The power of curiosity and situational intelligence in African communities

In every African community you can find people who are naturally curious and those who lack interest in learning.  Those who are curious can describe many aspects of their local environment such as natural resources and man-made features like water sources, dip tanks, schools, markets and business centres as well as the history of their community.  Such curiosity makes them potential champions in monitoring climate change and economic drivers. Because they are interested in others, curious people can harness creativity and empathy in a world driven by all kinds of networks.

The current impetus for wholesale commercialization of African agriculture and economic development is happening at the expense of curiosity, empathy and situational intelligence. Technical knowledge is necessary but not enough without these important soft human aspects.  Rather than trying to sell commodities in a hurry and go back home, farmers should spend more time explaining the value of their commodities to consumers and other actors.

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Marrying curiosity with digital literacy

While cultivating digital skills is receiving most of the attention in African countries, the basic skill required to navigate the digital era is curiosity. Unfortunately this skill is not being adequately nurtured and supported in African schools where standardized curriculum is destroying curiosity. In addition, standardized communities such as those found in urban areas have little empathy for those who are different. That is why in most affluent suburbs, neighbours may live side by side for decades without knowing or talking to each other.

On the other hand, rural communities tend to have a lot of curiosity. Households in many neighbourhoods know each other in much more details. Digital literacy can make more sense in African countries if it builds on the collective curiosity and humility of rural communities.  Curiosity about ideas can improve creativity and curiosity about people can improve empathy.  Development workers cannot be empathetic for farmers unless they are first curious about them.  Youths cannot be creative unless they are first curious to learn new ideas.

Decolonising agriculture and technology through harnessing curiosity

Instead of reproducing uneven relationships between former colonisers and the colonised, core aspects of African technology design should strive to decolonise relationships by harnessing the curiosity of the formerly colonised communities. They are not just communities but people who deserve to express their knowledge. African formal educational institutions should stop teaching, examining and interpreting technologies based on the pedagogies, languages and literacies of colonising countries.  There is need to create actions that can respond to, and resist, uneven relations in technology design.

Emotional and situational intelligence in African rural communities

Emotional intelligence has remained a dominant knowledge trait in traditional African societies. There has always been various ways of teaching the young generation to become emotionally responsive and mindful towards improving performance in agriculture or any other trade.  Up to this day, a critical part of emotional intelligence remains situational intelligence. In some communities, from a tender age, young people are taught the importance of situational intelligence in making people feel well taken care of. They also become aware that situational intelligence is about adapting yourself and your attitude.  Unfortunately, in the modern era,  young people are not prepared to do that because situational intelligence is not learned in school. Yet it is so critical in the current network economy. Farmers and traders need the intelligence to adapt themselves to consumers they engage with. They should learn to be patient and refrain from making decisions on the spot. That means they must be empathetic with people.

Every African market has its own culture that has to be understood before engaging in meaningful business of any kind. In some markets you need to start by convincing ordinary actors from the bottom and slowly move to the leadership. Once consensus is reached from the base, the necessary collective buy-in is almost guaranteed. If you fail to follow this process, you may never create sustainable relationships with the market no matter how much investment you want to bring. This knowledge is very important for financial institutions trying to work with SMEs for the first time.  It is not just about availing loans but understanding salient issues at a granular level. Every market has its own slow resilience which has seen it survive turbulent times.

In some informal markets, actors need to build consensus among themselves before accepting anything from outside, no matter how sensible. There is a certain nuanced hierarchy which has to be understood and allowed to make sense of what is being proposed. You are not just moving into a vacuum as a financial institutions but getting into already existing networks and relationships.  Huge doses of curiosity and empathy are certainly required in engaging such a community. Sometimes it is critical to treat traders, borrowers and consumers like they are part of your family by showing real empathy towards them.  Business as usual can be retrogressive. As African countries are on the path to becoming network-dominated societies, digitisation efforts have to fully consider existing empathy, curiosity and emotional intelligence towards innovatively building resilient communities.  / /

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Many African farmers can perform like Gold Medalists

If agriculture was an Olympics competition, many African farmers would certainly be gold medalists. Zephaniah Phiri, the late world class water harvester of Zvishavane in Zimbabwe would have collected dozens of gold medals. There are many such farmers from Cape to Cairo and Senegal to Somalia. While modernization is trying to present standards of excellence as being uniform across the globe, measures of excellence are determined by norms and values of a particular society.  From a socio-economic perspective, each community has knitted its own measures of excellence.

Excellence is more than yield

Unfortunately, African policy makers have not done much to develop national measures of excellence along agricultural value chains. Current measures of excellence focus on productivity at the expense of other factors.  This is seen in how value chain actors over-emphasize yield per hectare or amount of meat per amount feed, number of eggs per feed and other related parameters. It seems excellence is more to do with yield than anything else.

While this is not entirely bad, it is important to consider market-informed measures of excellence along the value chain. To what extent do African food producers understand taste, market preferences and costs that determine pricing, timing, consistency, production varieties and others?  This is a major knowledge gap inhibiting some farmers from becoming excellent commercial players. Unless we cultivate such information and knowledge the performance of farmers and other value chain actors will remain below average.


To what extent is the market good at setting standards and specifications? 

In most farming arrangements, markets and contract companies are often responsible for establishing measures of excellence and standards. They determine what constitutes grades A, B, C, etc.  With African informal agriculture markets becoming an absorber of more than 70% of agricultural commodities, a lot still needs to be done in setting up and formalizing measures of excellence. That will ensure farmers are not always surprised by market dynamics resulting in low returns. Although it is known that markets are not always perfect, at the moment market forces seem to determine standards. With appropriate knowledge, an excellent farmer should dominate the whole value chain. The farmer should be able to produce for household food security and remain with surplus for value chain industries as well as for the fresh markets.  Focusing on household food security is not enough.

There is a strong relationship between specialization and excellence

Many farmers try to do everything along the value chain – producing, trading, processing, transporting, consuming, etc.  It is difficult to achieve excellence when you want to be everything. It is like a marathon runner trying to be a soccer player. Along every agricultural value chain, there is a trade-off which influences return on investment. You can have a good yield but being bad marketer can make you an average or below average performer.  You may want to be a processor but lacking the right expertise can work against you. Producers should get as much information as possible about the value chain as to be able to aggregate and consolidate their production.  Who are you producing for (own consumption, fresh market, processors or food chain store)?

Excellence is also about concentrating on relevant knowledge. Spreading too widely can get in the way of achieving best results. It is also about innovation. Instead of being pro-active and take matters into their own hands, most farmers wait to be told what to produce, when and how?  Sometimes it is important to take commodities to the market just for the purpose of learning first.  This will prevent a situation where farmers become perpetual price-takers instead of moderate risk-takers. A bad experience with cabbages in one season is not enough for one to quit. Specialization has to be promoted according to natural farming regions to avoid cases where farmers try to do everything.  For instance, it is no use promoting small grains when the market is dying.  It is very difficult to compete on the basis of inadequate knowledge.

Excellence in a competitive environment

Just like those competing in the Olympics, as a farmer you can’t be excellent on your own.  At production level, excellence is about properly using available resources which tend to have competing uses and opportunity costs.  As a smallholder farmer you may be operating at the lowest opportunity cost. Where you produce one crop, for example tomato instead of onion, you may have lost 30% of potential income.  That is why it is important to know the potential of every farming area including details like soil testing, budgeting and volume of commodities per area.

Different levels of excellence

Since it is impossible to have all farmers being excellent in the same things, the market can facilitate characterization of farmers. That can inform different levels of excellence followed by smart assessments to figure the type of knowledge required at each level.  Different models can then be built around areas of excellence.  When farmers are not specializing, it is very difficult to develop viable models. By trying to do everything, farmers shoot themselves in the economic foot. You can be all over the place in terms of your own food security but the market requires specialization. Haphazard production locks farmers in unsustainable production patterns.  / /

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Limitations of using documents and reports to share knowledge in Africa

Many well-intentioned organisations and people are being frustrated by the shortcomings of using case studies, most significant change stories and conference presentations in spreading success from one African community to another. Most reports produced by several consultants are not making a difference due to multiple reasons (known and unknown). On the other hand, more than 90% of knowledge in African communities has not been codified into documents. This knowledge can never be adequately shared through codified information but through contextual conversational processes.

To worsen matters, several institutions in Africa continue to confuse information with knowledge.  Information officers are simply being rebranded knowledge officers. Characterising and storing information for easier searching through portals and websites is not knowledge management but information management. Most of the information in many organisations and government departments is not knowledge. Documents such as memos, minutes from meetings and technical reports fulfil transactional roles. They can only tell you what has been done but not what has been learned. Yet knowledge is about learning not informing. Where codified knowledge exists in documents, it is scattered in many organisations, projects and programmes. No resources are directed at pulling all these fragmented bits together into a body of useful knowledge.  Resources continue to be wasted on tons of documents confused with value-added knowledge.

From documents to multiple interpretations

While African communities have learnt from each other for generations, the conventional way of trying to spread knowledge through case studies is not yielding sustainable results. There is an assumption that technical people can get into a community, work with local people, document their successes and share success stories with other communities, leading to adoption of best practices. This notion misses a thorough understanding of how communities learn from each other.

Almost all rural African communities rely on collective sense-making through very patient conversations, observations and learning by doing. Multiple interpretations that cannot be fully captured through documents are shared in ways that clarify differences between actions and outcomes.  Knowledge exchange happens through rich data pulled from a variety of media to construct fresh meaning.  Where documentation takes advantage of a few senses, community knowledge exchange processes exploit all human senses.

In the majority of African communities, you cannot just hope to get valuable knowledge through interviews and writing up responses. While successful farmers can give you explicit information, they will not be able to explain tacit knowledge gathered through actual implementation of activities. This practical wisdom is tied to context.  There is a risk of missing the most important implementation nuances when you try to document. A field visit where visiting farmers see crops and livestock already doing well is not useful for the visitors if they are not immersed in the real process of producing such commodities.

With regard to incentives, conventional documentation processes give more credit to the documenters instead of implementers of knowledge such as farmers, traders and rural artisans.  Consultants are rewarded for asking questions and producing reports while farmers and other informants are often not rewarded at all.  Trying to use technical documents such as consultants’ reports to convey the tacit knowledge of farmers, traders and local communities leads to a very flawed outcome. Irrespective of whatever method they use to gather information, consultants and experts will never gather and convey enough contextual issues that make a community successful. Instead of pouring all the money into consultants and researchers, development organisations and government departments should set aside resources for communities to share knowledge with each other through various back and forth adaptive processes.  / /

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Why some approaches and technologies are not moving beyond early adopters

A lot can be learnt from remarkable ways through which African socio-cultural systems generated and shared knowledge. There were reliable conduits for sharing knowledge from one age group to another, one gender to another and one society to another.  Besides respected knowledge brokers, each community had sense making tools linking different communities of practice. Some of these methods and tools included rituals, idioms, metaphors, stories and various forms of apprenticeship. Knowledge from chiefs and spirit mediums would pass through sense makers and knowledge brokers who would sift and direct it according to demands and needs of various people in the community.

This is exactly what our modern knowledge systems lack. We have not cultivated proper ways of sharing the rich information/knowledge from schools, colleges and university curricular into diverse African communities.  There is an expectation that this knowledge can be shared by students after graduating. However, a lot of what can be useful in communities is either forgotten or misapplied.  More than 70% of ordinary Africans who function through their own languages, values and norms have no way of meshing what they know with the formal education system.  In most cases, their cultural values are still considered barriers to academic knowledge which is being confused with modernization.

Unless we develop verifiable ways through which knowledge is questioned, shared, rejected and value- added, it remains stuck within various communities of practice.  Such knowledge will have less developmental impact than anticipated. Academics continue to be locked in their systems, speaking to each other while farmers and rural communities continue holding onto what they know works. As if that is not enough, the language used for crafting policies in most African countries is not suitable for use by the majority but for lawyers and judiciary systems who can interpret it.

Hype around social media and mobile technology adoption

As long as internet remains associated with specific handsets, modems and certain environments which are not available in rural areas, it is of limited use to farmers, rural communities and informal markets.  It remains locked in elite environments and urban offices. That means such technology is not effective in enhancing value chain performance. The fact that mobile applications have to be used by people with android phones implies more than 80% of African farmers who cannot afford android phones cannot use mobile applications as knowledge conduits. Instead of focusing on providing the right knowledge, those promoting mobile apps have indirectly become android phone salespersons.

Mobile technology use must be driven by a common purpose rather than access to technology. The main objective of farmers keen to produce potatoes should be sharing knowledge about potato production and marketing rather than owning android phones.  If one out of 60 farmers has an android phone, it means the majority of farmers do not participate in android-phone driven knowledge sharing systems.  That is why many farmers would rather call and speak to the right people even though calling may be expensive. It becomes more about talking to the right person than just minimizing the cost of communication. One would rather pay more to get the right feedback than pay less for useless details. In addition, most farmers know less than 30% of their phone functions because no one has taken the trouble to embark on technological awareness.

 The dilemma of appropriate agricultural technology

There are many hidden reasons why agricultural technologies that have been promoted in African countries remain stuck with early adopters and do not easily become mainstream practice. Many lessons also remain very difficult to internalize. The growth of the SME sector in Africa has seen technology development targeting niche markets.  This is seen by the small size of peanut butter processing machines and oil expressing machines which cannot produce tons of commodities.  While advantages include full utilization of small quantities of commodities produced by scattered farmers, there is no growth path from two buckets of peanut butter to tons that can be produced per day for a bigger market.  A growth pathway from small, medium and large has not been developed.

Also absent are knowledge-driven pathways from ox-drawn ploughs to the next level of commercialization.  In Zimbabwe, farmers who moved from communal areas into A2 farms which are bigger should have been supported with the right technologies instead of continuing with ox-drawn ploughs.  There should be some technologies between the ox-drawn plough and the tractor. It is also not possible to have a one-size-fits-all irrigation system.  Due to the absence of appropriate and affordable technology, farmers continue using the same technology. In a changing climate, communities have their own coping strategies like adaptable crop varieties but seed companies continue pushing their own ‘drought tolerant’ varieties through the media.

In the industrial sector, it would appear African economies such as Zimbabwe have fallen from large companies like Cairns to small back yard processors with no scaffolding of knowledge and processes. Such economies need serious re-alignment based on bottom up approaches.  That will create relevant models for moving knowledge currently locked in diverse communities of business practice to where it is needed. In most cases, building and optimizing a piece of technology for a small market and trying to modify it incrementally does not work. Very few technologies and products can truly scale up with little change in features or distribution channels.

Connecting early adopters to the mainstream

The importance of understanding ways of connecting early adopters with mainstream users is visible in the financial inclusion sphere. The gap between Mikando or Village Savings and Lending Associations (VSLs) and Banks is barely understood.  There is no transitional pathways from Mikando to MFIs.  It is as if banks should teach Mikando and Village Savings about financial inclusion yet it should be banks learning from systems that have existed for generations. It is not clear what technology can work with VSLs yet technology came when VSLs had already established themselves. Plastic money and POS machines require a well-structured system along the value chain.  Otherwise they remain with early adopters in urban centres and growth points.

Why should knowledge about auditing remain a preserve of the corporate sector?

Another critical knowledge question is: How do African policy makers introduce auditing in the expanding SMEs sector when there is no supportive legislation?  Auditing has remained stuck in the corporate sector, parastatals and the development.  Lack of auditing in the SMEs sector means closing of opportunities. Community organisations are not able to respond to calls for proposals because they do not have audit trails or board of trustees.  They also lack experience in implementing development programmes yet their own most important experiences on the ground have not been documented.  They end up doing their own thing within their own communities of practice.  Their knowledge remains difficult to unlock, even when using the most sophisticated baseline survey methodologies.

Knowledge adoption through agriculture markets

While more than 70% of agricultural commodities in Africa now pass through informal markets, little is known about how these markets deal with standards and other specifications.  Important knowledge remains locked in traders and a few farmers who have built relationships and trust.  That is why it is becoming very difficult for processing companies to penetrate those closed communities of practice and clusters which have taken years to concretize.  As a result, we continue with diverse knowledge systems which cannot speak to each other.  Farmers, traders and consumers on one side. Processing companies producing tomato puree on the other side and food chain stores with a few farmers on the third side. This scenario shows different economies with incomplete value chains which should ideally converge for sustainable economic development.

Addressing the disconnect between politics and economics

The importance of knowledge brokers is visible in how African countries fail to link politics with economics and society. We do not have compelling models for connecting politics to economics to society towards employment creation and socio-economic progress. Politics has its own communities of practice with economists in their own communities of practice. Same with other scientists.  Bridging such barriers requires smart knowledge brokers who can see comparative advantages of each community of practice. Current oceans of information and actors in African socio-economic development need appropriate sense making if authentic development is to happen.  Much of the knowledge in African countries still travel through rituals built on empathy and memory.  While digital technologies define memory in the form of computer space in which content can be held, for human beings, memory is about remembering.  We cannot continue promoting technology in ways that undermine human capacity for collaboration, team-building and interpersonal relationships.  / /

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From farmers and traders to knowledge artisans

Many developing countries are witnessing trends where indigenous knowledge systems are transforming to a commercial stage.  This is exposing the myth that indigenous knowledge can remain pure and undiluted in the current rapidly globalizing world. The modern economy forces farmers, traders and other economic actors to contribute knowledge to their socio-economic networks. Every farmer or trader should control his or her own learning and belong to a network. Engaging with other value chain actors, especially those different from you, is the key to making sense of too much information whose volume and diversity is rapidly increasing.

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Traditionally, African communities had tacit mechanisms for transferring skills from one generation to another. That is how career paths where forged, for example, children of farmers, artisans and blacksmith had important knowledge passed to them from their parents. There were no formal Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) which enabled formal and informal knowledge exchange.

Retrenchments that have become a common feature of African economies over the past decades have resulted in many formal skills being offloaded onto the informal sector.  For example, motor mechanics and metal fabrication are now part of the informal sector.  Previously locked in formal systems, these skills are now being unpacked and applied in informal markets.  This is leading to the integration of indigenous knowledge systems into formal knowledge sharing pathways.  Since indigenous knowledge is more customer-oriented, it results in the production of needs-based products, tailor-made to meet the needs of diverse customers.  For example, ploughs and hoes are made as per customer requirements unlike the previous mass production ethos in the formal sector which had little consideration for existing draught power dynamics in different farming communities.

The power of empathy

While mobile technology and social media can digitize some information, in many developing countries, more complex work still requires human interaction. In order to survive the current network economy that thrives on creativity, farmers and agricultural value chain actors have to create unique ways of working and connecting. This interaction ensures relationships are built on empathy.  Technology and digital tools do not know empathy and why it is important. Yet, it is only by empathizing that value farmers and traders can truly understand their relationships and networks.

A standardized curriculum is completely inadequate for solving complex problems confronted in the agriculture sector daily.  By creating new meaning through cooperation and building value with their peers, farmers, traders and consumers are becoming knowledge artisans. Implicit knowledge held by agricultural value chains requires constant interactions to make sense of it.  Value chain actors have to explore different ways to curate information and a variety of ways to express themselves.  They cannot continue using word of mouth or mobile technology alone.  That is why community knowledge centres and communities of practice become critical in ensuring every actor develops his or her skills at their own pace until things start making sense.  Most farmers do not immediately use all the information they get from a workshop before making sense of it.

Importance of getting out of echo-chambers

Reliable agricultural knowledge networks should provide farmers and other actors with a diversity of views.  They have to ensure more signal and less noise in their networks. This means identifying and supporting the creation of trusted communities of practice for testing out new ideas and ways of working. For all this to happen, farmers and other value chain actors need to get outside of their current knowledge bubbles and echo-chambers. In a society that is increasingly becoming digitally-mediated, each economic value chain actor has to be informed through active engagement.

Nothing prevents farmers from consciously developing their own expert networks that they trust.  This will simplify their sense making. Without personal knowledge networks, farmers are at the whim of whatever information is flowing through social media platforms. They need capacity to see the value of understanding viewpoints that diverge from their own. Unfortunately, in most rural farming communities, close-knit social groups cannot give farmers the diversity of knowledge they need to navigate the complexities of the current networked economy. Simple solutions are no longer enough in confronting complex challenges such as climate change.  / /

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