge in developing countries

Supply and demand is at the base of much economic theory where the concept of an equilibrium market emerges when supply and demand are matched through price adjustment. Unfortunately, the African formal education system is not making sure the supply and demand of knowledge are in synch. The supply of academic knowledge continues to exceed demand. There is an over-supply of certain courses, merely because they are easier to do not because they are demanded by the market. Due to this glut, market prices for graduate skills have completely fallen down.

While there seems to be an oversupply of the wrong knowledge in African countries, a wide range of competencies are needed to address teething decision making constraints.  For instance, little is understood about how farmers use their social capital to deal with wicked problems like a decrease in yields and poor market performance.  Rather than continue producing graduates who are difficult to employ, universities should generate knowledge brokers who can unlock the abundant value dormant in natural resources. They should be able to recognize when deeper expertise is required and identify appropriate collaborators with that expertise.

Some of the critical missing skills include identifying interconnections, scoping ways of approaching economic challenges and discovering the best methods.  We need young people able to select and use a broad range of applicable methods and multi-modal methods of data collection and interpretation.  They should be able to understand the limitations of different types and sources of information. As an ecosystem, our agriculture sector is beset by diverse sources of information whose pieces are incomplete. For instance, the link between local agriculture production and international trade has not been explained in ways that make sense to farming communities.

The African education system should cultivate finely honed interpretation skills into students so that they are able to use statistical methods to evaluate alternative justifications, claims and arguments being made about African economies.  Students must also be able to formulate implications and inferences from evidence as well as recognize the limitations of different forms of evidence. They also need to understand areas of ignorance and uncertainty about African economies, most of which have remained informal.  The fact that African banks cannot come up with practical agricultural and rural finance models based on empirical evidence suggests a glaring absence of financial modelling skills. Some of the most important missing skills include identifying cultural and group norms, local contexts as well as their influence on how wicked problems like climate change are analyzed.  / /

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Why we must assess knowledge uptake in agriculture and rural development

While a lot of resources have gone into producing and pushing information to farmers and rural people, there has not been enough effort into understanding the uptake and utilization of all this information. Barriers and enabling factors to knowledge uptake have not been dealt with. With dwindling resources, the modernisation-driven communication model of pushing information to people with the hope that they will use it has to be acutely interrogated.

An important part of understanding the demand and use of information is scrutinizing how communication media like field days, agricultural shows, demonstration plots, newspapers, radio, television as well as all brands of social media are rich enough to be able to adequately reproduce information into knowledge. Rather than continue pushing information, it is important to think about helping farmers, communities and policy makers cope with communication challenges, such as unclear or confusing messages and conflicting interpretations.


How effective are field days, agriculture shows and conventional media in sharing knowledge?

Most agricultural events such as field days, shows and workshops are based on the flawed notion of how knowledge is absorbed and applied.  Many field days are stage-managed, for instance, in terms of what farmers should say about particular seed varieties and who is supposed to deliver a prepared speech.  There is no clear mechanism for transferring knowledge and skills after such events.  How much can one learn in a one day event?  To what extent do organisers of a field day or an agricultural show take into account people’s different socio-economic backgrounds which tend to influence how they acquire and absorb knowledge?  What are the mechanisms for transferring knowledge after an agricultural show or field day? What resources are available for that purpose?

Such events tend to be one-size-fits-all. Every community has different classes of farmers. Peers learn better within their own confines with in line with available resources.  What is the point of a field day which does not consider resources and capacity of those who come to learn?  In a formal school, pupils are arranged according to grades and knowledge is provided accordingly.  A field day assumes every participant is in the same grade.  Yet for a farmer without resources, a field day may be meaningless.

It is important to categorize farmers according to parameters like: age, gender, social status, sources of income, wealth status, widows, child-headed households, etc..,.  Farmers in the same age group or same wealth ranking should compete in that group.  Communities of Practice (CoPs) can then be develop based on shared learning. Those in the same social status should compete in ways that enable them to share knowledge productively.   District and national shows should also take that route.  In the current arrangement, a farmer who really needs to learn has no room to participate in the show.  If the show is about those who have succeeded, what about those who do not do well at their local level due to various reasons? To the extent that they are used to ‘jump-start’ farmers to be like be like ‘successful farmers’, most African field days and agricultural shows reinforce inferiority complex.

Acronyms and buzzwords

Development partners are coming up with acronyms and buzzwords which suggest that they have already resolved a challenge. To what extent can acronyms and buzzwords be assessed against meanings of words used and project objectives? Although development actors use words like ‘sustainable’ in their vocabulary, the absence of other actors like private players and markets during project planning and implementation leads to unsustainable models. Actors who would make projects sustainable are usually invited as part of an exit strategy yet they could have been part of the solution during implementation.  In addition, terms like ‘beneficiaries’ suggests that project participants are just receiving benefits passively yet they also contribute their knowledge.

Community capacity to monitor and evaluate interventions

There is need introduce monitoring and evaluation tools through which local people can monitor and identify a project’s shortfalls. Some interventions distort market operations. For instance, communities should be able to determine to what extent free inputs destroy local agro-dealers?  An evaluation which does not look at the whole local socio-economic ecosystem tends to overstate the benefits of a single intervention.  Communities should be able to monitor and assess their own progress.  They can be able to tell the extent to which an intervention is contributing to community life.

Each community should have a knowledge platform where lessons from each intervention are shared and compared with other interventions. It is important to rethink the role of community actors in the modern age from being passive recipients of information and support to knowledge brokers alert to the highly dynamic permutations of ideas and information.  They should be able to preserve and re-assemble fleeting connections, so that their knowledge content remains significant for development. The notion that development budgets can best be defended in terms of their  immediate ‘results’, rather than through longer-term sustainable efforts need urgent re-visiting.  Shared understanding, between organisations providing resources and communities applying those resources in order to change lives, is essential if development interventions are to solve real problems. Successful communication of meaning is a catalyst for this achievement.

Finding the right balance

How people engage with information varies substantially according to culture, education, cultural habits and many other factors. Communication mode and cognitive style play a role in media preference and selection. If you are going to use newspapers, radio or television, how many farmers are going to be reached and how do you determine their satisfaction levels?  Most formal media use foreign languages like English, French, Portuguese and Spanish while farmers and rural communities speak in their own language when interviewed.

In spite of the hype, developing efficient platforms to share knowledge through social media and mobile phones is still to produce satisfactory results in many developing countries.  One of the challenges is lack of proper business models around social media.  Rather than be content with providing the information conduit, mobile service providers want to become sources of news or information.  Policy makers have to act on this if agricultural knowledge is to be a powerful development resource. While online discussions such as WhatsApp enable groups to emerge from bottom-up interest, their disadvantage is the difficulty in ensuring the right questions are asked in the first place, and then in making sure those questions are answered by someone with valid lessons and experience. Many of the online discussions are an exchange of opinions among random groups, rather than an effective trawl for experience.  There is more gossip than knowledge exchange. Finding the right balance of knowledge sharing methods is becoming a crucial skill.  / /

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How can we measure the cost of lost knowledge in the agriculture sector?

One of the enduring challenges in African agriculture is defining effective metrics to measure the value of knowledge. In most agricultural value chains, knowledge is not considered a cost component. Farmers and other value chain actors consider inputs, labour and equipment to be the only elements in calculating profit. Excluding knowledge, which is apparently becoming a key component, results in under-costing of the production process. This gap is often seen when commodities are already in the market competing for customers.


A useful entry point in measuring the cost of lost knowledge is the market where economic loss is shown in the poor quality of agricultural commodities vying for customers. In the market, losses are incurred because less or inappropriate knowledge was applied.  This can be in the form of poor market information, standards and varieties grown.  The cost of production can be $30 but the farmer who expects to get $40 in the market ends up getting $20 due to poor quality of his/her commodity compared to others in the market.  That translates to $10 loss for the farmer.  On the other hand, where appropriate knowledge increases the cost of production to $35 and enables the farmer to earn $40 in the market that will translate to $5 profit.

From principles and figures to knowledge seeking

A common trend in most farming as a business training programmes is immersing farmers in  principles and figures rather than knowledge seeking.  If a five day workshop is converted into monetary terms, the Return on Investment (ROI) will be much less in the absence of knowledge on how markets work based on relationships and trust building. In workshops you pay for accommodation, food, transport and facilitation.  On the other hand, in a knowledge ecosystem like the informal market everybody contributes their knowledge. Millions of knowledge nodes are exchanged daily between farmers, traders, transporters and consumers without charging for knowledge.  This invisible knowledge translates to improved productivity, incomes, commodity standards, quality of commodities and quality of life.

Investing more in knowledge than static skills

The introduction of ICTs is providing a crucial platform for knowledge sharing.  Most production ingredients tend to be given and static.  For example fertilizer application, water requirements, etc.,.  But knowledge is often fluid and has to be constantly sought and updated.  This is where ICTs become very important. In a knowledge economy, farmers and value chain actors need to invest in knowledge than static skills which characterised the dying economy. The good thing about knowledge is that it is not all about literacy.  Farming as a business focuses on calculations and multiplications yet such an approach leaves a huge gap on how people can participate not only from an academic angle.  By not taking into account how people receive and share knowledge, farming as a business courses are becoming a blunt instrument.

 Taking a leaf from Africa tradition

In most African communities, knowledge is scattered everywhere.  There is need for actors who can consolidate the flow of this knowledge in ways that mimic how traditional economies were kept going through oral tradition and knowledge sharing. Each African community or clan had elders and institutions serving as custodians of knowledge.  At a certain age, one could get knowledge from specific people. From the conventional economic perspective, we no longer have such robust knowledge sharing pathways. The impact of knowledge absence is felt in the young generation because they do not have models for knowledge sharing.  Traditionally we had a smooth knowledge sharing pathway through practice. For instance, young boys would be trained to tame cattle through farming practices. That is how leadership qualities were also identified.  We are now using money to jump-start youths to become entrepreneurs without having gone through rigorous life skills-based apprenticeship.  In universities and colleges, most courses operate as silos.  Farming as a business should be more about the process of knowledge sharing as opposed to a five day workshop.

Incidents where Knowledge is Lost

The market provides a good formula for assessing the cost of lost knowledge where the quality of commodities determines economic gain or loss.  As a result, consequences of inadequate knowledge become visible in the market when commodities start competing. The market can also reveals incidents where knowledge is lost. This is where the knowledge that was once available to farmers, a farming community or farming organisation fails to reach people who needed to act upon it.  For instance, local communities may have a lot of practical knowledge about coping with drought but policy makers may disregard such knowledge leading to poor policy formulation.

Some of the lost knowledge incidents can include poorly organised workshops where farmers are not given an opportunity to ask questions or reflect on their own experiences.  A lost knowledge incident is only visible when a mistake is repeated or a capability lost.  While most of these incidents may be undetected, it is possible to measure them through surveys and careful analysis of lesson learned systems.  Farmers can tell you many examples where projects failed because lessons were ignored or missed.  The cost of lost knowledge in the agriculture sector should decrease as knowledge sharing systems improve.  / /

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From individual rewards to community incentives

Socio-economic challenges facing many developing countries are revealing the shortcomings of rewarding individual performance. Most problems have become so complex that individual people or organisations cannot solve them alone. In agricultural-driven economies, rewarding agricultural performance should be seen to be moving from individuals to community incentives. That’s one of the indicators of knowledge sharing.

Incentives such as prizes for best performance should increasingly be shared at community level.

The more incentives are broadened to cover the whole community, the more knowledge is shared.  If you incentivize one farmer and expect more than 2000 other farmers to come and learn from him/her it means the farmer will have to stop farming and concentrate on hosting all these learners. If everybody adopts knowledge in a community it becomes easy to incentivize the whole community.


Starting with the neglected and misunderstood

Rather than continue focusing on well-up farmers or a few business people, a remarkable knowledge sharing initiative should focus on elevating the needs of the neglected, the mistreated and the misunderstood whose experiences are rarely part of a community’s socio-economic consciousness.  Input suppliers should not just give inputs to one successful farmer who is already doing well from his/her own resources.  If a seed company or equipment manufacturer wants to prove that its inputs are viable, it should target the under-privileged who do not have resources.  For example it can establish a demo plot at a widow’s farm or a field owned by child-headed households. Food security challenges are more severe in vulnerable households than in lead farmers who have become the preferred conduits of knowledge sharing by seed companies and other technology providers.

Value chain actors as Communities of Practice

In as much as there is a tendency to reward individual players/farmers, in the current complex environment, winning is a team effort.  A winning farmer always works with the local community where some members provide labour and other services.  As communities of practice, farmers learn through regular interaction and co-creating knowledge within the community. Communities of practice are as much knowledge-creating mechanisms as they are knowledge-sharing mechanisms. However, meaningful groups of farmers should not grow beyond 50 members. Above 50 people, discussion becomes difficult and the community of practice start to fragment according to specific commodity interests.

 Community knowledge as collateral

It is important for financial institutions to build agricultural financing models around communities as opposed to individual members of a community. They have to consider community knowledge as collateral not just individual knowledge.  Focusing on community knowledge also means moving beyond conventional ways of communicating agricultural information which tends to focus on news and general information. When a successful farmer hosts a field day where the Minister of Agriculture attends and presents him/her a prize, that is news.  Knowledge comprises a broader analysis of the farmer’s context.  For instance, how many farmers from the same farming community are learning from him/her and can produce the same volume of commodities?  To what extent is the community in which the farmer stays able to produce enough to feed itself and for the market? How is the whole farming community addressing malnutrition?

These are some of the most important knowledge questions supporting superior decision-making at both local and national levels.  It is not enough to have one or two farmers in a community of more than a thousand producing maize or a few chickens.  Knowledge generation is about quantifying the total experience in a farming community. How farmers and traders spend their professional time is an important part of knowledge.  It shows they are engaged in the search for solutions to demonstrable problems.

The power of longitudinal research in fostering adaptive capacity

Without longitudinal research, decades of excellent service by farmers go unrewarded. Agricultural markets where evidence is available can provide a good idea of where commodities are coming from.  Such information can then be used to support production in areas that are doing well so that they can continue feeding the rest of the country.  This means the market can tell you a great deal about each area’s economic drivers and potential.  From these insights, agricultural shows should be built start in local areas such as wards and villages. Investment opportunities and proper resource utilization become easier to identify.  Scarce resources can be prioritized using evidence from the market.

To create farming communities that are human in their capacity to adapt, innovate and engage, knowledge brokers must find ways to infuse some of the most mundane agribusiness activities with deeper, soul-stirring ideals.  They must strive to develop an authentically home-grown vocabulary for farming communities to communicate their ambitions. The only way we can inspire farmers and other value chain actors to extraordinary accomplishment, is by promoting the language of honour, truth, love and justice.  This can no longer be relegated to the fringes of development action and discourse.  / /

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