African food systems: a dance between luxuries and necessities

eMKambo has been in African food markets long enough to notice some invisible patterns that should be known to farmers, financiers, development agencies and policy makers. The new generation of consumers’ tastes and preferences are increasingly defining the extent to which a commodity remains a luxury or becomes a necessity. While tomatoes and leafy vegetables have always been necessities, soft drinks like Coke were a luxury. Mazoe orange crush was mainly for sick people so that they regain strengths. However, these are some of the commodities that have become necessities consumed together with fresh potato chips and chicken, almost daily.


The potato and how it has transitioned into a staple

In several African countries, the Irish potato has become a staple with many consumers now demanding consistent supply at affordable prices.  Consumers are also demanding opportunities to taste different varieties. For instance, Zimbabwe now has diverse potato varieties such as BP1, Mondial, Valor, Mnandi, Amatheyst and others.  The transition of potato from a luxury to a necessity has been driven first by consumer tastes and preferences.  An increase in demand, mostly from the new generation of consumers who frequent fast food outlets, lured more farmers into producing the crop. The increase in demand also pushed up prices which became an incentive for more farmers to join the bandwagon. In the past five years, the price of a 15kg pocket of potatoes in Zimbabwe reached $13 with the lowest price being $6.

From special events to households

The potato has also moved from being a special events commodity to household consumption.  As more farmers were attracted to potato as a lucrative commodity, the knowledge around potato production also increased. However, as with any other commodity, demand does not always continue to increase but reaches a ceiling before it starts to go down and eventually stabilize. For instance, over the past season in Zimbabwe, there have been signs of potato reaching a stagnant price (average of $3/pocket) while production has continued to increase.  As a result there has been an outcry as farmers wanted to sell small grades at $5, medium grades $6 and large grades $7, prices which the market was resisting.

Since potato has become a staple necessity, consumers want to buy enough for a whole month and that means it has to have its own market where it can be found all the time. Farmers also expect prices to stabilize so that almost everyone can afford it. This is compelling farmers to think of making profit on volume and consistent supply as opposed to increasing prices. When the market sets demand and quantities required, farmers have to adjust and align their production and operational costs with demand trends.  Unfortunately, having acquired knowledge and invested in the entire system, farmers struggle to quickly adjust their costs of production.

The main advantage when a commodity becoming a staple is that farmers are assured of a ready market that supports sustainable production. That means they have to focus on managing their costs and quality instead of continuing to chase high prices. It becomes easy to plan. For instance, a farmer can aim for $2 profit per 15kg pocket.  To remain in the game, farmers have to maintain a certain level of production in line with demand.  That is why data collection from the entire market is critical. Fortunately, potato is not highly perishable and requires less intensive levels of knowledge, attention and work load.

Sweet potato

With the right support, sweet potato could go hand in hand with potato with which it has almost the same benefits. Unfortunately, its value addition options like chips, flour or drinks have not been developed.  African countries have not invested in the science that would enable profitable value adding of sweet potato into a profitable commodity. African researchers have been trying to adopt chips making technology from the West. Lack of value addition prospects means sweet potato remains a seasonal commodity. A broader market for other uses that would trigger demand all year round is yet to be cultivated. When processed or value added, sweet potato can offer more value and create employment as well as ensure more income for the economy. Where there is no value addition, government does not get value added tax while raw consumption shortens the chain. A commodity should exhaust is full potential along the value chain unlike removing it before it passes through all stages of the chain.

 Luxuries like peas, peppers, carrots and others

A luxury like peas has a niche market and tries to maximize its profit through high prices whereas a staple like maize grain or potato maximizes its profits through high volumes. On the other hand, price elasticity is very high for luxuries. When a box of peas is going for $10, a 50% price increase drives the price to $15/box which can trigger a 50% reduction in demand.  However, for a pocket of potatoes costing $3, a 50% price increase pushes the cost to just $4/pocket which may not induce a high reduction in demand. Consumers may not mind a $1 increase.  Farmers can also plan their production accordingly.

Most luxuries tend to be on the side plate because their main role is to add flavor to food whereas a staple like potato is a whole meal and can constitute 90% of the meal.  Luxuries like cucumber, chilli pepper, ginger and garlic are additives bought in small quantities. That is why farmers cannot do a lucrative business growing chilli pepper. A family can spent more than three months consuming 50c worth of chilli pepper. In some households only the father or mother may consume ginger or garlic while the whole household consumes potatoes and tomatoes. Given available land and other resources in African countries, it is uneconomic to specialize on luxuries like carrots, beetroot and pepper. For sustainability, farmers have to consider green mealies, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes, onions and other necessities that are demanded in large volumes.

Multipurpose influence

Multipurpose use also influences the classification of commodities into luxuries or necessities. For instance potato has diverse by-products like crisps, fresh chips, mashed potatoes, potato salad and potato seed while high value crops like carrots and garlic have no meaningful by-products. While necessities are always in demand, consumers can shift away from luxuries when there are challenges like loss of income. Just as farmers prioritize household food security before thinking about surplus for the market, urban households prioritize necessities like cooking oil, salt, sugar, mealie meal or potatoes.  Everything else is a luxury.

In a changing climate characterized by drought and unreliable rainfall patterns, luxury commodities tend to be pushed out.  There is often more demand than supply of basic necessities like maize, triggering price increase and forcing households to forego luxuries.  If maize prices increase, spaghetti is sacrificed for rice and other closer necessities.  Some commodities will be pushed to luxuries due to pressure on the budget.  For instance, meat consumption may become spaced, replaced by Kapenta, for instance.

The production of necessities tends to be negatively affected by high cost of inputs. Famers have to produce in large volumes in order to enjoy economies of scale. Ideally, smallholder farmers on small pieces of land ranging from 0.5 to 6ha should not produce potatoes but leave it to those with bigger pieces of land while they try a mix of some staples and high value crops like okra and others. However, when they produce potatoes for their own consumption, they help in controlling the price of potatoes on the market by becoming consumers. They can complement volumes produced by large farmers. The only reason some farmers are producing additives like cucumber is because production costs tend to be low.

Squash butternut

This crop has not yet become a necessity but is somewhere in the middle. Its production knowledge is still slightly specialized and varieties are still fewer.  It is not yet grown in all areas and has fewer uses. In the market, it can rarely be in gluts to a point of being sold at $5/60kg bag called a Sasseka in Zimbabwe. There are also times when butternut can be out-maneuvered by gourds and pumpkins which do not have high production costs and are not highly knowledge intensive. These commodities tend to keep butternuts on the periphery.  Butternut is also more of an additive consumed with rice, usually at special events.

Meat and eggs

Most of the meats like beef and chicken have become necessities in many African countries. Initially prices were very high to the extent of luring more farmers into producing beef, chicken and piggery.  In Zimbabwe, a broiler was at one time going for $10 but can now be found at $4 – $6 because producers have adjusted their production costs. This has stabilized and balanced demand and production at affordable prices. In addition, some farmers are now making their own feed and have devised other ways of managing costs. Producers have also realized that consistency in production and huge supply volumes guarantee benefits related to economies of scale.  Another lesson is that farmers cannot pay the same salary to employees taking care of 200 chickens and 1000 chickens.

Eggs re still more of a luxury.  Margarine, Jam or peanut butter can substitute eggs for breakfast. Eggs can also be used as additives in baking cakes.  A whole family cannot boil eggs and consume them for dinner. They are more of ingredients in producing beggars and other foods.  That means another commodity has to be bought first for eggs to be bought.

Yawning opportunity surrounding indigenous poultry

The African indigenous poultry industry is taking too long to develop to a point of enjoying economies of scale. Everyone knows numerous advantages of indigenous chickens but efforts to unlock opportunities seem to be facing many barriers. In a changing climate, small stock like indigenous chickens which do not consume a lot of resources are being promoted.  But a major question is why is an indigenous bird whose costs of production are very low being sold for $10 when a broiler, which requires a lot of feed, water, energy and other resources is going for $4 to $6?  It seems broilers have pushed indigenous chickens into luxury commodities for niche markets.  When times are hard, urban households can afford to spare $5 for a broiler or broiler cutlets at $1/packet and forego expensive indigenous chickens.  Why don’t we have cutlets of indigenous chickens in the majority of African supermarkets?


Indigenous chickens have several advantages like low production costs, resistance to diseases and self-reproduction (they can lay their eggs and produce chicks with minimum input).  However, due to poor economies of scale, by producing smaller quantities, farmers demand high prices. For a bird with fewer inputs, $2.50 to $3/bird is not a bad price.  When farmers maximize volume they can make more than be trapped in low volume high price business. From 100 chicken sold at $3, a 50c profit per bird is better than trying to sell 20 birds at $10 each.

Nothing stops African farmers from being innovative in using their resources and devoting whole farms to indigenous chickens. Indigenous poultry has been genderized and left to women who are struggling to commercialize it on their own. We now see many men getting into trading indigenous chicken, traditionally considered a women’s commodity.  A luxury is often men’s business.

Same with small grains

Small grains have also been pushed into the luxury commodity class because farmers have failed to produce at scale.  A related challenge is lack of investment in technologies that ensure good quality. Most consumers still complain about finding soil in rapoko and pearl millet.  Why should a bucket of finger millet be sold at $10 when maize grain is at $4 a bucket?  Rapoko should be $3/bucket.  Production at scale will enable economies of scale. Small grains and indigenous chickens can complement each other in sustainable ways. They can present an opportunity for organic production where poultry manure can be used in horticulture, giving African horticulture an authentic indigenous face.  / /

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

How informal markets increase access to natural food and natural remedies

Rising demand for wild foods and local herbs in most African informal markets demonstrate the desire for the public to return to natural remedies. In addition to food, all kinds of natural herbs and medicines are an integral part of the people’s food market ecosystem. This means African scientists have a lot of work in researching local food systems and medicinal herbs for integration into global food and health systems. To the extent that food and medicine go together, African scientists should ensure traditional herbal medicine is developed to be integrated into the national nutrition and health delivery systems.


Why herbal medicine deserves a new lease of life

While herbal medicine has now been accepted as a critical component of global health, it is sad to note that in most African countries where over 80% of the population relies on herbs for daily health needs, only few such herbs have been validated using research. In the United Kingdom, Germany and other western countries, herbal medicine has been well integrated into the nation’s health system. Rather than continue to witness poverty through over-prescription of medicinal products from other countries, it is the responsibility of African scientists to use evidence – based science in developing herbal products that are  relevant to the majority of local people.

The diversity of local herbal products is often visible through people’s food markets. It is from this evidence base that African scientists can begin properly defining what traditional medicine is, where it starts and stops as well as codifying the huge spectrum of herbs and medicines. They should then be able to determine how traditional herbs and medicines relate to new terminologies like ‘alternative medicine’, ‘complementary medicine’ and ‘herbal medicine.  This effort can feed into further work on characterizing and building genetic banks in ways that enhance herbal genetic conservation and prevent bio-piracy. Regulators should play a leading role in this work to ensure African countries do not lose on royalties which are normally generated when genetic material gets improved into global brands.

Importance of verifying existing knowledge

Knowledge on traditional medicine continue to be shared through oral and learning by doing without comparison with modern scientific medicine. For instance, depending on African community, almost every indigenous tree is said to be medicinal.

  • How can science like biotechnology be used to verify such claims?
  • How can science show the pros and cons of commercializing traditional medicine and indigenous food systems?
  • How can regulatory platforms create molecular signatures (biobanks) of medicinal importance so that a data base will forever exist and anyone would seek permission to mine from it for research and other purposes?

Regulatory intervention will strengthen access to global benefit sharing agreements which curbs bio-piracy of such genetic resources. Like any other knowledge systems, indigenous knowledge systems have a ceiling beyond which some improvements or additions will be required.  For instance, while herbs can cure some ailments, it is not possible to scan a fractured leg using traditional medicine.  Some of the knowledge dies with its generation.

  • To what extent can absence of science account for low productivity and new disease outbreaks and crop diseases that are being passed on from one crop to another?
  • Since most crops and herbs are seasonal, how can biotechnology help in preserving them without losing nutrients and medicinal properties?

These are some of the key questions waiting to be answered by African scientists and policy makers.  / /

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


Informal food markets as pathways for bringing science closer to society

Food demand and supply systems like informal markets can be powerful pathways for bringing science closer to local communities in developing countries. More than 70% of food consumed in African countries passes through informal markets. While food processing companies may have their own laboratories, there is no laboratory for food that gets to consumers through informal markets. This is an important food safety and regulation concern that farmers and ordinary consumers are waiting for educated scientists to solve.  Scientists should not wait for communities to demand such knowledge.


In Zimbabwe, for instance, informal markets like Mbare, Malaleni, Sakubva, Mucheke and Kudzanayi handle more than 50 different crops and food varieties from around the country every day. These pull together many value chain actors such as farmers, traders, processors, transporters and consumers. If each of these actors understands some level of science within agricultural commodities, it becomes easy to embed biotechnology and other brands of scientific knowledge along value chains.  There is no reason why simple laboratories cannot be set up at each informal market, enabling farmers, traders and other actors to bring samples of their commodities for testing and receive advice on how they can improve their products.

Toward science-based characterization

Just as cooling facilities and warehousing facilities are critical at agricultural markets, so is establishing  laboratories that can be part of market knowledge systems. This can simplify characterization of commodities and levels of knowledge in each market as an ecosystem.  Such insights can empower   extension officers so that they can advise farmers on appropriate use of chemicals, fertilizer and other inputs in ways that minimize pesticides residues and improve varieties for better storage, handling, tasting and shelf life via feedback from consumers.

Laboratories at agricultural markets can also support awareness raising and tasting of fruits and vegetables on chemical residues and related food safety issues.  Producers can also be empowered with appropriate knowledge on classifying commodities by grade from a scientific perspective. At the moment grading is not informed by science but based on observation and physical outlook.  Many local livestock breeds, grains, tubers, fruits and vegetables remain orphaned due to lack of science in agricultural market.

The western world has been able to embed science into its food like GMOs which are flowing into African countries. Yet African scientists have not been able to use biotechnology to understand and improve local foods for both the domestic and foreign market.  Doing so will not only unlock new sources of innovation but make African food competitive in the knowledge economy characterized by healthy conscious consumers.  In the absence of scientific knowledge, African communities continue to rely on indigenous knowledge systems and human senses like touch, smell, taste, feel and sight which are very subjective. African science cannot afford to remain abstract and not harness local practical intelligence.

Limited value addition due to lack of science

Traditional drying of vegetables and fruits has its own limits. You can only go so far with drying vegetables and fruits. Commodities that are being value added have come from the West with their embedded science, for instance, tomatoes, beans and some exotic fruits. African science cannot remain in classrooms, academics, research institutions and patents which do not solve local challenges.  It should inform production zones and speak to climate issues, especially micro-climates. When established at agricultural markets, a science laboratory can work daily with markets and become a key knowledge component for the agricultural markets.

The scale of knowledge fragmentation

The fragmentation of technological interventions which characterize most African economies has to be addressed urgently. It is clear that there are two technological worlds in African countries. One side comprise academics and researchers in their silos while the other side is made up of communities with their local indigenous knowledge.  People’s agricultural markets can offer better ways of integrating the two.  Within indigenous knowledge systems, technological inventions have traditionally evolved from oral communication, moving to experimentation and learning by doing, for example, producing and tasting food. This is still happening in many rural African communities. Once approved through social confirmation, the emerging knowledge is shared through relationships, networks, clans, tribes and the larger society.  That is how knowledge around seed systems and livestock breeds is still spreading today. As was the case in the past, some technological inventions are still being inspired by coping strategies, for instance communities coping with a drought or outbreak of livestock diseases.

In the academic world, most of the technology is still being imported. There is still over-reliance on western knowledge, with African scientists doing some bit of adaptation and improvement.  Experimentation takes place in classrooms or lecture theatres and then prototypes are produced, some leading to patents.  Technologies produced are usually not directed at benefiting communities.  Instead, if successful, the knowledge is patented and can only be used by other researchers to advance their learning towards achieving PhDs. Such knowledge does not have end-users or consumers whose feedback should ideally demonstrate which technologies are getting traction.

Where products from scientific research eventually reach communities, application is through written instructions such as labels on, for instance, how to apply a certain type of fertilizer or chemicals or how to assemble a certain piece of equipment. No explanation is provided on why the chemical, fertilizer or new piece of machinery will provide a superior remedy to what already exists in the community.  Farmers are left with unanswered questions on the difference between manure from their cattle and inorganic fertilizer being promoted.  They also continue to wonder why science is not helping them improve cattle manure to a level where it matches imported inorganic fertilizers.

Situation of African food systems 

With regard to food science, nutrition and issues like tissue culture, African farmers continue to depend on what they know. Science is completely absent in good agricultural practices and farming as a business training to which many farmers are subjected by extension departments and development organizations. These interventions focus on production, harvesting, storage and record keeping but do not go an extra scientific mile to focus on soil science, food science, tissue culture and artificial insemination. The promotion of cassava, small grains and indigenous livestock does not consider science-based merits of these commodities but consider external issues like resilience to climate variability. Instead of considering climate issues like prevalence of dry areas and low rainfall, it is important for science to be used in articulating scientific benefits of cassava, sweet potatoes, indigenous livestock and other commodities.

An important starting point for science like biotechnology should be commodities and practices that already exist in communities. Where farmers have mastered farming as a business, the quality of their commodities remains sub-standard due to lack of science. Their commodities are uncompetitive on the export market due to aflatoxins, chemical residues and many other impurities that cannot be identified by a naked eye.  A majority of farming communities do not have simple modern scientific technologies for pre-testing the quality of commodities before going to the market. The domestic market is too small for the production capacity of most African farmers. If African countries are to be serious participants on the export market, mastering food science beyond just describing carbohydrates, proteins, fats and vitamins is fundamental. If African scientists remain in their silos, people will continue associating technology with ICTs yet s lot of technologies with potential to improve lives should come from science.  / /

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

A dozen shades of middlemenship in African agribusiness

Although it has existed for more than 100 years, middlemenship or intermediation continues to be misunderstood in agro-based African countries. Contrary to what most farmers and policy makers think, it’s not about people acting as middlemen but middlemenship as a practice whose features range from excellent to bad. Depending on type of commodity, market integration and many other factors, there are more than a dozen shades of middlemenship in African agriculture.


Making sense of middlemenship/intermediation

As a practice, intermediation or middlemenship is a meeting point for demand and supply where expectations of consumers and producers are consolidated. Each side brings a lot of lot onto the table. The supply side is concerned about commodity volumes and prices while the demand side brings consumer tastes and preferences into the conversation. In this situation, middlemenship or intermediation is like presiding over a heated soccer match.  What makes this a tough call is that consumers blame the trader if prices rise while farmers blame the trader if prices go down.  Yet when the two groups meet on their own without an intermediary, progress is often stalled.

Importance of understanding different shades of middlemenship

Every agricultural value chain actor has an element of middlemenship, depending on situations.  For instance, owning a ripening facility enables a big company to reap more rewards from banana farmers than producers. Unless push and pull factors surrounding middlemenship are clearly understood, it is easy for farmers to blame everyone except themselves.  In most cases, smallholder farmers do not have enough volumes or capacity to bring commodities to the market.  This prompts traders to leave their market stalls in urban markets and go to farming areas where they aggregate commodities before bringing to the market.  At what point is this kind of middlemenship bad for farmers and consumers? Is it better for the trader to leave commodities rotting in farming areas because farmers are not able to bring to the market?

Now that almost every farmers has access to information which enables access to diverse buyers, why are farmers and farmer organizations not stamping out middlemenship if they see it as a bad practice? Trading of agricultural commodities is characterized by a couple of risky elements. For instance, most traders speculatively buy commodities early in the morning just as the market opens. Given that the market will not have settled, this is risky because prices can fall a few hours later when the market settles down such that some traders end up selling commodities at much lower prices than anticipated.  By that time, the farmer will have gone.

Who determines supply which is a major determinant of price?

Is it the trader or the farmer?  Since supply is firmly in the hands of farmers, it is difficult for traders to control supply. When commodities flood the market and drive prices down, farmers blame the trader as if the trader is the supplier. On the other hand, when there is a deficit, traders scramble for produce and prices rise in favor of the farmer.  To a greater extent, farmers compete with each other.  The market is just an intermediary.  Poor prices are due to mismatches between supply and demand.  Unfortunately, most farmers do not have marketing skills and thus allow auctioneer types of middlemen to sell for them while they only collect money.

African informal markets are an open system that is not closed to end users such as vendors, companies, restaurants, hotels and housewives. Farmers have choices between selling to a vendor who buys one basket of tomatoes, to a hotel which wants 200 kilogrammes or a trader who buys 50 crates at once. Many traders who are labelled middlemen buy in bulk in anticipation for selling to more customers from other parts of the country.  Obviously, serious farmers who want to be viable would prefer those buying in bulk unlike selling to single customers.

If the demand for commodities comes from other cities located 100 to 500 km away, few farmers have the capacity and patience to wait for buyers from different areas to come and buy in a disorganized fashion.  Effective demand from these areas has to be consolidated and that is the role of middlemen, in addition to distributing commodities where they are needed.  Traders are the ones who pull demand from far-flung areas. Formal institutions like supermarkets are not prepared to do that, preferring customers who walk into their shops.  That is why fruit and vegetable sections tend to be very small in supermarkets.

Agribusiness as unstructured profit pools

The way middlemen are blamed is as if they are standing in the way of farmers who should access predictable profit pools. Yet there is nothing like that. As business models are becoming highly perishable, farmers have to learn to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Such decisions are increasingly being shaped by factors outside the control of any single value chain actor. There is no guarantee that good choices of commodities to grow can lead to favorable outcomes.  Unless farmers change their mindsets, they will not fully take advantage of their resources.  Individual households do not buy in bulk compared to traders.

Bulky commodities like potatoes and cabbages can only get into the market in a more organized way through middlemen who have taken time to understand demand patterns. Same with peas that are than sorted into different categories and sizes by traders in the market. A farmer cannot do everything including mixing different commodities and accompanying his/her commodities to distant markets.  That is why uncovering hidden roles and responsibilities of value chain actors is very important.  Producers and consumers need each other although they might pretend otherwise.  This loudly speaks to economic justice, governance, empathy, ethics and other soft issues that determine success or failure in agribusiness.  / /

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

Using questions to uncover solutions and spark change in 2018

While many people have made resolutions for 2018, eMKambo is devoting this brand new year to questions that open doors, uncover solutions and spark positive change among farmers and other agricultural value chain actors in developing countries.  In our pursuit for tools and techniques to improve our practices, let us not forget that questions are the most powerful weapons in breaking down barriers, discovering hidden secrets, solving puzzles and imagining new ways of doing things.


The following is a sample of questions eMKambo will be assisting people and institutions to answer in 2018:

  1. How do farmers and poor people turn setbacks into strength?
  2. How do some agricultural value chain actors stay exceptionally positive in difficult periods like drought?
  3. Why should we demonstrate the cost of bad data to policy makers and agricultural value chain actors?
  4. How do we assist ordinary people to tell their compelling stories?
  5. Since marginal communities in developing countries do not have libraries and information repositories, is it possible that rural and poor people store knowledge in their DNA or genes?
  6. Should we continue confusing financial inclusion with mobile money?  While financial inclusion should be a principles-driven financial mindset, mobile money privileges the role of mobile technology in ways that confuse money with information when these are different resources.
  7. How do we use informal markets to influence consumption habits and patterns? What was   confirmed by eMKambo in 2017 is that power in the agriculture sector comes from controlling consumption not from production or distribution. Controlling consumption is about controlling billions of individual consumers, most of whom are fond of choosing the easy option.
  8. To what extent are structured value chains the only ideal way of organizing African agriculture?  There is an assumption that structured value chains like contract farming arrangements are the only viable options yet smallholder farmers and traders have been working efficiently and profitably in their own fluid and unstructured value chains for generations.

Moving beyond agribusiness frustrations in 2018

There is no doubt that many farmers and traders in diverse countries experienced frequent disappointments in the agriculture sector due to market failure and other issues. However, asking and answering the right questions may enable them to move beyond frustrations in 2018.  The right questions are not just an expression of curiosity which strengthens connection, nurtures humility and inspires peers. They unlock access to large pools of data and trends that can inform decision making and improve day-to-day activities towards innovative growth in 2018 and beyond.  / /

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