Using evidence to articulate grassroots concerns and opportunities

If concerns and opportunities of people living at the grassroots of developing countries are to be fully understood, evidence gathering tools have to go beyond questionnaires and other techniques designed in the English language. To the extent that facts and figures represent the hardware, in most grassroots communities, feelings and opinions represent the software which is often ignored although it provides a more realistic contextual picture.  While there is a tendency for developments agencies and government interventions to think they can change local people’s mindsets and livelihoods within the lifespan of a three to five year project, the reality is that some people may take longer to change their perspectives.  That is where fluid evidence gathering for continuous feedback becomes a powerful resource.


Need for coordinated production

For most African agricultural communities, the challenge is no longer whether people are able to produce crops and livestock but how they can do so in coordinated ways so that gaps can be visible to the market and policy makers. It is taking long for some farmers to realize the futility of doing commercial bean production in small gardens whose outputs may not even be enough to feed a single household.  Evidence is critical in revealing some of these issues including demonstrating how smart agriculture should be informed by the performance of different commodities on the market.

Rural development cannot be achieved without a system for pulling and aggregating evidence.  A culture of collecting and interpreting evidence enables investors interested in the agriculture sector to make investment decisions through looking at the capacity of different areas to produce and supply certain commodities consistently. The main reason outside investors can see opportunities ahead of local entrepreneurs is because locals are often too close to the situation to imagine how else local resources can be exploited. Evidence is also essential in coordinating different actors in the same district.  This will prevent duplication of effort and misallocation of resources.   Data can also reveal consistency in supply from one area to different markets. This will inform investors on where to set up processing machinery and the size of the machinery.  If there is no data, a processor can set up a processing plant that requires more than 50 tons of tomatoes per day when local production can barely afford 10 tons a week.

More reasons for fluid data collection methods and tools

Methods and tools currently used for baseline surveys and other forms of inquiry are useful to some extent.  A major limitation is that these tools tend to be static such that they collect once-off information. In the fast-moving African agricultural and SME sectors, there is need for fluid data gathering tools, linked to ICTs in ways that enable real-time learning and adjustment. While once-off data collection tools may work for seasonal crops like maize, tobacco, groundnuts, cotton and coffee, they are not suitable for most horticulture commodities that are now produced all year round and sequentially.  This is where tools that support fluid data gathering and consolidation are badly needed. Most horticultural food crops comprise a collective nutrition basket which consumers do not want to miss.  As one horticulture commodity is harvested, another one is being planted.  One crop is getting out of the season, another one is entering the market.  Without evidence it becomes difficult to track the behavior of these commodities that form a nutrition basket so that it becomes possible to see periods when nutrition is not balanced for different consumers and communities.

How data is key in dealing with different perishability levels

Due to different levels of perishability, horticultural commodities have to be prepared for the market in different ways.  Small grains and maize can be stored in granaries for a while until the market improves but the same cannot be done with horticultural commodities like tomatoes which, when ready for harvesting, it cannot be postponed.  Negotiations with the market has to be a continuous process and this means evidence has to be continuously gathered and shared with the market.

While there might not be too much variety in terms of standards and specifications in field crops like maize, horticultural commodities are subject to diverse quality parameters, standards and specifications.  Some consumers prefer a specific variety of pepper.  A group of consumers may prefer under-ripened tomatoes and bananas while some may prefer over-ripened.  Managing all these different preferences may not be successfully done without disciplined evidence gathering and sharing. All these feedback mechanisms and advisory services require a rapid response system based on fluid evidence.

Rationalizing resource utilization

Better economic returns can be achieved if there is continuous data showing how water, soils and labor are being used in producing diverse commodities by different areas.  This will also show how better prices translate to better incomes.  Smart and continuous data collection can also reveal volumes of commodities consumed locally and any space for foreign markets.  This will prevent cases where an export drive deprives local people of better nutrition.  A resilient culture of collecting evidence can also show how horticulture complements other interventions like national maize production schemes.  Once evidence is available, it will show how absence of maize may not mean starvation because many families will be resorting to tubers and different kinds of vegetables as coping mechanisms unlike depending on maize alone.

Marginalized communities have diverse and complex information and knowledge needs as well as existing knowledge and understanding that can positively contribute to the development sector. Systematic ways of collecting and using evidence can show the extent to which programmes with an excessive focus on women and youth are not merely using women and youths as instruments for achieving broader national socio-economic objectives. To this end, data gathering methods and tools should reflect the diversity of issues affecting the status of farmers, women, youths, elderly people and others in communities.  / /

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

Using feedback to stabilize growth and expand opportunities

For every US$500 million that has goes into agricultural production in Africa, another US$500 million is not injected into the market in order to stimulate demand for what is produced.  As a results, gluts continue to alternate with shortages of commodities. A major reason is lack of investment in gathering and re-using fluid evidence. Monitoring and evaluation activities are usually for accountability to the funder instead of informing programmes in ways that fuel continuous adaptation.  It is through strong feedback loops that agriculture and rural development interventions can stabilize growth and expand opportunities. A consistent focus on feedback would have seen most of the knowledge generated by development actors in Africa over the past decades leading to business partnerships between business people from donor countries and local African communities.  This can be more sustainable than continuously compelling poor people to work hard for hand-outs.


Building a solid identity

Feedback provides an opportunity for value chain actors to establish a solid identity and generate unique customer engagement. Fragmentation of feedback is one of the reasons why smallholder production is still considered risky by most financial institutions. Feedback is critical in building and strengthening value chains through which detailed profiles of producers and traders can be continuously updated. Without investing in feedback, financial institutions will not be able to put in place systems for making agriculture less risk and boost producers’ capacity to repay loans.  Financiers will continue to foist contract arrangements on farmers irrespective of effectiveness set the same interest rates for different agricultural commodities regardless of market dynamics like seasonality.

 The role of feedback in building relationships

As demonstrated by most African informal markets, feedback can build confidence, trust and relationships, leading strong business cases among traders and farmers.  Due to relationships built over years of sharing feedback, some farmers continue to get the market. Spending time to cultivate resilient feedback pathways results in better understanding of the market.  For new entrants, it is easy to exist the market but difficult to enter due to a thicket of relationships that have been built through feedback sharing.

In African people’s markets, pillars of growth include knowledge, feedback, confidence and relationships.  When farmers and traders realize that their knowledge is reaching its ceiling, they use feedback to generate new knowledge so that they stay current. There is also a realization that locking knowledge in a few Communities of Practice often leads to a reduction in impact. New knowledge is built through feedback nodes from different communities.  This is where ICTs have started playing a significant role by strengthening feedback loops.


If they did not invest in building strong feedback loops, cut-throat competition would be the order of the day in most informal markets. Due to relationships and trust fueled by feedback, informal markets comprising more than 2000 traders are able to set and agree on prices for more than 100 different commodities in which they trade. A form of standardization happens on prices such that price information becomes a public good. A customer can walk along the market seeing almost similar prices for the same commodity. While some consumers may look at this as collusion, it is not but actors would have agreed to set a standardized system of quickly sharing information and knowledge.

On the other hand, most farmers give the market different prices because they will not have created a standardized system of sharing knowledge among themselves before going to the market.  Rather than enable farmers to negotiate and set prices, formal markets force farmers to react to prices that the market will have offered in line with its absorptive capacity.  In informal markets, knowledge is not highly privatized. Customers can learn through observing and asking questions. Many consumers frequent informal markets because there is a system connecting farmers, traders, consumers and the market in ways that facilitate knowledge transfer through human relationship building.  Traders have set systems and rules of engagement based on feedback and this enables knowledge to travel through commodities.

Making community knowledge findable

African communities have all facets of knowledge which cannot be defined in one word.  If you need knowledge about seed, goats and other things you can find it through asking.  A knowledge seeker should first define what s/he wants.  Communities do not display knowledge like in supermarkets because the knowledge has to be continuously updated. It has to be kept fluid and that means such knowledge cannot be wholly stored in libraries but built in fluid ways that are part of the community where it is kept alive and some practices discarded.  Community knowledge does not have a syllabus and it takes time to acquire or discard it.

Resilience should be defined in terms of knowledge as an intangible asset. Unfortunately, most development interventions start with tangible assets like irrigation equipment, seed and other inputs. They end up confusing skills with knowledge. One can easily acquire skills on using certain tools but may not quickly acquire knowledge which is more durable and provides capacity to survive when equipment no longer exists and inputs have long been exhausted.

The contribution of feedback to mindset change

Mindset change is one of the most common phrases being thrown around as if it can be done overnight. Without investment in feedback it is impossible to change people’s mindsets. Feedback loops require participation by communities, specialists and individuals. Mindset change and feedback is about information and knowledge.  Some people prefer sending information anonymously without drawing attention to themselves. They should be allowed to do so and need confidence that their preferences are respected. It can be the role of the broker to foster such freedom of expression and non-expression without some people feeling victimized for exposing what other people want to remain hidden due to different incentives.  Through a robust feedback mechanism, people can be encouraged to proffer problems and solutions.

Continuous feedback can lead to mind-set change. It is not an event whose results can be achieved through a three to four year project.  After 30 years in agriculture using their own shared resources and coping strategies, farmers cannot suddenly decide to take an agricultural loan. Unfortunately, banks are not investing in understanding pathways to mindset change. If you suddenly start advertising financial services, most farmers start questioning your motives especially if you have ignored their concerns for decades. Due to lack of a feedback culture there is an increasing tendency to start, close and re-start projects under different labels and names.  / /

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

Recognizing the role of feminine traits in local economies

Another way of increasing the relevance of International Women’s Day which is celebrated on the 8th of March every year is to notice and reflect on how female traits and values play out at grassroots level. If it wasn’t for the presence of feminine traits like empathy, humility, intuition, flexibility, inclusiveness, generosity, balance and patience, most societies, farming communities and markets would be history.


To the extent they do not have empathy, patience, flexibility and other feminine traits, financial institutions and some formal organizations in developing countries are struggling to continue existing. It is now clear that feminine traits and values are a new source of innovation and competitive advantage. Progressive economies are moving away from command and control to embrace feminine values that prioritize connection and nurturing.

The power of interdependence

In many African communities and local markets, some men are often said to behave like women and some women are also said to behave like men. According to most African cultures, there is a woman in every man just as there is also a man in every woman. An aunt is a husband to her brother’s wife while an uncle can have features exactly like his sister’s children. This shows how traits are embedded in people and their cultures in ways that contribute to social resilience.  Once International Women’s Day recognizes some of these silent aspects, it will have broadened its meaning and stop being about gender which is being largely confused with an obsession with women’s issues at the expense of men.

Combining positive male and female traits, the way many African traditions have done for generations can result in resilient economies and societies. While values are becoming more important than profit-maximization, masculine traits like decisiveness and confidence are no longer enough in promoting physical, emotional and social well-being. African informal markets are demonstrating the power of combining male and female traits, leading to interdependence and sustainability. For instance, the prevailing socio-economic environment is forcing agricultural value chain actors to co-create commodities and services with customers and work with competitors in order to leverage entire ecosystems. Interdependence and a quest for sustainability are largely female traits. While initially sustainability was associated with the preservation of natural resources and the environment, informal markets and smallholder farmers have shown how it can be expanded to include giving back to communities.

Limitations of ICTs

Evidence gathered by eMKambo over the past six years shows that ICTs like mobile phones and platforms such as Twitter and all kinds of mobile applications have an unconscious bias towards masculinity and patriarchy. The majority of feminine values and traits cannot be fully expressed through these technologies. Most feminine traits can be expressed orally and through images. Grassroots women would rather demonstrate their knowledge through weaving baskets that can be used for carrying fruits and vegetables than creating a twitter account.  They would rather prepare a nutrition basket than focus on one commercial crop.  As a combination of diverse crops and foods, a nutrition basket expresses more empathy, flexibility and intuition than a single commodity like tobacco whose main thrust is income, profit and foreign currency.

Depending on how they are used, digital platforms can both enable and hinder a diversity of opinion, especially from women. Besides reinforcing male-dominated organizational silos, digital technology seems to encourage a male style. For instance, a mobile phone or a tweet strips emotion from communication, creating an impersonal global marketplace where people are compelled to work in isolation. An individual has to have a skype identity, mobile number and twitter handle which lack a collective resonance.  Yet, women are naturally wired to make better decisions because they naturally act in the best interest of the community. Women are able to step outside their own frames of reference to understand what their peers and customers truly want and need. That is how they end up nurturing new customers in how to prepare different kinds of foods. All this knowledge cannot be fully shared through existing technologies. When women stories are documented digitally, their conversational value diminishes because documentation captures a small percentage of what is actually happening.

However, one of the benefits of digital technology is that women’s issues and pain points can no longer be ignored. How can African communities benefit more from using technology to build a future with strong feminine values and female leaders whose interest is not usurping men but working together to build on men’s general decisiveness and resilience. As demonstrated through their oral communication and knowledge sharing, some of the critical leadership skills inherent in women include listening, observation, intuition, caring, patience, long-term thinking and community orientation.  In order to develop the necessary emergent practices for dealing with complex issues like climate change and poverty, both male and female traits should come together into meaningful conversations. Gender bias should not be allowed to continue preventing fluid knowledge exchange.  / /

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

Making sense of the nature of jobs in African agriculture and SMEs

The extent to which farming and non-farming activities in developing countries can create decent employment remains a fertile ground for serious research. While some African governments and churches are competing to establish universities that offer all kinds of degrees, the majority of jobs in the ballooning informal markets and SME sectors do not require a university degree. From eMKambo’s experience, this is leading to numerous problems like an increase in the number of university graduates not fit for the local economy.


At least 60% of African informal markets and SMEs are operated by people who did not excel academically but have mastered practical aspects of running small businesses like carpentry, welding and trading agricultural commodities. Vending is monopolized by women who did not do well academically. On the other hand, those who succeeded academically are failing to find jobs commensurate with their qualifications as promised by the formal education system. With knowledge being considered power, many university graduates cannot climb down to work for their peers who were academically inferior but are now successful practical entrepreneurs. Upsetting the social balance of power in this manner is creating social problems in many African countries. Graduates end up leaving for the diaspora.

Mismatch between jobs and qualifications

Due to the expansion of informal markets and the SME sector, the fastest growing jobs in Africa are low-skilled repetitive ones like harvesting agricultural commodities, loading, grading, packaging and marketing, which can be based on in-born traits. Such jobs being created along most agricultural value chains and adjacent non-farming spheres do not require degree-level qualifications. In Zimbabwe, an estimated less than 10% of jobs in agricultural value chains like poultry and potato require a bachelor’s degree, 30% require a high-school education and 60% do not require any formal qualification. This means thousands of young people gaining degrees will find themselves working in jobs that do not require a degree at all.

 The mismatch between the number of young people with degrees and the number of jobs requiring degrees is creating a generation of bored employees who do not find meaning in what they are doing.    eMKambo has witnessed how very few young people with degree-level education are willing to take lower-skilled jobs like trading agricultural commodities in informal markets. A young man who graduated with a degree in Nutrition Science told eMKambo that, after eight years teaching biology at a secondary school he constantly wonders when he will do a job for which he earned his qualification and start contributing meaningfully to the economy. Digitization has also started contributing to the decline of knowledge-intensive jobs in sectors like banking. For instance, Zimbabwe’s banking sector has lost more than 3000 jobs in the past two years following a tightening embrace of digital finance. This means thousands of students enrolling to study banking and finance in several universities find themselves doing jobs that have nothing to do with their studies after graduating.

Alternative ways of creating intelligent economies

In the current scenario, building more universities and encouraging more young people to study for degrees without availing opportunities for employment creation may not be the smartest thing to do because it means educating more people for jobs that do not exist. This increases frustration among the youth when they fail to harvest fruits from their intellectual capabilities. As if that is not enough, these students will not be able to pay back resources that were used by their parents to send them to school.  Building universities and generating more degrees is not the best way of creating an intelligent economy.  Many graduates end up joining partisan politics or getting sucked into the bandwagon of Pentecostal churches which preach the gospel of prosperity and nudge young people to sell salvation as if it’s a tangible commodity.

The notion of a knowledge economy is not about increasing the number of people with university degrees. Instead of building more universities that issue endless degrees, African governments should carefully study their economies, informal markets and SMEs. They can learn from how these self-organized institutions cultivate a fully engaged, high performing workforce through collaborative and self-directed learning. Instead of creating training courses spread over years, African universities should build learning platforms anchored on fluid curricular from where people can pull learning as they require it.  Instead of focusing on events, they should support learning processes.

Generating resilient communities through decent employment

The resilience of a community can be visible through the quality and number of jobs. Development agents, governments and universities should give young people the tools to understand and create the future for themselves and their communities. Investments by development organizations should eventually lead to business partnerships between local people and business people from countries that fund development activities. That is more resilient than building assets like dams and roads which, due to lack of knowledge, are not used optimally to lift people out of poverty. Development organizations that are supporting resilience building projects in rural African communities should complete entire value chains unlike just establishing community assets like dams, roads and irrigation systems without looking at how these efforts translate to better jobs and income.

Establishing universities is far from being a solution.  Considering the nature of local economies, a better way of transferring meaningful knowledge is establishing knowledge and service centres at community level. In almost every African country, less than 30% of young people go to colleges and universities. The remaining 70% should explore opportunities at local knowledge and service centres where their skills can be honed into efficient, transporters, traders, processors and diverse forms of artisanship which do not require a whole degree. At the moment, ordinary level and advanced level students are fascinated about getting symbols like 10 As and 15 points which, unfortunately, are not linked to career choices.

A career path should not just consider academic literacy but other elements like background, passion, calling and many other personal traits. Some students want to give back to their community which is why they go back and teach where they come from. It means they should be assisted to be on a relevant career path. Some have parents with commercial farms and should be assisted to be relevant in taking the agribusiness forward. There is no point in such students pursuing hotel and catering as a career. Others are from a small scale mining background and should be assisted to expand that business.  Some are good at seeing opportunities while some are driven by local role models.  All these aspects should be built into curriculum and career choices to avoid cases where students end up doing what they are not keen to do.

Academia should come in to improve standards and build business models as well as sharpen existing knowledge through research and development. It should also be aligned with the growth of particular enterprises. If a student is pursuing a Masters degree or a PhD, s/he should identify a community in which to apply, test and fine-tune his/her knowledge. That should lead to a qualification visible through setting a particular business on a growth path. This will avoid cases where students pursue university degrees with no idea of the final outcome.  / /

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