Just as agriculture markets prefer fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and other commodities, knowledge on all these commodities should also be kept fresh. It is through regular visits to the market that farmers are able to keep their knowledge fresh. Farmers who extend loans to traders in the form of commodities also extend knowledge about those commodities so that traders are able to fully explain the value of each commodity to consumers. However, because knowledge has a way of sticking just as it also leaks, some of the crucial feedback from consumers sticks with the trader and does not go back to the farmer. It means farmers have to find ways of accessing such knowledge. That role is often played by the market as a whole.
Ideally, customer feedback should reach the farmer so that s/he is able to improve production methods and fulfill market demands. For that to happen, there has to be a smooth flow of knowledge from the market back to farmers and vice versa, not just a trickle of knowledge. To ensure there is a genuine knowledge flow, farmers have to create relationships in the market. That way, they keep their knowledge fresh rather than rely on stale knowledge that may not be in line with market dynamics. On the other hand, when farmers outsource their commodities to traders, transporters and other actors they are also out-sourcing knowledge about those commodities. That is why most traders and transporters end up knowing more about tomatoes and fruits than producers.
Challenges of replacing old with new agricultural knowledge
A critical part of keeping knowledge fresh is unlearning old habits and practices. Many capacity building and training programmes introduced in rural communities by development partners are failing to make a difference because they are not enabling farmers to unlearn old knowledge so that space for fresh knowledge is created. As if that is not enough, the African formal education system continues to promote learning new things rather than start with developing methods of unlearning what has been learnt over generations that is preventing new ways of doing things from taking root.
The situation has been worsened by how most of the old knowledge has been institutionalized. For instance, land preparation using ploughs has been deeply ingrained and institutionalized in African farming communities since the 1950s. Private companies have been established to produce ploughs, cultivators and hoes towards reinforcing conventional agriculture and associated habits. A few decades ago, government extension departments were at the fore-front of promoting ploughs and cultivators. But suddenly, some of them have started sermonizing about the importance of conservation farming which prefers zero tillage and discourages ploughing. Since the majority of farmers have not forgotten what they were taught a few decades ago, we now have a dilemma where extension agents are facing a hard time trying to reverse practices they once advocated.
It is like breaking concrete with drawing pins
The way conventional farming methods have been rammed into farmers’ consciousness over the past decades is such that getting them to unlearn those methods is like trying to break concrete with drawing pins. It is difficult to change age-old habits that have been institutionalized through training programmes such as farming as a business. It has taken generations for some of the habits to stick and these cannot be reversed through two to five year NGO programmes. Unlearning may take probably much longer than it has taken farmers to acquire all the knowledge currently in use. It is easier to keep doing the same thing than to embrace new ways of thinking, farming and marketing.
In most cases, farmers blame buyers of agricultural commodities rather than take responsibility for acquiring new knowledge. As a business, African agriculture will not be transformed through finding faults but seeking solutions. Informal markets are trying to provide some of the solutions. These markets have a way of building the capacity of farmers and other value chain actors to unlearn slowly but surely. Commodities that have been produced using old knowledge can be identified in the market. The poor performance of those commodities on the market forces farmers to dump old practices and embrace new knowledge which produces superior commodities.
Without active learning and experimentation, the agriculture sector will become an echo chamber where the same ideas are echoed all the time. Informal markets address these challenges by ensuring that farmers and other value chain actors unlearn old ways and acquire fresh knowledge through extending their awareness outside their spheres of influence. For those farmers who are curious enough to seek new peers who bring fresh perspectives, informal markets provide the necessary diversity that increases the potential for serendipitous discoveries. Each informal market has structures and processes that enable farmers and traders to discern when and with whom to share knowledge. That is how farmers test alternative perspectives, generate competitive knowledge and go back home to put new lessons into practice. However, this kind of learning and unlearning fostered by the market does not happen where there is no memory. To a large extent informal markets function as the conscience and memory of the agricultural economy. The markets are always updating mental models of value chain actors and freshening up their memory.
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