Translating common sense into agribusiness models

Knowledge generation and sharing has been happening in every community since time immemorial. However, there has not been enough recognition of the way knowledge is structured from individual knowledge to household knowledge to community knowledge and to inter-community knowledge sharing. The way most African communities engage with knowledge is different from academic learning where one can read and write and one plus one equals two. Local community knowledge is a mixture of real time experiences and wisdom such that one plus one can equal to three or four.

emkamboReciprocal knowledge sharing

At community level, knowledge is dispersed among many people and situations in ways that make it challenging to measure the amount of knowledge held by individuals or communities. Someone knowledgeable about something is not sure whether people in need of knowledge are in grade one or at secondary level in terms of their knowledge requirements. Usually community knowledge sharing is driven by common interests, trust and relationships. That is why some knowledge is left alone and not shared while some is shared under restrictions. In most African agrarian communities, knowledge sharing has a reciprocity tendency characterized by receiving and giving.  Some of the knowledge is locked in existing Communities of Practice (CoPs) due to absence mechanisms and systems through which trust and relationships can be built for anchoring a system of reciprocity.

When does knowledge become common sense? 

In most cases, this process begins as hidden or private knowledge generation and gets to a stage where it is shared through trust and relationships.  In some cases it starts as gossip, shared through a trusted grapevine before it is accepted as reality.  It also begins as individual knowledge and eventually moves to become community knowledge on the way to becoming common sense.  The longer it circulates in a community the more it is validated and improved. The knowledge assumes a common sense identity because it is a community resource used by everyone in the community. However, the notion of common sense versus knowledge is subjective because what is common sense to someone is knowledge to someone else. That is why understanding knowledge gaps is very important.

What is common to a livestock community can be valuable knowledge to a community that thrives on crops. That is why a knowledge broker is important in addressing cases where a community may undervalue its knowledge on the pretext that such knowledge has become common sense to community members. Many people do not see their common sense or knowledge as a strength. In these situations, the role of the broker is to identify knowledge gaps and be on the lookout for cases where communities ignore their own knowledge in search of outside knowledge whose efficacy has not been tested locally.

Common sense building blocks

Each community has its knowledge reserves which determines how local people grow crops, rear livestock, co-exist with nature and cope with a changing climate. Much of the knowledge is intuitive and cannot be explained academically. Unfortunately, current community development models start by searching for hidden community aspects when they should start from what is common in a community, for instance, relationships and collective wisdom. External knowledge should be sought when local knowledge has been used to lay the foundation.  When building a house, you start with mobilizing local resources such as rocks, sand, water and other resources before looking for tiles which are not found locally. One of the main challenges is lack of structured knowledge sharing conduits from grassroots to policy levels.  As a result, useful hidden knowledge remains invisible to many actors.

Agricultural common sense

The production of some agricultural commodities in many developing countries is now based on common sense. Such commodities include necessities and staple foods like grains (maize, sorghum, millet, rice, etc.,.), vegetables (leafy vegetables and tomatoes), tubers (sweet potatoes, yams, cassava and taro), livestock (goats, cattle, pigs, rabbits, poultry and others). Producing these commodities has become common knowledge such that producers can now learn from each other. Anyone interested in producing any of these can find more information in less than 30 minutes.  From a marketing perspective, most farmers know price ranges of these commodities and can make choices in line with available resources. Given the ubiquitous nature of the knowledge, producers should be allowed to see knowledge for themselves rather continue to be spoon-fed. The only difficulty requiring some bit of sophisticated knowledge can be timing of production and marketing, especially peak market periods because these are often externally-driven and require knowledge replenishment.

Where knowledge could still be lacking is in the production, utilization and marketing of high value commodities such as peas, squash butternuts, apples, gooseberries, mushroom and other knowledge-intensive commodities. Some producers could still be unsure about the differences between butternuts and pumpkins or the nutritional value of peas, among others. What also determines the commonness of knowledge is the fact that some high value crops are not produced everywhere but in specific regions or conditions like greenhouses that are not common to every producer. It means knowledge associated with these commodities will remain uncommon. Yet tomatoes, poultry and beef can almost be found everywhere, making their knowledge common sense.

The power of knowledge-driven classification

eMKambo has figured out that one way of differentiating public agricultural knowledge from commercial knowledge is fully understanding the demand side. From eMKambo experiences, a farmer looking for price information is new to the game. The one who asks for market trends is at another level.  At another level is the one who asks for business plans. Another category is interested in export markets.  This categorization reveals the extent to which the notion of common knowledge or common sense is subjective and depends on context.

Taking matters to the next level, eMKambo has designed a classification system that gives knowledge weights based on a number of factors including: (a) startups (those actors entering the value chain for the first time); (b) those who need information for decision-making, either for entering or leaving a value chain, (c) those focusing on the growth of their businesses, (d) those who need knowledge for policy review, (e) those who need knowledge for buttressing their competitiveness in a particular niche, and (f) professionals who want to improve their expertise in the business instead of leaving everything to workers. The classification goes on to seek answers to questions such as: For whom are you seeking knowledge? Have you recently retired and now seeking knowledge that will strengthen your agricultural practice as a new career path?  Do you want knowledge that will position you as a versatile budding entrepreneur?  Are you keen on knowledge that you can use for advocacy purposes?  More answers will be generated through the forthcoming master-classes –

The value of consolidating common sense and knowledge at community level

Traditionally, African communities had ways of classifying knowledge that informed criteria for measuring knowledge in the community. Roles and responsibilities were based on understanding knowledge classes and patterns. That is why someone good with livestock was known in the whole community. In the current digital era, digitizing local knowledge without building local common sense and knowledge blocks is half the solution. Besides risking the privatization of local knowledge, digitizing community knowledge into mobile application may de-contextualize it if the human factor is removed from the process. Common sense has to be contextualized through knowledge centres where it can move fast to where it is needed.

For community knowledge to remain common sense, digitization has to be based on common sense blocks which determine different knowledge levels. Having built its own knowledge base, a community can seek external knowledge to complement what exists. Climate change should not be introduced as a community project because outsiders cannot bring solutions. It is better to help communities to manage their own climate knowledge in ways that build their capacity to select what is useful. African communities are losing a lot of their common sense which comes back as new knowledge. This is happening mainly because knowledge champions in each generation disappear before their experiences are captured, archived our turned into community rituals and practices.

In a community of 6000 people, it is important to classify existing knowledge in order to avoid sending the same electronic message or piece of knowledge to everyone. Each community comprises people at different knowledge stages. Some are retired headmasters and professionals who need different knowledge from ordinary farmers whose literacy levels may be low. Unfortunately, African mobile service providers and technologists are not investing in proper segmentation so that content and knowledge sharing can be properly tailored. Everyone continues to be subjected to the same short message service irrespective of cognitive level and needs, merely because they have a mobile number.  / /

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

Increasing odds of success through characterizing value chain actors

A fine-grained view of agricultural opportunities in most developing countries can result from better  characterization of value chain actors such as farmers. In addition to revealing interdependencies between value chain actors, a nuanced understanding of African agriculture can foster dynamic resource allocation. However, accurate farmer characterization remains a pain in the Palahuru for financiers and policy makers – making it difficult to identify unmet needs and spot new opportunities.


A hard-boiled look at farmer characterization

Competitive pressure in agricultural markets is making it clear that characterizing farmers in terms of farm sizes or types of commodities is no longer enough. For instance, the market can show the extent to which some farmers use agriculture as a stop-gap measure for supplementing their incomes while others use agriculture as retirement backwaters. Many young people use agriculture as a stop gap measure while looking for formal employment. A number of pensioners are willing to retire into agriculture although they may lack the required knowledge and experience. On the other hand, some formerly employed people use agriculture as a fall-back position to supplement their low incomes.

A more reliable category comprises professional farmers who are in it for the long haul and use agriculture as their source of livelihood. Women farmers are another category but these often have unique driving forces for getting into agriculture. Some are widows who are forced by circumstances beyond their control to take farming as a source of livelihood.  Other women use agriculture to supplement their incomes but have no control over resources because the husband may be the one who has put finance. Another category of farmers hold onto the land for hereditary purposes and can keep a few cattle just to be seen to be doing something.  Some of them have children in the diaspora who support them.


Economic hardships have forced many African formally employed professionals into freelance farming. Financial institutions prefer extending agricultural loans to these part-time farmers who can use their payslips as a guarantor. These farmers do not use their farming business as collateral because financial institutions are more attracted to payslips. However, this practice denies agricultural finance to full time farmers who take it as a profession. Since they no longer have payslips, most pensioners do not get agricultural loans. Pensioners who have acquired houses as part of their life saving hesitate to use their houses as collateral, afraid they may lose what they have worked for all their lives.

On the other hand, youths who are keen to take farming as a career path lack instruments that can be used to measure their commitment to agriculture. Those who are luck can use their parents as guarantors. Another category that is on the increase include Africans in the diaspora who want to invest in agriculture. This group has financial resources but lack implementers on the ground. They cannot contract other farmers to farm on their behalf.  Having already invested in residential properties, this group wants seriously invest in agriculture but there are no clear mechanisms in which they can access land.

Unanswered questions from the market

In the absence of clear characterization, agricultural markets will continue struggling to fully understand diverse categories of farmers. When the market fails to tell which farmer category is in the market for the long haul and who is an opportunist, it becomes difficult to build sustainable agribusiness models and concrete knowledge. Some farmers with predatory market participation tendencies, especially those with other sources of income, can dump commodities in the market without waiting for better prices. For such farmers, cost benefit analysis is not between the cost of production and the selling price but what the individual wants to do, for instance, quickly depositing a stand or flying out to the diaspora.

Some of the big questions being asked by the market include: What motivates different people to get into farming? Is it free inputs, good prices on the market, passion, utilizing land, livelihood requirements or opportunity-taking (trying some luck in farming)? Is it a last resort or what?  Unfortunately, most farmers do not reveal reasons why they get into agriculture. Some get into agriculture because they have been retrenched and cannot get formal employment.  Another puzzle is where some farmers get into the market pretending to be part of the value chain for a long time yet they want to get quick money and disappear.

Limitations of ‘prostitute’ farming

The market does not want to relate with producers and traders in unpredictable ways. That is why it has a way of punishing pretenders. Upon getting into the market, farmers soon realize that the market has several ways of finding out why you are here, where you are coming from and for how long you want to play in the market? How do you balance formal employment and agriculture?  The more value chain actors open up, the better it becomes to understand market behavior.  Unfortunately, many farmers suffer from a bandwagon effect where they continuously follow commodities that are seem to be earning more at particular times. Such ‘prostitute’ farming is not sustainable and disrupts the smooth functioning of markets. In fact, market failure is often caused by actors who embrace a bandwagon effect where they take resources from agricultural markets to other sectors.  If you take $5000 from the food market and put it into the clothing business, you are depriving the food market of money that should be supporting and sustaining the agricultural ecosystem.


Register for eMKambo Masterclasses – First Session :  / /

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

eMKambo Masterclasses – First Session

As agricultural niches become congested and highly competitive, evidence-based decision making has never been so important. It is against these trends that eMKambo ( will be conducting a series of master classes to answer the following questions:

  1. How can farmers and other value chain actors set prices for their commodities without passing through a complex web of intermediaries? From price takers to price setters.
  2. How can new value chain actors by-pass hurdles and insert themselves in existing value chains and ecosystems?
  3. How can smallholder farmers and other value chain actors build self-sufficiency?
  4. How can farmers enter and exit contract farming models towards self-sufficiency?
  5. How can digital technologies be used to harness the competitive intelligence dispersed among diverse value chain actors?

Register for eMKambo Masterclasses – First Session :


For more information and bookings, get in touch through the following channels:  – +263 772 137 717  – +263 772 137 768 – + 263 772137771

Overcoming the limitations of membership based organizations

Like other arrangements that make sense on the surface, African agriculture and rural development efforts are characterized by membership-based organizations. These range from farmer unions and diverse sizes of cooperatives to chambers of commerce. While coming together for collective bargaining purposes makes a lot of sense, members should be aware of several blind spots. After many years of existence, some African agricultural membership-based organizations are beginning to realize that success is no longer just about achieving high yields and winning prizes at agricultural shows. It is becoming more about adaptation and resilience.


That calls for more investment in actionable knowledge in order to overcome assumptions that keep popping up. For instance, a membership focus assumes farmers have the same needs. That results in too much pressure being exerted on the organization with everyone expecting it to provide all the answers.  This creates a dependency syndrome where members expect the organization to look for the market, finance and meet individual requirements of each member. Besides limiting innovation, over-reliance on a membership organization reduces individual members’ creative potential. Most agricultural membership-based organizations struggle to adequately address different needs of their members.  For instance, farmers at various levels of production capacity and experience receive the same short message service through the same channel, irrespective of commodity complexities.


Over-reliance on the secretariat

Agricultural membership organizations also tend to over-depend on the secretariat. There is an assumption that the secretariat has all the knowledge yet the most important knowledge and experience is   dispersed among individual members. This is worsened by the fact that most farmer organizations do not adequately characterize farmers by capacity, age, gender, experience, knowledge and other important parameters which should inform targeted service delivery. As a result, information is not properly characterized to meet different needs. In terms of matching services to farming regions, there is also too much generalization of information yet members in high rainfall areas have different needs and experience from those in low rainfall areas.

Lack of growth paths

In addition, most membership based organizations do not have growth paths or weaning strategies which should see members graduating into some kind of upward social mobility.  New members need different knowledge and capacity from the old members. There should be a knowledge-driven graduation mechanism.  Membership should not just be subscription based. In the absence of clear focus, most farmer unions have limited knowledge sharing platforms that take into account members’ different stages.  Consequently, many farmers waste time in training programmes that are not relevant to their context.

 Potential role in aggregating commodities

The most important role that can be fulfilled by agricultural-based membership organizations is aggregating diverse commodities and looking for markets to support economies of scale. That should be the basis of organized production and meeting supply requirements of different specific markets.  When properly organized, farmer unions should be able to quickly see commodity over-supply, shortages and gluts in their members. They should also be able to build business models together with financial institutions in ways that reveal appropriate collateral.  Business models should be the ones constituting collateral as opposed to individual assets. Farmer unions should also assist in national data and evidence collection through profiling each member adequately.  If 70% of farmers are members of farmer unions, information on production, household consumption, sales and surplus for the market should be readily available.  Simple tools for collecting data should be introduced as part of knowledge management.

Combining a membership drive with market-driven models that take into account food security could be the right approach in the new economy.  Ultimately, membership organizations should be able to open local, regional and international markets. Rather than leaving everything to local authorities, farmer unions should mobilize resources for building market infrastructure that can benefit their members.  That is how a warehouse receipt system can become easy to establish, with members gaining capacity to set up business models for particular commodities.  Farmer unions should also be able to support commodity exchanges between their members in different regions – livestock from Gwanda with Potatoes from Nyanga.

Challenges with the proliferation of farmer unions

In Zimbabwe and other developing countries, the proliferation of farmer unions has destroyed the natural culture of communities of practice.  Due to poor characterization, different classes of farmers are found in all farmer unions where benefits are not properly customized. This is mimicking the break down between retailing and wholesaling that has become common place over the past decades.  Ideally, there should be a transition mechanism that allows members to graduate from one farmer organization to another or from one chamber of commerce to another at a higher level.  That way, clustering becomes easy.  It is counter-productive to have four or five farmer unions scrambling for members in one community.  Given that members in the same community often have the same characteristics, existence of many farmer unions creates silos.  In such situations, a membership focus fragments commodities and makes it difficult to aggregate commodities for the market.  It also fuels disorganized production and information asymmetry.  Farmer unions should work together in consolidating curricular informed by reliable farmer characterization.

Towards appropriate funding models

When agricultural membership organizations are properly organized, it should be possible to come up with appropriate funding models where funders work directly with farmer organizations in a revolving fund scheme with local banks as fund managers.  Rather than the current scenario where individual farmers hassle with banks to access finance, farmer organizations should become guarantors whose role is to vet and recommend their members for funding. In the absence of diverse ways of characterizing farmers and articulating value, financial institutions fail to see the folly of using a farmer’s house worth $100 000 as collateral when the farmer only wants to plant a hectare with inputs worth less than $5000.  A business plan should be enough to unlock finance as opposed to irrelevant requirements.  Membership based organizations should enable financial institutions to experiment with diverse progressive models.

Turning agricultural shows into marketing shows

If African agricultural membership organizations were really strong, they would turn national agricultural shows into marketing events as opposed to events where big businesses show their hitech machinery whose price is beyond smallholder farmers. Rather than being a mere window showing what countries are producing, agricultural shows should be marketing shows for diverse buyers who can place orders. Show-casing is not enough without focusing on marketable products, volumes, capacity to supply and price negotiations where diverse buyers can bid for commodities. It does not help to show agricultural commodities when the majority of farmers are stuck with commodities and do not have money in their pockets.

African smallholder farmers have a lot of unanswered questions. Each community has lived with more questions than answers for decades. There are also numerous partial answers which do not provide a complete picture. Data can assist in pointing out trends and minimize cases where potential investors and value chain actors get lost in the weeds. To avoid the scourge of unsolicited messages, agricultural knowledge has to be demand-driven. A lot of farmer statistics and profiles should be collected and consolidated in order to improve characterization.  / /

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