The merits of an effective marketplace for agricultural evidence

Discovering and maintaining agricultural commodities markets is not enough for developing countries. They have to build a culture of synthesizing and sharing evidence in real-time. Absence of a culture of synthesizing information and knowledge from diverse sources remains a big challenge among farmers, economic actors, consumers and policy makers in the majority of developing countries. Formal education is still not adequately build the capacity of students to share what they learn and integrate new knowledge within existing contexts. Farmers and other value chain actors continue to rely on information that is out of date, incomplete and biased. For instance, they end up taking everything that comes from a single seed company or livestock breeder as gospel truth.

The role of evidence in dealing with emergent situations

A critical consequence of failure to bring evidence together is lack mechanisms for rapidly drawing together evidence to inform emergent situations such as a sudden fall in market prices, an outbreak of livestock diseases and crop pests like Fall Army Worm. Advice that comes when a problem has already covered the entire community is useless and may even disrupt local coping strategies. As if that is not enough, Government departments like the Meteorological services and National Statistical agencies are still more reactive than proactive partly because they tend to ignore evidence from alternative sources like private knowledge brokers.

Instead of relying on national statistical agencies which generalize information and insights at a national level in ways that do not adequately embrace local contexts, developing countries should seriously consider promoting local evidence synthesis platforms where decision making can be built on concrete situations. Local informal markets can provide a starting point in cultivating such platforms which local farmers, traders and consumers can easily identify with.  In addition to facilitating quick trading, informal markets are bumping spaces for accidental encounters that stimulate conversations and meaningful knowledge sharing.

Need for an effective market place for synthesizing local evidence

A dynamic marketplace for evidence synthesis can enrich public debates on issues like genetic engineering, organic food and others not fully understood by the general public. To the extent that it is populated by government departments, development agencies, churches, the private sector and farmer organizations, African agriculture’s sources of evidence are as fragmented as organizations working in the same sector. An institution that will be able to create an effective marketplace for synthesized evidence will have provided a game-changing solution. Such a platform will encourage academics, researchers and other actors to synthesize evidence from their work knowing that there is demand for it.  Keeping such evidence in specialized journals or elite conferences will limit societal benefits. If local people and policy makers know where to find the best evidence, there will search for it. A local evidence synthesis platform also underpins the identification of relevant research themes for ordinary people and vocational institutes – enabling them to address real needs such as micro-climate changes and evolution of local consumption patterns.  As shown below, alternative knowledge brokers generate a lot of data that policy makers prefer to either ignore or under-utilize.



Without capacity to rapidly synthesize evidence, local authorities and governments cannot respond more tactically to emergencies like sudden dry spells or day-to-day socio-economic activities. In a rapidly globalizing economy, communities should be empowered to identify and diversify sources of evidence that can inform long-term decision-making on issues like drought, market failure, livestock diseases and dynamic post-harvest handling of agricultural commodities. Where there is no rigorous evidence synthesis, there are high chances of biased decisions, leading to costly mistakes.

Demonstrating consensus or contention

Another major role of local evidence synthesis is showing areas of consensus and contention as well as fundamental disagreements. Without a disciplined evidence market place, it is impossible to habitually synthesize evidence to provide answers to enduring questions surrounding malnutrition, poverty and unemployment.  Given that the development sector has existed for generations, by now we should be seeing consolidated models on issues such as financial inclusion. In the absence of evidence, financial institutions continue to disguise their resistance to finance new innovative projects by asking a thousand questions which have nothing to do with genuine curiosity. A knowledge platform will provide a mechanism for continuously refreshing synthesized evidence unlike leaving things fragmented.  However, collecting evidence and making it usable is a time-consuming mix of art and science.  / /

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Informal food markets as platforms for sharing aspirations and frustrations

An under-appreciated advantage of African informal food markets is how they allow farmers, traders, consumers and other actors to emotionally participate in business and change processes through sharing their aspirations and frustrations. The same cannot happen in formal markets like supermarkets and formal manufacturing industries where farmers just deliver commodities and wait to be paid after weeks if not months.


Some of the enduring frustrations among African smallholder farmers participating in formal marketing systems is absence of profit-oriented budgeting. For instance, it remains largely unknown how much a farmer should put in to earn a profit in potato production from different production zones. Such insights cannot be generic but have to be tied to specific markets like processors, food chain stores or informal markets. Due to this loophole, some buyers end up offering low prices, citing invisible costs incurred along the value chain. Ideally, all production elements should be put together and reveal different scenarios. That is why a system of managing, tracking and updating production budgets for different contexts should be put in place.

Expanding price negotiation mechanisms

In additions to issues mentioned above, the majority of African smallholder farmers do not have mechanisms for price negotiation, taking into account issues like distance, road networks and other factors. A budget for farmers in Mazowe should be different from that for farmers in Nyanga, especially when they sell to the same market. Nyanga may require different inputs from Mazowe in ways that make both places profitable in different ways. The cost benefit analysis in different production zones can provide a meaningful Return on Investment (ROI) for farmers in the different areas.

Spending time in the market enables farmers to identify and define details surrounding market dynamics and see opportunities that drive positive agricultural change. Through regular presence in the market, farmers and other value chain actors are able to anticipate challenges and opportunities coming down the pike and respond proactively. For instance, an impending drought van be picked from frequent discovery research exercises in the market. That is also how under-appreciated facts about ways in which agricultural food systems function can be surfaced. These hidden facts include how potatoes and onion are becoming staples, thanks to increasing urbanization as well as new tastes and preferences of the young generation who now patronize fast food outlets.  Exposure to the market also enables all value chain actors to realize how markets can be vital sources of wealth, prosperity and social values on a larger scale.

Opening more avenues for growth and progress

While rapid changes in consumer tastes and preferences are triggering demand for diverse foods including natural commodities, most African countries do not have proper systems for aggregating, packaging, preserving and distributing different foods. With informal markets playing a major aggregation role, developing countries are being forced to characterize and categorize food traders into:

  • Micro to small traders and food suppliers – catering for subsistence and household consumption.
  • Medium traders – catering for supermarkets, fast food outlets, small scale processors and other smaller markets.
  • Large scale traders – catering for large scale processing industries, triggering exports while also satisfying national food security aspirations. Large scale traders (big pushers) go as far as supporting production, aggregating at source and supplying other markets.

Insights from diverse agricultural markets show that this arrangement will create a graduation pathway for different classes of farmers and traders, who can be registered according to credible socio-economic criteria.  Farmers who want to work with informal markets and vendors will be able to know the required volumes as well as absorptive capacity. This will inform planning for consistency in supply and introduction of a Warehouse Receipt System (WRS). Although the transaction process for large volumes can take up to 60 days, farmers can still access inputs if their commodities are already in the market pipeline through an efficient WRS.

Towards a fluid WRS

The WRS should not be understood as merely a physical structure where commodities are piled up. It should be understood as a fluid system in which commodities are always in transit from production zones to different classes of consumers and end-users. In almost all developing countries, the cost of aggregating commodities for upstream value chain actors is very high due to pockets of disintegrated production. Being on the market, traders are strategically positioned to connect with other value chain nodes. Different categories of traders can be matched with appropriate classes of farmers. All these critical actors need to be profiled with such information informing farmer characterization as well as appropriate production zones and their capacity to meet the demand side.  That way, informal markets are empowered to promote market-oriented production as opposed to supply-driven production.

A solid system for collecting orders can be set up around traders already in the business. The whole process can be anchored on rebuilding value chains from informal markets. Currently, the playing field in informal markets is not bringing out the real potential of African agriculture.  For ease of aggregation, there should be markets for large scale farmers. Lack of a system presents risks to processing companies who are always not sure if they are going to get adequate stock for processing.  Ideally, processors and contractors should just provide their specifications to farmers and traders who can go ahead to produce and mobilize commodities accordingly. Aggregators and packagers should do what they are good at while processors also focus on their core business. Once standards for each process company are codified and shared, processing companies will not struggle to get their requirements from the agricultural ecosystem.  / /

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African informal food markets as better expressions of democracy

African countries are full of human rights interventions that focus mostly on partisan political rights ignoring the rights of local people to produce their own diverse foods in ways they want.  Human rights should not just be enabling local people to access donated food. Evidence from African informal food markets show the extent to which diverse local food production systems constitute democracy, lived reality and resilience. If local communities are persuaded to shun their diverse food systems for a narrow range of hybrids, their democratic rights to produce and consume foods of their choice is undermined.  This is worsened by formal education’s obsession with hybrids at the expense of studying existing foods.  A majority of developing countries have an over-supply of agronomists and animal scientists who have studied a few exotic hybrids at the expense of a wide range of local foods on which the majority of populations have survived for generations. Democratization of local food systems is under threat.


Achieving democracy through interdependence

By increasing access to a wide range of food types, informal markets increase choices and diversify sources of knowledge on different foods. Unlike formal monocultural food production systems, informal markets demonstrate how local food initiatives are interdependent nodes in evolving socio-economic patterns.  Farmers, traders, transporters, consumers and other actors who frequent informal food markets always explore ways of building bonds of connection within the entire informal food ecosystem.  They go on to build networks of solidarity where farmers and traders intuitively and instinctively collaborate rather than engage in cut-throat competition. By collaborating more than they compete, farmers, traders, transporters and other value chain actors co-create shared abundance and a rich food ecosystem.

The informal market as a source of collective wisdom and democracy

An additional role of informal markets is empowering the wisdom of all value chain actors in ways that leverage rather than eliminate diversity. By focusing on a few hybrids monocultural systems oversimplify the complexity of food systems. In pursuit of such a win-lose logic, commercial agricultural practices end up presenting local food systems as vying for supremacy with hybrids. That approach reduces a community’s overall collective wisdom by excluding minority foods, insights and energies, as well as evoking resistance from those who are ignored.

Although hybrids receive most of the attention from policy makers and development agencies, informal markets give space to minority commodities and related knowledge. To the extent informal markets mobilize value chain actors to engage their full diversity in creative ways that call forth greater shared understanding, they generate more democracy and collective wisdom. As part of furthering wiser forms of democracy, informal markets creatively use diversity and common ground to discover deeper and broader life-serving possibilities.

Where formal markets marginalize or dismiss minority food systems, informal markets gravitate towards holistic approaches that respect minority production systems and knowledge as critical aspects of a community’s entire food ecosystem. Malnutrition and food insecurity are not just a consequence of monoculture but also an indicator of failure by developing countries to embrace their fullest possible diverse wisdom around food. Paying attention to informal markets can enable policy makers to incorporate perspectives from minority food systems including what are often called orphaned foods yet they are a critical component of local food systems.  It is through informal markets that development agencies and governments can explore opportunities to transform minority food systems and related knowledge into deeper insight. Taping into the value of minority food systems can uncover hidden needs, leading to shared understanding and wisdom. Through the informal market, choices by actors such as farmers, consumers, traders and others are processes of inclusion as opposed to exclusion.

Respecting the limitations and strengths of local people

In addition to demonstrating socio-economic resilience, minority agricultural commodities respect the limitations and strengths of local communities. In order to build a modern agriculture-driven economy, a commitment to tracking consumer tastes and preferences cannot be over-emphasized. Such efforts will lead to the evolution of different niche markets that can sustain local economies, translating to real value for money and better Return on Investment (ROI). In the absence of market evidence like volumes of diverse commodities consumed locally per given period and the kind of consumers, it is difficult to know the return on investing in different kinds of agricultural commodities.

Besides decentralizing advantages by allowing farmers and all value chain actors to verify information and exchange value, informal markets have enormous capacity to nurture commercial confidence in local food systems. These markets also lower the cost of experimentation for farmers and other value chain actors. As informal markets expand agricultural ecosystems, they aggregate millions of customers across different cultures. The value of each informal markets as an ecosystem is closely tied to interdependent nodes that satisfy needs of diverse consumers. That is why farmers who frequent informal markets are better empowered  to navigate new cultures and anticipate obstacles.  / /

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