Giving scientific knowledge an indigenous face in developing countries

The intersection between health and nutrition continues to be a gray area for ordinary people in many developing countries. There have not been serious efforts to develop appropriate ways of sharing nutrition knowledge with the majority. For instance, formal education systems have not done enough to move health and nutrition from being understood as a science to practical aspects of people’s daily lives. Science related to health and nutrition has only been slightly extended to society through students who enroll to study medicine, veterinary science, nutrition and other related disciplines.


In health institutions, nutrition knowledge continues to be locked in health personnel like doctors and nurses who can only share it through surgeries, clinics and hospitals when they give prescriptions to patients. It means, unless you become a patient you may not have access to some of the critical knowledge. The public remains unaware of nutrition issues. For instance, when a relative is admitted in hospital, they bring bananas, oranges, apples and other fruits but they have little sense of what these fruits contain in terms of nutrition and what they contribute to the patient’s healing process. If they were  adequately informed from a nutrition perspective, they would bring appropriate fruits for their patients.

 The curse of imported terminologies

While importing scientific knowledge may not be a bad idea, it has to be followed by rigorous ways of  simplifying science and nutrition through developing appropriate terminologies that ordinary people and consumers can relate to their daily lives.  For instance, terms like Iron, Zinc and Vitamins A to E do not have local equivalent explanations. As a result, people wonder what is the difference between Iron as steel and Iron as nutrition or whether these are related? Another confusion is the difference or relationship between Zinc as nutrition and Zinc as roofing material. As if that is not enough, people use alphabets every day but what is the meaning of vitamin A, B, C, D and others?  These are some of unanswered questions among consumers and ordinary people. In the absence of meaningful answers, they end up living with beliefs and trust in the people giving them prescriptions. They also end up relying on religion.

On the livestock side, developing countries have range of indigenous and exotic livestock breeds.  However, there is no clarity on the nutrition differences or similarities between turkeys, ducks, guinea fowls, pigeons, indigenous chickens, broilers and layers.  People wonder whether different poultry species have different nutrition content. For instance, if a layer is cheaper in price compared to a broiler, how much of a layer’s nutrition goes into the formation of eggs?  Given the emphasis on white meat, what is the meaning of that white meat to ordinary people? What is the difference between poultry, pork and fish from a nutritional perspective?  To what extent is fish a substitute of pork?  What quantities of fish or pork would be give the same nutrition levels as other specific foods?

Enter food fortification

One of the terminologies and practices imported by developing countries without asking critical questions is food fortification. This practice is being promoted by development agencies and ministries of health. Food fortification is defined as the process of adding minute levels of vitamins and minerals to foods.  It involves addition of one or more micro-nutrients during conventional crop breeding (bio-fortification), food processing (industrial fortification) and food preparation (home fortification). This is done  irrespective of whether the micro-nutrient is present or not in the said food to increase micronutrient intake in a population.  Micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, are said to be needed in the body in small quantities for protecting the body from illness and diseases.

Benefits of food fortification are said to be that it helps in addressing micro-nutrient deficiencies, improve cognitive development and future productivity, reducing health care cost and improving health and quality of life for the population. In countries like Zimbabwe which have launched a food fortification strategies, the food vehicles for industrial fortification are sugar, cooking oil, maize meal, and wheat flour.  Sugar is fortified with Vitamin A, cooking oil with Vitamin A and D.  Bio-fortification is being done through breeding staple crops to increase their nutritional value.

Unaddressed issues on food fortification

Although policy makers have embraced food fortification, ordinary people have many unanswered questions. Some of the fundamental questions include: How do consumers balance bio-fortified processed foods with raw commodities like horticulture?  Assuming maize meal is bio-fortified with the same vitamins that are naturally found in leafy vegetables and other forms of relish, is not there going to be double consumption of the same vitamins for households who consistently consume maize meal and vegetables containing the same vitamins? How does science ensure ordinary consumers are able to balance the consumption of vitamins? Due to the way most households eat a complement of foods, over-consumption of some vitamins cannot be ruled out. If food fortification is really necessary, it should target commodities that do not have close substitutes or complementary effects.

Since bio-fortification is tantamount to changing food commodities from their natural states, how different is it from genetic manipulation towards creating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?  Why should communities not be empowered to preserve food commodities in their natural states?  Bio-fortification seems to have been imported from countries with limited food diversity due to extreme weather like severe frost in extended winters which render food production impossible. To what extent do countries like Zimbabwe that have more than 80 different kinds of natural food commodities need food fortification?  Isn’t it better to identify different nutrients in the diverse food baskets and promote their production vigorously than resort to fortifying a few commodities?

Towards nutrition sensitive food policies

Just as policy makers in developing countries are interested in national distribution of staple foods, they should shift their attention to equitable distribution of nutrition across the country. These countries continue to measure staple foods in hectares and tons while cash crops are measured in foreign currency earnings. Likewise, they should devise formulae for measuring nutrition security in which nutrition dense horticulture is dominant. Consumer organizations tend to measure a food basket for a family of six as dominated by maize meal, margarine, bread and cooking oil. All this is translated into monetary terms.  However, such a basket does not say anything about nutrition content. It also lacks horticultural elements like vegetables, tubers and legumes. Neither does it contain small grains. In addition, it does not show how the nutrition content of these foods substitute each other, given the seasonal nature of production systems and availability of natural foods. For instance, in most farming communities, a food commodity is available in abundance at one time and the other time there is nothing at all.

African countries strive to build silos for maize and wheat but they are not building equivalent food reserves for nutrition-dense commodities (mainly horticulture-related) to ensure availability of adequate nutrition all year round for all consumer classes. The issue is often left to private players who import some commodities in times of shortages but the imported food is stocked in up markets for high and middle income. When oranges are no longer in the mass market and imported for the up market, there are no policy measures to ensure consumers have access to fruits that provide the same nutrition components found in oranges.

A powerful starting point can be making consumers aware of which types of food have different nutritional elements. Consumers can then be able to choose whether to go for a fortified commodity or for a raw commodity.  In addition, there is need for deep research to other questions like:

  • How do communities understand nutrition components of foods they produce and their consumption patterns?
  • To what extent is nutrition a major determinant of a household’s food demand and consumption patterns?
  • How will a household know that consuming one commodity translates to the same nutrition content of the other commodity? For instance, how will a household know that consuming potatoes cane translate to the same nutrition as consuming sweet potatoes and other tubers?

Why food and nutrition requires a home-grown face

In a majority of developing countries, most foods are processed in cities and when they go back to rural areas, which are the sources of raw materials, the finished products are beyond the reach of rural consumers and smallholder farmers. A telling example is tinned beans which when value added becomes unaffordable to farmers who, ironically, grow the beans. A rural industrialization policy that promotes semi-processing or full processing of nutrition dense commodities is badly needed. At the moment, where some bit of processing is happening in rural areas, it is done by NGOs who work according to a project life span and selected beneficiaries. This does not promote mass production and availability of the processed foods.

On the other hand, it seems development organizations are not supporting the production and availability of nutrition baskets all year round. Their notion of community gardens tend to focus on exotic leafy vegetables like Covo, Chomoulier, Rape, Onion, Cabbage and other exotic crops. An angle for supporting smallholder nutrition gardens to produce nutrition baskets comprising diverse local vegetables, tubers and other foods is missing.

Due to the availability bias, most poor households consume indigenous crops, livestock and vegetables mainly because that is what will be available and affordable. Their consumption decisions are not informed by nutrition knowledge. In countries where nutrition knowledge has not been properly articulated, consumption patterns are also undermined by religion and other practices.  It is also critical for developing countries to align nutrition consumption to age, the working class, those doing manual work like construction workers and old people.  This could assist in addressing nutrition patterns.  Nutritional requirements cannot be the same for everyone irrespective of age, gender and occupation.

Importance of tracking processed foods and their after-effects

Very few developing have policy strategies for examining and tracking processed foods and their after effects. Given the proliferation of fast food chains and increase in the consumption of fast foods, it is important to monitor and track the nutrition content of fast foods and their related effects on consumers. This could be a critical health concern with effects on the national health budget. People are quietly eating fast foods with no consideration for nutrition. There is no debate and dialogue on fast foods in the same heat as debate and dialogue on GMOs. Each country needs to think about informed dialogue on fast foods, exogenous foods like broilers and others. This effort should not be considered down-selling of fast foods but generating public knowledge and elevating consumer awareness.  Consumers deserve to know the pitfalls and good sides of their consumption patterns and food choices.

Instead of importing food fortification and other notions that are driven by corporate industrial vested interests, developing countries should develop appropriate policies to empower individuals and communities with reliable nutrition knowledge. Ordinary people should be assisted to get knowledge, skills and resources needed to maintain their nutrition as opposed to top down approaches like food fortification. Digital and other technologies can be used to enable individuals and communities to identify their nutritional needs and play an active role in maintaining their own nutritional well-being.

Where is the media in promoting appropriate nutrition?

Radio, television and newspapers in developing countries have not been consistent in promoting nutritious food and indigenous commodities like domestic poultry and small grains. Media coverage for these commodities has remained rather ad hoc and sporadic, based on an individual reporter’s fantasies or interests. While there are dedicated programs like soccer and music in radio and television as well as regular pages on politics, soccer and music in national newspapers, there are no programs and pages dedicated to an important national issue like nutrition.  The mainstream media tends to follow politicians, false prophets and proponents of industrial agriculture like big hybrid seed companies and large  processing companies at the expense of actors who support local balanced nutrition.  / /

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Differentiating specialization from monocultural knowledge pathways

While monoculture is mostly understood as the cultivation of a single crop on a farm, area or country, the other half of its definition is the dominance of a single culture, worldview, mindset, set of tools as well as one way of gathering and sharing knowledge. Farmers who think success comes from producing one commodity all the time are addicted to monoculture. The same applies to academies who think formal education is the only source of truth. Fortunately, digital technology is not just disrupting monoculture but increasing ways through which knowledge can be generated, shared and made sensible.


There is nothing wrong with farmers and knowledge workers specializing as long as they know who else is specializing. Unfortunately, due to information asymmetry, many African farmers and academics specialize blindly and end up losing potential income and relevance. They are not aware that each market for commodities and knowledge has a dedicated demand for a particular commodity and knowledge asset in terms of how the consumer budget is shared among different commodities. That is why it is important for farmers and traders to know other market players as well as the market’s absorptive capacity.

Knowing the market’s absorptive capacity enables farmers, traders and other actors to determine volumes that can ensure good Return on Investment (ROI) and clearly identify producers who can meet the ROI capacity. Farmers who specialize are usually passionate and have invested their time in producing the best cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, cattle, milk, apples and other commodities. See-saw production and supply patterns, common in most open markets, is caused by price chasers and band-wagoners who just follow and imitate what the specializing farmers do.

Difference between specialization and monoculture

Specialization is where a farmer puts more resources in a commodity in order to produce and supply the market consistently. Other commodities act as a buffer in the event of uncertainties that can face a specialized commodity. The good thing is that for each farmer there is some element of specialization although the difference is in the degree of specialization. Critical questions include: To what extent does the producer dedicate resources to one or two crops? Some allocate 75% of their resources to one or two crops. Others dedicate 50% to specialized crops while the other 50% goes to complementary crops.

On the other hand, external factors like climatic conditions often force farmers and communities to specialize – translating to a community perspective on specialization. In this case, emphasis is not just on skills or knowledge in producing particular commodities or understanding market prices but adaptation of  particular commodities to particular areas. This is how one agro-ecological area become known for fruits while another becomes famous for small grains or livestock.

The merits of specialization and balancing act

Farmers who specialize tend to enjoy economies of scale and are able to capture a greater part of the market share as well as increase their bargaining power. Specialization is also critical for recognition in the market. Those who specialize create their own niche market that they will serve consistently.  It is not viable to be in the market for a short period and out of the market for longer periods. To address this challenge, farmers can specialize on one or two commodities for the purpose of participating in the market regularly and creating a market niche that can sustain their enterprises. However, in trying to balance different agricultural commodities, farmers have to ensure resources put in alternative commodities are enough to revive the specialized commodity by covering gaps like temporary gluts.

Alternative commodities should sustain the production of specialized commodities in the event of temporary gluts and price distortions. Alternative commodities should not be produced in high volumes to the point where if their prices fall on the market, much of the resources to cover them end up coming  from specialized commodities.  For instance, if you specialize in potato and onion production, you need a plot of cabbage as a fallback position. Any fall in cabbage prices on the market should not result in losses that will eat into a greater percentage of the profit that you should have earned in potato and onion production. Profit from cabbage should be big enough to cover losses that can be incurred by temporary price falls in potatoes and onions.

To maintain presence in the market, farmers should specialize on two or three commodities, definitely not more than four if they are to sustain participation in a dynamic market. Other commodities should support the main commodities that the farmer is known for in the market. The road for specialized commodities should be smooth. It is the role of alternative commodities to build bridges for specialized commodities and smoothen their flow against price fluctuations. This will also enable farmers to maintain presence in the market and generate income from specialization.

Building a case for specialization at community level

In developing countries, specialization should be done at community level as opposed to individual level due different levels of resource endowments at individual household level. For both communities and individuals, the percentage of resources allocated to specialized agricultural commodities can differ since one household may focus on subsistence while the other may want to embrace commercialization of particular commodities. Farmers with other sources of income like remittances may not prioritize subsistence production but try to go commercial.  For a poor family, the greater percentage (90% of $500) of resources can go towards specialized commodities to ensure a strong source of livelihood and food security.  On the other hand, those with alternative sources of income can devote 75% of a greater amount of resources (75% of $5000) towards commercialization of specialized commodities because they want to maintain market participation.

The more farmers produce as a community, the more bargaining power they acquire. Specialization also reveals a community’s knowledge such that gaps and surpluses can be known. After consolidating the knowledge, it becomes possible to arrange it in layers so that beginners can know where to start while experts do not have to waste time delving into what they already know. Without knowledge assessments and layering, development actors end up bringing knowledge that will not be absorbed or used.

At national level, developing countries should coordinate production and all value chain actors to ensure consistent supply and best ROI. Important questions include: What are the substitutes when potatoes flood the market? Which other commodities can be produced in line with available resources?  Which are the major drivers of nutrition?  Monoculture is very dangerous because farmers do not have anything to lean on in the event of market failure at global and regional levels. That is why many African farmers tend to be tied to unfavorable contracts which are more like debt traps. Most export crops like tobacco have reached their ceiling in terms of absorptive capacity and do not have a local market. If the international market collapses all the advantages are wiped off. In a competitive world, it is important for developing countries to focus on commodities for which they can develop market options.

Specializing on commodities equals specialized knowledge

Specializing on commodities is tantamount to specializing on knowledge.  A key advantage of specializing on knowledge is that it translates to high quality of commodities. Jumping from one commodity to another does not guarantee specialization of knowledge and low quality knowledge leads to low quality commodities. That is why clearly identifying and characterizing actors is very important. Farmers have to know each other and coordinate in order to avoid flooding of commodities.  In African informal markets, traders who have been specializing on specific commodities like tomatoes, green pepper and cucumber are known. Others are known for fruits, potatoes, cabbages, sugar beans, poultry, eggs, fish, small grains and many other commodities. In the same vein, farmers should try to be known for two to three commodities that can balance each other or share similarities.

Farmers who try to jump from pearl millet to cabbage end up stretching their knowledge because the two commodities are not closely related.  That is why data collection has to be fluid and not wait for crop and livestock assessments that happen once a year.  When a specialized commodity collapses on the international market, it leaves a knowledge vacuum and creates expectation challenges. Developing countries should avoid specializing on commodities whose market they do not control, for example coffee, cocoa, cotton, flowers and tobacco. On the minerals side, it is dangerous to specialize on gold or platinum whose prices are set and manipulated in western and global markets.  / /

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Nine nuances that define indigenous commerce

Although many people associate commerce with modernization, it is as old as the hills. To the extent, commerce refers to the exchange of goods and services, it has existed in many indigenous communities for generations. Indigenous commerce is home-grown commerce tied to the origin of specific communities. While academics may want to limit the notion of commerce to business parameters, indigenous commerce embraces social, legal, economic and technological, among several elements influence a community’s survival.


At the core of indigenous commerce is knowledge sharing and building of Communities of Practice (CoPs) at the grassroots. Visible and noticeable expressions of indigenous commerce in many developing countries are Micro, Small and Medium enterprises (MSMEs).  While some scholars and researchers insist on calling it the informal or invisible economy, indigenous commerce has several nuances that distinguish it from formal commerce with colonial roots.

Major characteristics of indigenous commerce


  1. Indigenous commerce is driven by open source knowledge sharing – It has its own unique knowledge sharing pathways, different from formal commerce taught in schools and colleges. Within indigenous commerce, knowledge is shared through hands-on practice, experience, passion, trust, relationships and networks. At no point will you hear actors in indigenous commerce saying, “I am looking for a commerce lecturer.” The entire indigenous commerce ecosystem is organized for social, political, economic and technological contribution to socio-economic progress. Indigenous commerce has diverse actors such as youths (some conversant with technology), retrenches experienced in metal fabrication and other skills, women good at marketing and food preparation, transporters, loaders, advisors, governance committees and those good in conflict resolution. It is an institution whose practices cut across gender, age, skills base and home-origin.


  1. Indigenous commerce entrepreneurs start and run their businesses sustainably due to passion. It is not about availability of free resources but passion and experience gained over years. Knowledge is passed-on as part of an in-built form of inheritance. Family units anchor indigenous commerce. The first priority in starting a business is creating employment for family members, who may not be initially paid a salary but provide labor so that the household is able to meet basic needs. Going to the father’s or mother’s market stall is like going to the field. The family members contribute individual skills like record keeping and bring their own networks.


  1. Within CoPs or clusters, entrepreneurs do not work as competitors. Instead, peers try to complement each other in delivering products and services to customers. In order to reduce the cost of sourcing and using knowledge, enterprises are clustered in such a way that one business benefits from the other. Ultimately, the actors are able to build a positive reputation collectively such that their business cluster becomes known for consistent products and services.


  1. Agility and flexibility in meeting market requirements. Production processes are not rigid like those of large formal companies. Indigenous commerce entrepreneurs quickly adjust to meet customer preferences, tastes and requirements. That is why they have all sorts of measurements. They do not measure all products in kilograms or monetary terms. They can use cups, baskets, crates, one by one counting, punnets, plastic bags and many others – all meant to respond to different customers. They have become awareness that without meeting the needs of customers there is no business.  That is why they try to respond to different levels of buying power.


  1. Indigenous commerce is based on fast and fluid decision-making. Entrepreneurs are not hamstrung by too much bureaucracy. Prices are adjusted quickly in response to market dynamics. Giving a discount or credit is a fast decision. The faster the decision making, the faster results are obtained.  On the other hand, the formal economy takes long to make decisions and, sometimes by the time a decision is reached signals would have changed and opportunities would have evaporated while threats will have gone under in ways that render the business vulnerable to lurking shocks.


  1. Fluid stocking – Most SMEs do not have warehouses. They know that putting commodities in rigid warehouses can tie down money and other resources in stocks. When resources are kept idle for some time, they attract serious opportunity costs. Based on fluid knowledge driven by solid networks, indigenous commerce entrepreneurs know what they want, when and in what quantities. Orders do not spend much time in the market because commodities flow as per demand requirements. They also know their stocking levels. If information asymmetry is minimized, this fluidity should influence production processes. Daily indicators from the market provide early warnings in terms of what needs to be produced, when and in what quantities, thus controlling gluts and shortages.


  1. Patriotism – The majority of people who start MSMEs become so attached to their businesses to the point of not looking for jobs anywhere or crossing the border in search of employment. Most are owners attached to their own enterprises and fear of failure is very high, compared to if they were just employees. They understand the dynamics of the micro economy and want to see the business grow because it is a source of livelihood. Deep individual commitment to their business’ survival translates to at contributes to national economic stabilization.


  1. Products and services do not require much foreign currency. This is an economy driven by local resources. Indigenous knowledge is full of improvisation as well as optimum use of available resources and knowledge. It is also characterized by flexible payment methods. Whereas in formal commerce money is the only mode of payment, indigenous commerce uses several modes of payment.  Commodities can be easily exchanged and one can pay labor services with commodities. The absence of money does not impede trading. People continue to attach different versions of value to their commodities, for instance, maize could easily be exchanged with chicken.  It does not just work in monetary terms.  Indigenous commerce also emphasizes an ecosystem of actors and commodities or services.  On the other hand, formal commerce promotes linear movement of goods and services: Producer – manufacturer – wholesaler – retailer – consumer.


  1. Meeting the needs of low income households – In terms of their target market, most MSMEs target the greater low to medium income population. What they are providing are necessities. For instance, more than 70% of the food commodities that pass through indigenous commerce are necessities, needed by the majority of the population. These actors understand their markets and preferences. In order to meet the needs of different income levels, they tend to maintain their positions in the ecosystem. Traders are traders, farmers are farmers while transporters are transporters. This is how they are perfecting their roles in the ecosystem in ways that simplify resource mobilization. Such habits and practices are different from formal companies which try dominate the entire value chain by becoming producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers, leaving no room for other actors who can do some tasks better.


The importance of recognizing indigenous commerce

Developing countries that have started recognizing indigenous commerce are not only beginning to witness a broadening of their tax base, but started using indigenous commerce to grow their economies from the bottom. However, what is now clear is that indigenous commerce requires different financial models based on authentic characteristics that are certainly different from the western-biased formal economy. For a long time, these indigenous commerce characteristics have been driving MSMEs entrepreneurship as collateral.  Individual corporates cannot be more important than the solidarity of the entire indigenous commerce ecosystem. To what extent can formal financial institutions use the existing indigenous commerce characteristics as collateral?  Due to the fluidity of indigenous commerce, it is no longer sensible to use immovable property like buildings as collateral.  The fluid nature of indigenous commerce in response to various niche markets also means there is no longer need for mass production. Volumes are just produced as per market needs and commodities are sent where they are needed. These issues should be taken into account if modern financial institutions are to forge a new deal with society.  / /

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Addictive tendencies associated with food and knowledge in developing countries

When consumers can no longer do without cassava, nsima/sadza, matoke, tomato, beans, peas, among other foods, it could be an indication that the consumers have become addicted. Such addictive tendencies may have little to do with the food being a staple or a necessity. The way profit-oriented seed companies and manufacturers promote their seeds or finished products in most developing countries is designed to encourage such addiction. There is a narrow distinction between tastes & preferences and addiction.


A community is most likely to be addicted to a commodity that it ranks more highly as a necessity. It is not about income but the fact that people can no longer do without the particular food. In addition, commodities around which communities have become addicted within clusters of consumers become necessities which they cannot live without. Such commodities also become price inelastic. Any percentage increase in the price of the commodity will not translate to a greater decrease in demand because the commodity has become a staple.  Cost will not affect consumption because each household or community already eats a given volume or quantity. In the same vein, a percentage decrease in price will not result in more percentage increase in supply or consumption. For instance, a decrease in the price of maize meal will not cause consumers to eat more nsima/sadza merely because it has become cheaper.

 Implications of people consuming the same commodity for a long time

The longer the period people are exposed to certain food baskets, the more tastes and preferences are  developed and embedded.  The body adjusts and makes the food part of its system. To the extent the body can no longer do without a certain food like nsima/sadza, it becomes addicted to that food. Staple commodities often have clearly defined demand patterns in terms of volume. Any surplus over the defined demand is a waste. This is where gathering evidence becomes critical in terms of showing each commodity’s demand patterns and extent to which such a commodity has become a staple within each consumer class. Such evidence will prevent cases where surplus food goes to waste but open avenues for value addition and exporting.

Addictive food clusters need to be known because they also define food baskets for various niche market. Demand does not fluctuate so much irrespective of price. People will not eat more commodities because there is a new state of the art market. Investors and policy makers need to know these issues at a granular level because they influence potential investments. Such insights also reveal the stability of demand for particular commodities as well as stability of Return on Investment (ROI).

The contextual nature of food baskets

Contrary to the way policy makers in developing countries try to characterize and quantify the Poverty Datum Line, for instance US$600.00 per household, it is a myth to try and have one food basket for the entire nation. Different grassroots communities have their own addictive food components which they demand most of the time. For instance, people in high production zones may have their own food baskets in which addictive elements may constitute 70% of the food basket.  Anything that comes from outside becomes a luxury which they can do without.

Supply side addictive tendencies

While addictive tendencies tend to be more visible on the demand side, the same patterns apply on the supply side. For instance, key determinants that drive food production include knowledge and skills among food producers, available resources and climatic conditions. How these factors are used determines over-production or under-production. However, as farmers continue to produce over many years, their practices stop being about skills, resources, knowledge or climatic conditions but passion turned into addiction to particular practices. That is why it is difficult to wean some farmers from cotton production, coffee production, cocoa production, tomato production, maize production and tobacco production, among other commodities they have become addicted to producing.

Questions for policy makers and development agencies

To what extent are agricultural production practices being promoted in developing countries determined by farmers’ addiction to certain crops, livestock and other related production practices? What capacity is within the addicted farmers?  How are farmers under-utilizing or over-utilizing their capacity?  To what extent has agricultural knowledge in developing countries become locked in addictive tendencies along agricultural value chains? In some areas, specific commodities like maize no longer do well but farmers continue producing because they have become addicted to the knowledge associated with maize production so much that it is now difficult to unlearn and create space for new knowledge related to new crops and livestock. Examples of addictive processes including farming as a business and farm field school. There is also a bandwagon effect in production where some farmers just copy and imitate others quietly. Besides surprising the market, bandwagon producers disrupt the passion-driven producers.

Colonial influence

Some production and consumption patterns were largely influenced by colonialism. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the Land Apportionment Act of 1923 laid down the foundation of production practices by demarcating land according to natural regions, soils and land sizes, among other factors.  Knowledge for producing specific commodities like sugarcane, flowers, tea, coffee and tobacco became concentrated in areas where these commodities were said to be ideal. Knowledge about livestock production became concentrated in Matebeleland while cotton production knowledge was more in Gokwe and Muzarabani, among other dry regions. On the other hand, by producing and consuming maize, communities became addicted to maize.

However, production was also driven by directives where those with resources influenced the production of particular commodities like cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, coffee, maize, beef cattle, flowers, etc. This also became addictive from a skills perspective. That is why trying to change farmers’ mindsets has become a decades old challenge.  Most farmers have also become trapped in debt cycles through addiction to contract farming models. Even if they may have their own resources, many farmers cannot imagine achieving meaningful yields without a contract company. Another increasingly powerful addiction is to ICTs, especially mobile platforms like WhatsApp. Many young farmers no longer want to think for themselves or digest information before forwarding it around. More time is spent on mobile phones than on productive pursuits.  / /

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From number of beneficiaries to knowledge mobilization and use

In what probably signifies a new approach to achieving socio-economic development, a few policy makers and development agencies in developing countries are beginning to move from measuring success through the number of beneficiaries. Instead, they are reluctantly shifting to their focus to how the so-called beneficiaries mobilize and use knowledge associated with projects introduced in their communities.


Attention is turning to several ways in which communities understand and use knowledge to increase their incomes and cope with challenges like climate variability and market failure. As part of forging a new deal with poor communities, financial institutions are also realizing the importance of understanding the potential of poor borrowers at a granular level. Otherwise, banks would continue ignoring poor people and continue giving money to those who do not really need it merely because they have collateral. There is increasing interest to know what knowledge exists in a particular community. What knowledge is coming into a community, what is going out and what is being shared to address socio-economic challenges?

Socio-economic-political knowledge

Many communities define economic knowledge through economic skills and livelihood activities such as commodity trading, retailing and converting natural resources into income. There are people who can use local resources like water, wood and land to produce excellent goods and services for the benefit of the entire community. On the other hand, social knowledge is about how community members make sense of their collective identity and preserve it. Also critical is political knowledge through which local people try to express, interpret and access their rights. This encompasses how local politics enhances community development and how community members deal with political conflicts. Political knowledge also extends to how communities deal with issues like domestic violence and managing collective resources.

Additional ways in which knowledge is understood at local level include age, gender, location, economic status, level of education, cultural background and exposure to other communities, among other parameters.  This means the knowledge landscape is experienced differently. Within each community are knowledge hubs and holders who include elders, chiefs, opinion leaders, artisans, spiritual leaders and others.  These share knowledge at various levels such as household, community and district.

From hand-outs to knowledge-driven development

One of the major reasons why development actors have remained obsessed with measuring success through the number of beneficiaries is that development support has for a long time been framed in social welfare terms characterized by hand-outs like food, clothes and small livestock.  These have to be actually counted before being given out for free. Giving hand-outs is about numbers like kilograms of maize meal, litres of cooking oil, etc.  When dealing with numbers, organizations are less concerned with return on investment (ROI) which is often difficult to measure. They are also not steered by sales or market share but budget allocation. Providing hundreds of tons of beans is considered more important than understanding whether recipients are going to eat the beans or not.

Development actors also provide infrastructural benefits in the form of supporting government efforts, for instance, in dam construction and rehabilitating irrigation schemes. These are also other forms of hand- outs that are not being expressed through ROI. An important question is the extent to which communities cope with climate change using their own knowledge to improve livelihoods using established infrastructure. Since it is all about numbers, how do communities utilize their knowledge to maximize outcomes from the investments made by development partners?

Rural communities should not continue to be connected with poverty in the material sense

Most development actors are working in rural areas because they think they want to reduce poverty in rural areas. But rural areas a lot of knowledge which make them rich in their own ways. Before introducing a project, it is becoming very important for development agencies like NGOs, government departments and the private sector to understand how each community deals with knowledge. Within all versions of community knowledge are champions and knowledge pockets built within communities by age, among other connectors. What connects widows is not belonging to the same community but the fact that they share similar circumstances, experiences and passion.

Focusing on community knowledge will ensure structures left when projects end are fully utilized.  Investment in dams, boreholes, irrigation schemes or rehabilitation of roads through food for assets is not a complete value chain. Instead of positioning themselves in ways that complete the value chain, most development agencies and government departments duplicate each other. When farmers produce more commodities from all these assets, lack of investment in market infrastructure like warehousing and cooling facilities creates more challenges than solutions.

In as much as investments by development agencies are social welfare, what part is knowledge?  How can beneficiaries convert infrastructure investments into knowledge hubs for socio-economic development?  It is no longer about the number of dams or irrigation schemes but the knowledge hubs for socio-economic development through infrastructure. It is also no longer about the number of people to benefit but knowledge to be generated through using the infrastructure and other resources like dams. In a changing climate, to what extent does knowledge and information on dams, boreholes and irrigation schemes assist communities in managing climate change?

Devolution of power should be about devolution of knowledge

Investment in knowledge will enable local people to convert their natural resources into value added products. A community may benefit more from increasing the number of champions who can gather knowledge and evidence on production, consumer tastes, preferences and consumption patterns than from more dams and irrigation schemes.  Every community should have structures built around knowledge experts embedded within diverse actors.  If weather stations are set up within communities, information should be interpreted at local level through local champions. Otherwise it is just a weather station with no links to local socio-economic development.

A community is just like a company with divisions or departments such as production, logistics, sales and marketing.  All these departments should be visualized in communities and conceptualized into soft skills.  Everybody has hard skills like production but soft skills and knowledge are scarce. Unfortunately, in most rural communities, knowledge remains trapped in silos with no clear pathways of knowledge sharing from rural to urban and regional levels. Without proper characterization of knowledge demand and supply pathways, it is easy to continue sending market information to livestock farmers when the farmers are taking livestock more as a store of value than a commodity to be sold any time.  / /

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