Responding to narrow margins and slow growth in African agriculture

The fact that African agriculture is beset by narrow margins and slow growth elevates the need to invest in data and evidence. People who get into agriculture expecting quick returns are often disappointed because African agriculture is no longer a one-step dance. Obsession with quick returns is one reason why opportunists tend to congest one or two commodities. Taping into existing and new data will enable investors to unlock value across a range of agricultural commodities and agribusiness models.responding-to-narrow-margins-and-slow-growth-in-african-agriculture

Data and evidence about diverse commodities is becoming more important because lines between agricultural commodities, services and agribusiness ecosystems are blurring. Consumers, farmers and traders are no longer just interested in commodity prices or information services. Instead, they are buying the idea and experience of agricultural ecosystems. This opens opportunities for smart value chain actors who can provide integrated experiences to diverse consumers, most of whom are becoming more conscious about their health.

 Evolving characteristics of informed agricultural entrepreneurs

Given an increase in the amount of information and sources, many farmers and traders now need few rules of thumb rather than a lot of information that ends up confusing them.  Contrary to the widespread notion that the customer is always right, informal markets are revealing the great extent to which many customers learn from traders, farmers and other actors who frequent informal markets.  Since not every value chain actor can possibly know everything, they thrive on trusting other people’s knowledge.  Some of the key characteristics of smart agricultural entrepreneurs include:

  • Very dynamic and responsive to environmental changes.
  • Driven by owners’ characteristics and personality traits.
  • High commitment to succeed because the enterprise is a major source of livelihood.
  • Customer base built on networks, trust and relationships.
  • Customised products and services.
  • Exposed to ‘free‘skills and knowledge transfer for business and products/services improvement.

Beyond facts and figures

From eMKambo’s experience, many farmers no longer need too many facts and figures but solutions to their pain points.  They need information on a just-in-time basis not just-in-case it becomes useful in the future.  Unfortunately, most external capacity building interventions are based on just-in-case knowledge provision approaches on the assumption that communities will use that information when the project comes to an end. Value chain actors are realizing that it is no longer enough to celebrate a few field days. Success comes from drawing on information from different parts of the agricultural sector, generating a complete on how actors engage and retain knowledge as well as customers.

Strengthening knowledge ecosystems

Knowledge management is more than information and technology but extends to building a network of committed people from different persuasions. It does not help for knowledge experts to continue sharing knowledge among themselves. Knowledge mobilization has to be stepped up through communities and that is where indigenous knowledge becomes superior at enhancing social inclusion. Efforts should go into understanding indigenous businesses in rural areas, growth points and high density areas in terms of the calibre of consumers who buy from them.  This can feed into analyses that take into account volumes of commodities going into different markets. Aggregation is about responding to the market and one has to know the end user. Ultimately, creative value chain actors can begin to tease out options for extending periods in which seasonal commodities like sweet potatoes can be supplied for various uses including processing. Tasting the market differently and walking the whole length with different agricultural commodities is a fundamental process in dealing with narrow agricultural margins and slow growth.

Since knowledge generation goes beyond the mandates of many international development organizations, there is need for knowledge ecosystems that bring everyone together. African agriculture cannot afford to continue suffering from poor and fragmented data whose accuracy and accessibility remains questionable, although ICTs are becoming ubiquitous.  When agricultural value chain actors lack insight into the broader context in which agricultural commodities compete, they are less likely to recognize opportunities and threats.  In the absence of robust evidence, part of the agricultural sector such as the seed industry will continue to reach different conclusions about their agribusiness priorities, based on incomplete evidence. The consistence and sustainability of the entire agricultural sector remains a dream in such situations.  / /

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How and why relationships move more food than markets

As containers of knowledge, African agricultural markets continue to inspire, clarify and reorient our awareness. Latest evidence gathered by eMKambo shows how and why the movement of food from farming communities to urban markets is based mostly on relationships as opposed to money. Agricultural markets are not just an endless parade of stories and examples but enlightening ideas that spark immense possibilities. Energizing and empowering agricultural transformation cannot be achieved without seeing and sharing the whole picture. It is through making sense of things together that value chain actors can see the whole ecosystem and start honoring their

The role of relationships in market penetration

Agricultural commodities do not just penetrate formal and informal markets in a linear fashion. A new commodity begins with entering households where relationships foster adaptive consumption. People in different households share food, seed and other commodities via relationships expressed through gratitude for either paying a visit or hosting a traditional event where relatives come together. From households, appreciation of commodities moves to communities, cities and eventually, to the market. Associated knowledge is also transferred through relationships, emerging from households. This knowledge transition can happen along gender lines – father to son to son-in-law or mother to daughter to daughter-in-law.  Knowledge can also transfer through age – old to young people in a community or through peer to peer food and knowledge exchange.

Although these knowledge patterns are fundamental to the regeneration and sustainability of agricultural ecosystems, they are easier to take for granted.  They remain largely unnoticed to modern commercial mindsets which are becoming used to linear processes like value chains.  The movement of agricultural commodities from households to extended families and to communities cultivates local markets from which external markets can obtain what is available in particular communities. Adaptive consumption takes place from households all the way to markets. That is why most African agricultural commodities are associated with their original sources in terms of production communities.

Relationships as anchors of local markets

Visitors enter new markets through relationships and that marks the evolution of new relationships. Labour markets are also prevalent in most agricultural communities and such services are paid for through commodities whose value is agreed upon by the community. Where a farmer was supposed to go and look for money from a bank or borrow from elsewhere, labour payments are made in the form of commodities.  This reduces pressure from the national monetary system because cash is not involved in every transaction. In most African countries, cash circulation is concentrated in urban centres and that means rural communities have less cash in circulation. Why should everyone who wants to eat food be forced to look for scarce cash when local commodities can easily substitute cash in ways that smoothen the exchange of valuable services and commodities?

Relationships also play a critical role in building various food baskets riding on visits such as rural to rural and rural to urban, all the way to the market. As producers get into markets they build relationships through totems, home areas or through networks built by someone already in the market for a long time.  These relationships drive agricultural transformation.  Given different ecological regions that characterize many African countries, there are many cases where farmers from drought prone areas migrate to high rainfall areas, leaving behind many of their relatives.  Eventually, those left behind create a market for commodities produced by their relatives who will have migrated to high rainfall areas. Seed, crop varieties and livestock breeds are exchanged through visits and these create a market in areas of scarcity.  Relatives in high producing areas also function as a food reserve for their relatives in low production areas. In most cases, commodities kept for relatives do not find their way to the formal market.

Rather than making conclusions on the basis of food that gets into formal and informal markets, it is important to find ways of figuring out volumes of food exchanged through relatives from one community to another.  This practice has an impact on the functioning of formal and informal markets.  Where markets will be expecting consumers to come and buy, relationships will be satisfying more than 70% of consumers’ requirements.  When conducting visits, most people carry a farmer’s eye.  A livestock farmer is on the look-out for good livestock breeds and same with a crop farmer.  Farmers visiting their relatives like sons, daughters or in-laws in new communities use their local relatives to access good breeds and crop varieties from new communities. A community usually develops its own market in the local community.  Through relationships, some commodities penetrate areas where they didn’t use to exist.  For instance, Avocados from Makoni find their way to Chivi districts of Zimbabwe, same with mangoes and other crops making in-roads into new areas.

Unfortunately, instead of supporting these natural and organic processes of food and knowledge exchange to unfold and continue, financial institutions and development organizations tend to intervene superficially when relationships and local markets can do a good job. Rather than spoon-feeding farmers and forcing them into narrow value chains, development agencies and financial institutions should carefully examine and support relationship-based food demand and supply models. They can also usefully support exchange of commodities between commodities to avoid situations where food leave communities to urban areas and then back to adjacent farming communities where they are mostly needed.  Besides tracking and accounting for local food movements, such efforts can open new markets for diverse commodities looking for a market during long periods of the season. Community to community commodity exchange will prevent cases where commodities are pushed to urban centres before the market’s absorptive capacity has been ascertained.

Reviving the power local markets

While local markets have existed for centuries, their recognition has taken too long. Many African communities are getting concerned about how their indigenous food and knowledge systems are being lost to scientifically-produced foods, at the expense of the naturalness of our food systems.  This is also destroying the social fabric which was built through people congregating around local beer, mahewu and cultural practices in which food was a glue. However, the proliferation of ICTs is now making it possible for communities to capture the power of informal distributed markets that function through households, extended families, clans and communities.

Lack of markets is provoking all these questions. Following a bumper harvest in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, local communities are stuck with tons of commodities while local people continue to consume commodities from other countries or urban centres. For instance, many communities have tons of small grains like finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum yet industrially-produced opaque beer flows from urban centres to rural business centres when local resources badly need value addition into local beer and other products. This practice is also sweeping away the little cash available in rural communities back to urban centres. The good thing is that communities are beginning to revive their relationships through which to sell commodities. ICTs are empowering these processes to by-pass formal markets. This is also releasing pressure from formal and urban informal markets which can no longer cope with the influx of commodities following a bumper harvest.  Commodities shared through these relationships include pumpkins, sweet reeds, vegetables and livestock breeds.

Using relationships to build resilient socio-economic strategies

Embedding rural economies and enterprises into the money economy has weakened local communities where commodities were previously used to obtain knowledge, skills and services like labour. Unfortunately, a few commodities being produced under contract farming models cannot be used as currency in cases where money is not available. For instance, a farmer cannot pay for labour through bales of tobacco because workers prefer money even if it is not readily available. On the other hand, farmers are compelled to put their best resources (soil, water & time) to a few contracted commodities.

Models that were built through relationships should be revived so that commercial models can ride on these. Most SMEs that are now producing agricultural tools like ploughs and hoes acquired their skills from indigenous knowledge systems. This knowledge has moved to growth points and urban centres.  Modern grinding mills were inspired by traditional grinding stones, mortar and pestle whose evolution can be traced to gender-informed traditional value addition practices.  All this knowledge is on the verge of extinction, in the name of modernization. It should be captured and recognized as an economic driver for rural industrialization and development.  / /

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How informal food markets disrupt and correct the notion of staple foods

For a very long time, each country has had what it considered a staple food for its citizens.  However, climate change, globalization and changes in consumption patterns are disrupting traditional staple foods. My word web describes staple food as a necessary commodity for which demand is constant. Rather than continue promoting a few staple commodities, countries are being forced to think in terms of broad nutritional food baskets. A major question is: How can developing countries tap into the resilience and flexibility of smallholder farmers, traders and informal markets to build nutritional security for the next generation?how-informal-food-markets-disrupt-and-correct-the-notion-of-staple-foods

Mobilizing, redistributing and rationalizing nutritional baskets

One of the most under-estimated virtues of African informal agriculture markets is their capacity to harness the convening power of urban centres to pull together food baskets from diverse farming areas. As each informal market breaks bulk it mixes and matches commodities according to diverse nutritional needs. For instance, in Zimbabwe, commodities travel in bulk from Mbare market in Harare to Malaleni in Bulawayo where the local market consolidates food baskets for local consumers. This mixing and matching role needs to be fully understood because it influences consumption patterns.

When the consumer budget is strained, some commodities are rejected. This is how commodities are given weight in terms of whether they are necessities or luxuries.  For instance, luxuries like carrots, peas and cauliflower can sometimes be forgone in preference for tomatoes and leafy vegetables.  A necessity is hardly substituted fully and that is why a tomato is always in the market because it is a necessity. For those that are considered necessities, when demand is high, prices tend to be high due to an intrinsic tendency by consumers to have an appetite for them. Lettuce, carrots, peas and fine beans are not produced in large quantities because they are sometimes considered luxuries not necessities.  Unfortunately, while these are highly perishable, most countries have not developed appropriate preservation methods for them, besides putting in the fridge (which in some cases affects taste).

The market as a nutrition basket and how it responds to seasonality

In much of Southern Africa, food crops start flowing into informal food markets as from January all the way to July.  This period accommodates 90% of commodities and their varieties.  The diversity covers field crops, staple foods, cash crops, fish, eggs, varieties of meat, legumes and small grains.  After harvesting, around March and April or May, farmers re-allocate their time from field crops to horticulture, poultry and fish farming, among other critical socio-economic activities. They start producing tomatoes and all kinds of vegetables.  As the winter season comes to an end and water becomes low, farmers switch to commodities like carrots, peas and broccoli which do not occupy large spaces and use less water.

While seasonal changes influence the demand and supply of different commodities, winter tends to have the biggest variety of commodities which translate to better nutrition. Consumers consciously decide what they can eat in the cold season.  In winter Mondays, consumers take advantage of low prices to buy in bulk and avoid braving the winter cold going to the market.  However, during the hot season, they can buy in small batches because trips to the market may not be affected by the weather. When bulk buyers come to the market once a week, commodity prices tend to be reduced during the middle of the week.

Commodities like avocadoes, bananas and other fruits that are ripened on-farm or at the market ripen at a slower pace during the cold season and this affects the rate at which they enter the market.  It is said sugar in these commodities influence the speed of ripening because sugar hastens fermentation processes which also influence taste. The cold season is also characterized by a broader nutrition basket comprising tsanga midzi, garlic, mhiripiri, lemon, magaka, masawu, tsunga vegetable, a wide range of fruits, zviyo porridge and other foods that are traditionally believed to cushion people against cold. The supply of chickens and eggs tend to be low during winter because chickens do not eat or drink a lot during this period compared to other seasons. With increasing awareness, consumer choices are influenced by nutrition although income is another determinant.

Knowledge as a builder and conveyor of nutrition baskets

Farmers who bring commodities to informal markets make it a point to speak to consumers so that they fully understand market requirements. Sharing knowledge makes it possible for them to become aware where tomatoes are being produced in abundance so that they decide to change to other commodities rather than going back home to produce what other areas are producing better and in more volumes. That is how knowledge becomes a builder and conveyor of nutrition baskets. During winter, most smart farmers who participate in the market acquire knowledge which they use to plan for the next season’s winter production. They get to learn what type of commodity to grow and when?

Exchange of nutritional knowledge is also high during this period. Nutritional knowledge is associated with commodities and source areas. Each commodity has nutritional explanations from the areas where it is produced and used for subsistence. That knowledge is extended to the market and becomes a Unique Selling Proposition for particular commodities. On the other hand, the diversity of commodities on the market compels consumers to rationalize their budgets and pick commodities through nutritional lenses.  They try to ensure their budgets accommodate fruits, vegetables, tubers, field crops – building a complete nutrition basket. In most cases they do it unconsciously without knowing specific nutrition elements or vitamins in their choice of commodities.

The power of gathering evidence

Continuous evidence gathering is critical for identifying and updating nutrition basket drivers from various climatic regions. Such evidence should be built into models and investment plans towards national nutrition security reserves. Just as African countries build food reserves in the form of maize silos, they need to focus on building reserves of other nutritional components in order to balance the national nutrition equation. Continuous maize production and consumption exacerbates nutritional challenges. Up to date evidence can enable increasing the shelf life and consistency in the supply of nutritional commodities. Ultimately, it should be possible to build an all year round nutritional basket.

Financing should be tailored accordingly rather than congesting funding in a few commodities in ways that skew the national nutritional balance.  This big picture can only result from connecting the dots. To the extent that focus on value chains results in all support going to a few value chains, transformative agriculture can result from a unified nutritional basket framework approach. That way, financial institutions move from financing over-subscribed value chains like sugar beans, soya bean, tobacco, maize, cotton and sugar cane to funding elements of a nutritional basket based on gaps in the nutritional framework.  Growing cash crops like tobacco and cotton in order to supplement missing nutritional elements is not sustainable partly because it is impossible for such measures to sustainably fill all nutritional gaps, some of which can easily be met locally.  / /

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Learning from Invisible CoPs: The role of informal actors and relationships in African food systems


Climate change-induced food insecurity and global socio-economic instability compels us to continuously revisit   food demand and supply models, especially in developing countries. Conventional approaches like the notion of formal value chains are no longer enough to fully understand food systems. In many African countries, it seems invisible Communities of Practice (CoPs) such as informal markets offer new pathways of forging new relationships and interpreting realities around food. Rather than present food as a mere market commodity, these CoPs demonstrate the extent to which food is linked to people’s identities. On the other hand, modern value chain approaches seem limited to the economic sense and tend to over-simplify soft issues like knowledge, trust and relationships. Yet in most African informal markets, knowledge sharing adds more value than processing commodities into finished products. By fostering knowledge exchange between different commodities and people, informal markets build national food baskets supported by different food sources and values.


However, we cannot talk about food demand and supply models without mentioning the convening power of cities and urbanization. African cities like Harare, Lusaka, Nairobi, Maputo, Kampala, Kigali, Accra, Lagos, Addis Ababa, Lilongwe and Johanesburg, to mention just a few, provide larger ecosystems in which CoPs innovate, mingle, share and combine ideas from different vantage points and traditions. These cities draw together key sectors and economic drivers such as producers, transporters, buyers, processors, input suppliers, development agencies and government departments. Important players in this nexus are rural councils which are also contending with rapid urbanization.


KM4Dev gathering: Harare – 25 – 26th July 2017

Knowledge Transfer Africa (www.knowledgetransafrica / and its partners will be convening a Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) gathering in Harare (25 – 26 July 2017). The event seeks to inspire various actors and disciplines to engage and learn from the practices of informal food CoPs that connect production areas with urban consumers. While relationship-based food demand and supply models are increasing in many developing countries, lack of coherent knowledge pathways limits the extent to which these CoPs can influence development practice, theory and national food policies. Part of what remains unknown and unappreciated are informal food CoPs’ motivations, dynamic practices and contribution to regional and international food systems as well as the role of cities in food demand and supply.


From farmers to consumers or end-users, more than 70 percent of African food passes through informal food CoPs in informal markets based in cities. These CoPs and markets have become powerful sources of knowledge for farmers, traders and other actors. During the Harare KM4Dev gathering, participants will be immersed in Mbare Informal food market in Harare where more than a dozen knowledge pathways have been identified: farmer to farmer; farmer to trader; trader to farmer; trader to trader; farmer to transporter; transporter to farmer; trader to transporter; consumer to farmer; consumer to trader; trader to financier and many others. The event hopes to generate reflections and answers to the following questions:


  • How do informal food CoPs respond to the needs of diverse consumers and knowledge seekers?
  • What could be the potential role of culture and cities in shaping food demand and supply models?
  • To what extent do existing theoretical approaches and concepts around food speak to the peculiar roles of informal food CoPs, urban centres and traders?
  • How do informal food CoPs and traders negotiate power and neutralize the politics of food?
  • How can the development sector harness informal knowledge sharing pathways that are used by the majority of African food producers and suppliers to make decisions?
  • What can we learn from the way knowledge travels through cities and informal food supply models?
  • How can we recognize invisible CoPs that make informal agriculture markets resilient?
  • How can we use the KM4Dev toolkit and other approaches to learn from the informal food market?


When the event is over, our collective achievements should include the following:

  • We will have discovered new and immediately useful sources of agricultural knowledge that is all around us.
  • We will have explored and applied the Wenger-Trayner value creation framework with a local knowledge perspective.
  • We will have explored the role of cities in empowering the participation of CoPs in food supply and demand models.
  • We will have inspired new theories and interpretations of the social, economic, ethical, cultural and political characteristics of food systems.


Event Structure

Day 1: 25 July 2017

  • Introductions and why we are hear –  Charles Dhewa
  • Learning visit to Mbare Informal Agricultural People’s market.
  • Experiences from Uganda – John Kaganga
  • Experiences from Zambia – Lutangu Mukuti
  • Test-drive Wenger-Trayner Value Creation framework


Day 2: 26th July 2017

  • Recap of Day 1
  • The role of urban centres in food distribution and economic development – Mr Livison Mutekede, Secretary General – Urban Councils Association of Zimbabwe (UCAZ)
  • Small grains value chains video – KTA and IMC- BEEP
  • Story-telling (weaving food stories and local music) – Renowned Poet and Story teller: Chirikure Chirikure and Mbira music from local female Mbira musician – Hope Masike; story about how the local Mbira music.
  • The notion of Knowledge Cities and Knowledge Societies – Catherine Piloto and Charles Dhewa
  • How Big Data and Social Media can surface knowledge in Informal Agriculture markets – Open Space Discussion led by the African Capacity Building Foundation.
  • Tying loose ends and conclusions.




Monomotapa Crown Plaza Hotel, Harare –


For more information:

Charles Dhewa

Chief Executive Officer

Knowledge Transfer Africa (KTA)

Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/712 737 430

Email: / ?

Website: /  Skype: charles.dhewa

How market price is not a major determinant of profit in agribusiness

A keen interest by African farmers to know the price of commodities on the market is understandable. However, tracking activities in informal agricultural markets by eMKambo over the past few years has proved that price is not a major determinant of profit-making in agribusiness. Profit-making is a result of creatively managing production costs, quality, losses and aggregating commodities.  The market is always available, usually with set prices.  It is about how a farmer’s commodity becomes competitive per given price. As an ecosystem, the market is a collection of many factors including ideas and

Converting resources into dollars and cents

Profitability is about converting water, soil and labour into commodities that give you dollars and cents.  Farmers should figure out best ways of converting their knowledge into products. Indigenous knowledge has to be embedded in competitive commodities not just price on the market. Price is just an expectation guide. A good price may mean nothing if a farmer has already incurred losses. Approaching agriculture from the market’s big picture provides a growth pattern that can enable farmers to make choices within available resources. Informed by the big picture, farmers can choose to diversify into high value crops.

The market also shows who else is producing what a farmer is trying to produce and the number of players involved. Such intelligence will avoid the band wagon effect where farmers get into the same commodity irrespective of competitive advantage. Unless farmers track their commodities, it is difficult to intelligently plan and project outcomes on the market. Trends surrounding a farmer’s particular commodities can provide an idea on how the farmer can adjust costs and quality in line with his/her resources. The market provides a general map and guidance that empowers a farmer to make intelligent choices.

The power of understanding competition dynamics

Where the market segments commodities into 1st price, 2nd price and 3rd price, farmers have to fit their commodities in those price parameters. While lack of organized production in the whole agricultural sector can be beyond an individual farmer’s influence, commercially-minded farmers should make an effort to understand supply levels and competition dynamics in the market. It is also important for farmers to know other competitive forces outside their commodities. For any given commodity volume, price might fall or increase not due to gluts or shortages but due to new entrants and exits in the market that either stretch or release the market budget.  For instance, if U$500 000 is circulating for given volumes of commodities in the market and one commodity, accounting for 5% cash in circulation, moves out of the market, it means the same budget begins to cover fewer commodities.  On the other hand, if for the same amount of cash in circulation, a new commodity enters the market, the budget in circulation is stretched in ways that translate to less demand for other commodities.

Buying power is determined by the influx and withdrawal of various commodities. Unlike the situation with mono crops like tobacco which do not have substitutes and whose price is determined by demand and supply only, in informal markets more than 70 commodities can substitute each other. For instance, following a good rainfall season, besides maize, other commodities like sweet potatoes and groundnuts start competing with maize. An increase in sweet potatoes means people will eat less porridge which is a derivative of maize.  Sweet potatoes, pumpkins and cow peas all compete with maize.

Matching standards with market expectations

Farmers can also reduce losses through market-oriented production calendars that inform them when to produce. Understanding market standards and expectations also reduces losses. It is usually through a mismatch between market standards and expectations that farmers lose out.  Another key issue is grading. If farmers do not understand commodity grades and how to aggregate their commodities, they end up depending on the market’s umbrella decisions about quality and other critical factors. When well-informed, farmers can be able to grade appropriately and push medium to high quality commodities to the market while low quality commodities can be re-purposed for livestock and other uses.

Consistency in production and supply is also a very important factor. It is not possible for a commodity to perform well throughout the season. Farmers should specialize on at least three commodities in order to spread their risk.  That way there are 60% chances of getting better prices.  A strong relationship with the market can also be cultivated as farmers become famous for being consistent suppliers. Traders do not often want to waste time and resources looking for new suppliers. Commodities destined for the market face competition, based on factors like price, buyers, standards and specifications. When producing for the market, farmers should make sure the best resources are devoted in order to satisfy customers’ value for money. It is unlike when farmers are producing for satisfying their own household tastes. Consumers have competing forces on their budgets.  Why should a consumer buy your sweet potatoes instead of bread?  / /

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