The role of data in accelerating agricultural transformation

The capacity of data to accelerate agricultural transformation in developing countries is no longer questionable. However, a remaining challenge is limited capacity to set systems for continuous data collection. Without that capacity, it is difficult for policy makers to put in place a set of coherent building blocks for delivering tangible value to farmers, consumers and use agriculture in addressing unemployment.


Data as instruments of culture change

Traditional top down extension approaches are being challenged as mobile technology democratizes knowledge. Many farmers who used to depend entirely on extension officers are now able to gather data, seek, sense and share knowledge. While there are many cases where the value of government extension cannot be ignored, extension officers can creatively use data to expand their coverage and increase their quality of services. Instead of one extension officer engaging with more than 500 farmers on a face to face basis, data and evidence can show which farmers need attention and which ones have become champions and can actually be conduits of advisory services.  Farmers who have been producing certain commodities for generation cannot continue to be fed the same advice.

How data can reveal market behavior and guide investment decisions

It is through data collection and analysis that the entire agricultural sector can see the types, varieties and volumes of commodities flowing from one farming community to specific markets, in ways that can inform investment decisions.  If more than 60 percent of fruits come from three out of 10 provinces, a case can be built for setting up processing factories in the three provinces.  However, in the absence of data, policy makers can recommend setting up of fruit processing factories in urban centres, where, although close to bigger markets, moving raw fruits from farming areas for processing in cities can be  more costly than if processing happens close to production areas.

On the other hand, data about volumes of commodities from the three provinces may not be enough if it does not show volumes consumed locally. A province can produce high volumes of fruit but most of it can be consumed locally due to high population density.  In that case, setting up a local fruit processing factory will be a waste of resources because the factory will compete for raw materials with local consumption such that it will remain dormant for most of the time.  Competitive forces at producer level often force some farmers to sell after knowing the surplus of staple crops. That means a processing factory may not be guaranteed of surplus raw commodities.

Balance between food security and wealth creation

There should be a balance between food security for the nation versus wealth creation for the farmer and the nation.  After satisfying food security, what about wealth creation? A model is needed to strike the right balance between food security and the market. Some of the most useful information that should be collected in farming areas goes beyond farm sizes and availability of natural resources like water and favorable climate.  Such resources are not useful without detailed farmer characterization indicating knowledge, skills base, experience, sources of advice, mechanization, preferred markets and risk appetite.

Picking the impact of different interventions

The impact of commodities supported by development agencies can also be picked through data, particularly on the market. There have been many cases where, supporting the production of particular commodities by development organizations has led to serious distortions on the market both on the input and output side.  For instance, where development agencies provide free inputs, local agro-dealers who sell inputs are short-changed and where small grains production is supported without equal support to the market, gluts become the order of the day.

Important metrics that should be tracked include monthly activities in agricultural markets, monthly active versus daily active ratios, consumption patterns, consumption growth, food supply models, sources and frequency of supply from different sources. Besides informing policy and programming, such data can enable farmers and traders to connect with customers at a much deeper level. Some of the models that can be fueled through data include a market demand and supply model that accommodates warehousing, aggregation, cooling, ripening facilities and other value addition activities like processing.  All these initiatives have to be backed by credible evidence.

The impact of agriculture on dietary diversity can be seen through longitudinal data collection and analysis. Data can also show the extent to which a country’s diet is broad or narrow.  For instance, some evidence is beginning to show that Zimbabwe’s dietary diversity score is based on 12 commodities, although the country has a wide range of food systems. The country’s rural populations depend on less than six food groups yet they produce a diverse range of foods. Evidence is also beginning to reveal how rural finance does not always lead to better nutrition because people focus on acquiring assets instead of investing in better nutrition. Longitudinal data can also reveal factors that predict stunting among children. If governments and development agencies want to sustain their achievements, they have to invest in data collection and effective feedback loops. Without data, it is also difficult for academic institutions to become change agents in addressing food and nutrition insecurity.  / /

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

The curse of forgetting useful information and knowledge

eMKambo recently heard a story of how a veterinary doctor surprised livestock farmers when he told them he did not have the expertise to artificially inseminate their cattle. The farmers had travelled from distant areas to come and witness the first scientific experiment in the history of their rural farming community.

There is no shortage of similar stories in many developing countries. Agricultural experts who do not practice after training tend to lose the most important knowledge gained through years of academic training. If sophisticated people can forget knowledge they will have acquired painstakingly, what about illiterate people with little exposure. One of the dirty secrets of farmer training is that farmers forget more than 80 percent of what they are taught within 24 hours of the training experience. Unfortunately, many training organizations and initiatives spend billions of dollars every year on training knowing full well that most of that knowledge will quickly disappear.


A case for building local memory

One way of addressing this challenge is establishing and strengthening community structures and processes that can scaffold information and knowledge so that even if people move out of communities and organizations some of the knowledge remains. In the absence of such structures through which knowledge can be socialized, communities will continue to lose a lot of knowledge while more resources will continued to be poured into training initiatives that do not make a difference.

Farmers and other value chain actors that are immersed into farming as a business and other training processes tend to be not sure about which bits of information will be useful in the long-run. Even if they can try to keep records, when faced with an immediate challenge, it is difficult to call up relevant information from their records and memory. Organizations that regularly bombard farmers with different advertising messages worsen the situation. For instance, while providing farmers with information about more than 30 different maize varieties is considered a good idea in terms of broadening choices, farmers end up confused and make subjective choices. On the other hand, while there is a tendency to think that farmers can learn through events like field days and agricultural shows, knowledge sharing is a process embedded in how farming communities work and not an event. As a result, most field days and agricultural shows are characterized by stage-managing reality.

 Return on Investment in training

Without clear formulae for determining return on investing in training, there is a danger of continuously misallocating scarce resources on training programmes that do not change lives. Instead of surfacing unarticulated needs, some of the tools traditionally used to conduct training needs assessments confirm biases of those funding the training. Focusing on long-term information and knowledge retention as well as well behavior change means there is need to pay more attention to what happens after training than during training.  Unfortunately, there are often no resources devoted to activities after a three to four year programme by development partners of government interventions.  That means information and knowledge acquired during a particular programme also disappears with the phasing out of the programme.

Is keeping records a panacea?

There is an increasing tendency to blame farmers for not keeping records, yet record keeping requires different levels of literacy beyond the capacity to read and write. In addition, forcing smallholder farmers with a few goats and cattle to keep records is expecting too much from busy people trying to eke a living using meagre resources. They might keep records for a short period but soon get absorbed into the demands of daily living. It makes sense to have individual farmer records centrally collected, consolidated and frequently updated by an institution like the local extension department which can assume the role of a knowledge centre. Scattered records among individual farmers become valuable when consolidated for a particular purpose like luring investors into the community so that they match size of investment with potential for growth.  Otherwise, keeping records without a clear purpose is a meaningless exercise.  / /

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

Market information and knowledge as therapy

When farmers who have spent years looking for satisfactory answers to their challenges finally get a solution, such a moment of truth becomes a moment of healing. A different feeling often embraces farmers when they finally discover that agriculture markets are always in a random walk such that price is just one part of a complex ecosystem influenced by several factors. They begin to realize that financial and non-financial resources as well as production volumes, surplus and frequency of participation in markets have a bearing on the behavior of agriculture markets.


Capacity assessment as the foundation for coordination

In addition to assessing availability of natural resources such as land and water, the ability of farmers to consistently supply a particular market has to consider their different capacities. If you want to enhance farmers’ skills in using available resources, you need to know their individual and collective capacities. Few initiatives are as difficult as trying to coordinate people with different capacities. Some farmers can become faster knowledge processors when they move to a different commodity while some can behave differently.

eMKambo has repeatedly noticed that many African farmers no longer want basic advisory information but now require assistance in building networks, knowledge sharing platforms as well as conversing with the market, interpreting market trends and making sense of different market expectations. Farmers are now also keen to know about changing consumer patterns. They also now need support in processing data into budgets and other insights that can demonstrate returns on investing an agriculture. For such farmers, meaningful budgets should be accompanied by cash flows showing how much a farmer will remain with after using different inputs and selling commodities to particular markets.  This is where a market becomes critical in providing information about revenue.

Academic budgets which leave out a lot of important contextual issues are becoming useless. For instance, a cabbage budget cannot be the same for farmers in different climatic conditions and proximity to markets. Some of the critical questions farmers are now keen to answer include:

  • What should I consider when framing a budget?
  • How do I know I am making a profit from my commodities?
  • How can I charge for family labor?
  • What has changed in the way I produce and market commodities over the past few years? This speaks to farming history.

 Are farmer issues similar everywhere?

The only common thing among farmers everywhere is that they all need knowledge in order to produce better results. However, they cannot be the same everywhere due to different socio-economic drivers. For instance, farmers in border towns tend to have totally different stories about farming. Those in livestock areas also have different stories from predominantly crop farmers. Those in valleys that receive rainfall throughout the year also have different stories about agriculture.  Even within the same area, there can be different stories from three to four farmers:

  • Some have a lot of resources but do not want to farm, preferring to be a market for others.
  • Others provide labor although they have their own land and other resources.
  • Some use the land for subsistence just to keep the land working.
  • Others farm to supplement income.
  • Some do farming as a business and this group can constitute less than 10% of the people in a community. Although this group can grow cash crops, the first preference is meeting household needs. That is why some farmers end up locked in contracts.

In irrigation schemes, not everyone has capacity. Some may want to continue producing for household consumption, while other want to combine subsistence production with food reserves. Another cluster can comprise subsistence production with surplus for the market, although surplus for the market may be unplanned. The first preference is producing what they consume, for instance, leafy vegetables. On the other hand, transition to peas, sugar beans and potatoes demonstrates a change of mind set and germination of a commercial mindset.  Assessing the capacity of farmers can increase chances of noticing those who are ready for commercialization.  / /

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

Slow knowledge and fast knowledge in African Agriculture

While African countries neglect their informal economies in planning and policy development, the informal sector provides several avenues of looking at knowledge. One of these avenues is the relationship between slow and fast knowledge. Commodities flowing into informal markets from farming areas reveal the extent to which slow and fast knowledge have distinct characteristics.


Slow knowledge

This knowledge is associated with commodities like beef, eggs, maize, groundnuts and small grains, among others whose characteristics do not change fast. Once you have acquired knowledge on beef or maize production, that knowledge stays with you for a long time without drastic change. These commodities also tend to have fewer, manageable varieties and breeds. Their behavior in the market does not change suddenly. For instance, consumer tastes for maize meal and beef have stayed the same for decades in many African countries where maize and beef are considered staples.

It seems there are barriers to exiting the consumption of these consumption just as barriers to entry could be prevalent. People who grew up eating Sadza/pap or Ugali do not just stop consuming it. Starting to eat small grains when they have not been your staple can also be challenge, especially to young urban consumers. As a result getting out of regular staples and moving into new food systems is a slow knowledge system. You do not just start eating finger millet but you will take some time to develop some taste. Production knowledge for these commodities also stays the same for a while. There are no 10 different ways of growing maize or keeping beef cattle.

 Fast knowledge

On the contrary, horticulture is about fast knowledge. Most horticultural commodities are characterized by frequent change of tastes among diverse consumers. There are also wide varieties of vegetables and fruits whose tastes also vary significantly. Potatoes, for instance, have several varieties -not to mention tomatoes. Consumer preferences also vary remarkably.  Some consumers prefer large potatoes for chips, some prefer potatoes from red soils while others want small sizes for different reasons. Commodities like onion, tomatoes, potatoes and cabbages all have a wide range of varieties. Variety, quality, taste and ripening stage, all influence the speed of knowledge acquisition. This forces producers to embrace fast ways of seeking and absorbing knowledge in order to satisfy market needs on time. Perishable knowledge is also a key feature of these commodities. Prices are highly perishable and what you knew yesterday may not be relevant today.

Staying up to date with fast knowledge

Fast, perishable knowledge calls for systems that can gather and track information in real time. That is why a coordinated system from planting to the market is very important. Without such a system, production knowledge will always lag behind the market.  Unfortunately, most African countries seem to have a skewed knowledge generation system, biased mainly towards production. The agricultural production side tends to have more actors than other parts of the value chain such as logistics, marketing and value addition. Since it is often not clear who is responsible for collecting and sharing information and knowledge along the entire value chain, privatization of information and knowledge is common particularly on the market side.

While traders are usually blamed and labelled middlemen, farmers who already have relationships with traders are satisfied and do not complain. As an institution, each informal market has found ways of consolidating its knowledge and relationships between producers, traders and consumers. Farmers and other actors who complain about middlemen have not invested in building relationships with the market. Fast-moving informal markets do not want to work with people who do not consistently supply commodities.  The market has its own plans. By showing up randomly, farmers bring unsolicited commodities which they try to foist onto the market. Traders end up taking what they had not planned to take because farmers will be desperately in need of money to go back home. This scenario reduces farmers’ negotiating power compared to farmers who will have cultivated a relationship with the market.

The multiplier effect of revenue circulation in informal markets

A significant feature of informal markets is that revenue has enormous multiplier effects due to the speed at which money exchanges hands. Where a supermarket would sell commodities and keep money in the safe for a week, a dollar can exchange hands among 500 people a day in informal markets, purchasing commodities $500 per day. A dollar that will have been locked in a safe will not generate such value. Since Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is based on the multiplier effect of money in circulation, the informal market can be said to be the biggest contributor to GDP than organizations that tie down money in ways that make it impossible to circulate. The economy is about money exchanging hands. If everyone constrains money from circulating there is no economy to talk about.

While formalization is being touted as a solution, it introduces bureaucratic systems that slow down the movement of money. Systems are usually associated with mistrust. The informal market has built its own trust-based system, which is why it is always moving fast.  Formal systems like banking are handicapped by excessive systems because they are run on the basis of mistrust. Where there is trust there is no need for excessive paper work.  / /

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

Making sense of differences between evidence and experience

While there is an increase in emphasis on evidence-based policy, evidence-based medicine and evidence-based this and that, people’s collective experiences may be more powerful than evidence alone. If African agriculture and rural development relied solely on evidence without people’s tangible experiences, most development initiatives would not achieve much. Evidence in the form of facts and figures is critical for decision-making and resource allocation. But also important are people’s experiences expressed through opinions, feelings and diverse forms of body language including seating posture and facial expressions.


Seesaw between evidence and experience

In most cases, once farmers master and experience the power of some skills or fall in love with some inputs, it becomes difficult to persuade them to unlearn and accept new skills and inputs. For instance, cotton farmers in Zimbabwe have for years become used to a pesticide called Fernvaralete such that they think any other chemical does not deal with pests better than this chemical. Some farmers have also fallen in love with a maize variety called SC513 so much that when the responsible seed company tried to take it out on the pretext that the variety had run its course, farmers continued to demand it.

Under these circumstances, how do we ensure excessive focus on evidence documentation does not diminish the value of people’s experience?  In most cases, documentation only captures a percentage of what is happening on the ground. These scenarios demonstrate that it is through experience that farmers notice things happening around them and creatively adapt to change. There are many cases where farmers practice intelligent disobedience by listening to their experiences and intuitions. 

Knowledge as the voice of experience

Years of promoting evidence-based agriculture has awakened eMKambo to some ‘truths’ that may remain hidden farming communities and informal agriculture marketsFor most farmers and traders, knowledge is the voice of experience which is the great teacher. They trust knowledge which they know is based on lessons from real experience.  Experience compels traders to break market rules and reset consumer expectations. That is how informal markets become faster and more reliable supply chains which do not depend on a single source of insights and knowledge. On the other hand, when farmers do not take matters into their own hands, they allow traders and other value chain actors to set the agenda using access to multiple sources of knowledge. That is why new and innovative methods of collecting and synthesizing evidence from multiple sources of experience is becoming very important for all value chain actors.

While there is a proliferation of ICTs, organizations lack skills in customizing existing information into usable content and key messages that can inspire immediate action. Also lacking is capacity to facilitate productive dialogue among value chain actors whose diverse experiences are rich pools of knowledge. In most cases, agriculture triggers non-farming activities that create jobs. This means efforts to harvest knowledge have to go beyond focusing on trading alone where relationships are between producers, traders and consumers but consider adjacent value chains like mining, food processing and others.  If markets are more about trading agricultural commodities, which commodity has more strength with other sectors? Most informal agricultural markets across Africa are surrounded by a lot of other non-farming activities. They are hubs where diverse opportunities are triggered and nested. Relationships between different communities create unique employment opportunities.

Potential role of universities in building an evidence-informed economy

African agricultural markets tend to be more about knowledge, skills and experience as opposed to academic literacy which is about the ability to read and write. In informal markets, many forms of literacies are called to action – personal traits and passion, among others. If universities are able to harvest timely feedback and experiences from local communities, they will succeed in stabilizing growth and expanding opportunities. A university situated in a particular province should be the first port of call for investors looking for evidence and data to invest in that particular province. This can only happen when universities are able to craft fluid curricular, anchored on systems that enable longitudinal data to flow into communities and back unlike getting stuck in theoretical concepts and artificial laboratories.

Once they are able to identify and streamline their roles, African universities can become integral parts of a knowledge economy, able to link local with global knowledge.  They can even turn this initiative into a business which attracts investors interested to acquire knowledge and business models about particular provinces. Some of the critical elements of a provincial university’s fundamental roles will be synchronizing multiple production calendars, connecting logistics, fixing local transportation systems and tracking commodity volumes flowing in and out of the province. By tracking local people’s knowledge-seeking behavior and turning data into customer engagement, a university can immensely contribute to building a coherent experience economy. Ultimately these universities can explore quantified experience design through collecting qualitative evidence from millions of farmers, traders and other value chain actors as they generate millions of decisions every day.  They can use ICTs to scale these rich experiences in ways that reveal opportunities and impact.  / /

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