How do we liberate agriculture and development from academic preferences

Between key informants and literature reviews, which are the most reliable sources of knowledge in developing countries? There is an unfortunate tendency to under-value information and knowledge from key informants like farmers who are coping with climate change. Traders who have seen the informal market surviving several droughts and food processors who have endured hardships associated with collapsing agricultural industries are also less valued sources of wisdom. Although a study that gathers fresh evidence and experiences from these people is more reliable than any literature review, such evidence is considered anecdotal and therefore ranked lower than literature review. The rate at which development is taking place in poor countries remains stagnant because academics and other knowledge workers prefer using stale knowledge in books and journals written before the dawn of software.


Pitfalls of relying on stale knowledge

Some of the people obsessed with literature reviews are fully aware that much of the knowledge in developing countries has not been documented into books and journals that can be cited. Local knowledge remains in communities and key informants because local academics and researchers in developing countries are not producing their own literature based on their own history and socio-economic-environmental and political context. In disciplines like agriculture, economics, history, law and engineering, academics and researchers in developing countries are still citing traditional thinkers from the North as if no new knowledge is being generated. 

Experiences and lessons that have quietly informed social and economic growth patterns in African countries have not been converted into literature that can be reviewed and relied upon for progress. For instance, had drought experiences in 1992 and other years been carefully documented into development literature, it could currently be cited to inform how communities and countries recover from climate-related setbacks unlike resorting to literature on greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized countries. On the economic front, years of high inflation in countries like Zimbabwe in 2008 should have been a source of literature on how an economy can bounce back from more than 1000 percent inflation to a single digit.

Tapping into fast changing trends

Tracking and analyzing changing consumer trends is more powerful than any literature. It can show informative contradictions between young urban youths joining the fast food chain bandwagon and on the other hand previously orphaned crops and indigenous livestock inserting themselves in the market. For instance, wild fruits are becoming commercialized yet there is certainly no literature on how Nyii and Tsvubvu have been performing in urban markets for decades because their market penetration is a less than five year trend, induced by climate change. All these emerging trends should inform development pathways more than resorting to literature review. 

Research findings that cite books written more than 10 years ag are meaningless in the new environment characterizes by mobile money and the rapid movement of SMEs into the mainstream economy. Literature review cannot explain emerging issues in agriculture and health. For instance, many countries in Southern Africa are now experiencing crop and livestock diseases like Tuta Absoluta, Fall Army Worm and January diseases as well as several human ailments which did not exist a few years ago. You cannot find useful literature on these diseases going back 10 years to 50 years. When literature review is prioritized ahead of real-time knowledge, developing countries end up recycling old ideas at the expense of new ideas that speak to the evolving context. Countries end up doing endless policy reviews when developing new fluid policies is more ideal.

Why not develop frameworks for fluid literature

With the introduction of ICTs and globalization, developing countries have an opportunity to revisit ways of capturing oral literature and making it relevant to their socio-economic-environmental and political solutions. It is possible to ride on the proliferation of ICT platforms like voice call, emails, chats, twitter and many others that have become critical in combining oral and written expressions of knowledge. Such platforms are an opportunity to review research methodologies which are critical for generating literature, informing development interventions and continuous updating of government policies. Given that most of it has not been documented, local knowledge exists as a fluid body of knowledge within communities and key informants and not authored by a single person or turned into a PDF. For instance, knowledge about climate change is not in the form of literature but a process that has been happening and real people have been experiencing droughts, floods and cyclones.

As opposed to depending on books written many years ago, developing countries need all-inclusive participatory approaches to project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation based not on physical assets but inclusive knowledge and information sharing pathways that can give communities updates and early warning systems. These can become the basis for informing research methodologies and literature review based on continuously gathered fluid experiences. Currently, field officers in most projects are not able to capture all important details in project reports. A monthly report can only be covered by first week visits to one ward and then a visit to another ward towards the end of the month. The output is called a monthly report yet it will have missed a lot of details in most wards. Students from universities and agricultural colleges who engage with value chains and farming communities do not get information they are looking for and end up resorting to stale literature review. The situation is worse in rainfall predictions where farmers are expected to plan and make decisions based on scant details which cannot adequately enable them to anticipate and plan against risks. In a changing climate, there is definite need fluid systems of gathering and processing evidence rather than doing literature review or waiting for crop and livestock assessments which happen once a year. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the annual national crop and livestock survey report comes out in February/March when much of the damaging take place from winter to summer. Examples of winter damages are related to frost but such details are not covered by the national crop and livestock assessment in order to paint a realistic food situation.

A fluid information system would address such issues through weekly and monthly updates into the crop and livestock survey, keeping policy makers and development agencies accurately informed. Each province now has a university and these institutions have an opportunity to increase their relevance by getting students and relevant faculties to gather local data and contribute to the national fluid survey. Devolution of knowledge should see statistical agencies having a presence at district level so that data is quickly processed for the local audience and needs unlike sending all the information to the capital city and waiting for more than a year to receive processed results.  By the time such feedback is received, the situation will have completely changed on the ground, leading to misinformed decisions.

Addressing cases where development projects leave communities hanging

A fluid knowledge platform will fill gaps left by projects when they phase out so that farmers continue working with the market appropriately. Most private companies and so-called off-takers are not permanent institutions. One season they are buying commodities, the next season they are bankrupt leaving farmers without a market. On the other hand, mass markets are always there and projects that shun mass markets in preference for formal companies limit the capacity of farmers to connect with the entire market. By connecting with the market, a fluid information system will not only organize local production but also extend knowledge about aggregation, quality, production calendars and many other aspects. Aggregation starts with aggregating statistics in terms of what is available and what is needed in different markets followed by aggregation of physical commodities in proper grades and specifications. 

To what extent have development agencies been hijacked by academics?

It seems one of the contributing factors to the challenges mentioned above is that government departments and development organizations have being infiltrated by academics who cannot connect with grassroots issues. Development interventions should be in the hands of people who stay in communities and clearly understand local challenges and opportunities unlike academics who are more comfortable in lecture theatres where literature review is a key staple. Unfortunately, many development agencies have over the years built rigid structures from district to international levels. Where programs are trying to reach 5000 farmers, the entire national and international flair of the development organization exerts itself in all the processes. This makes the whole intervention academic because the top officials at the head office are mostly academics hired through the academic qualifications route as opposed to practical qualifications. By default, these organizations convert community interventions into academic institutions and faculties. That partly explains the emphasis on theories of change as if development theories are boxed yet theory building and development is a fluid process benefitting from dynamic sources.  / /

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Seven lies against mass markets in developing countries

Like many practices that are seriously misunderstood in developing countries, mass markets are full of distortions, faulty assumptions and wrong thinking. To assist policy makers, investors and ordinary people in getting past a number of lies and discover the real truth about mass markets, eMKambo has taken time to identify and expose the following lies:


  1. Commodities in the informal mass market are of poor quality. This is one of the biggest faulty assumptions. If it was true, informal food mass markets like Mbare in Harare, Nairobi mass market in Kenya and Makola market in Accra would not attract high income consumers. Supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and hotels would not be seen buying food from these markets.
  1. Mass markets are about low prices. That is not true because sometimes supermarkets can have lower prices, not to mention quality, than mass markets due to various reasons.
  1. Mass markets have one category of middlemen all called Makoronyera, for instance in This is another myth. Mass markets have more than seven types of middlemen, most of whom have been conducting honest business practices for decades, otherwise they would have gone out of business years ago.
  1. Mass markets do not use formal means of payment and terms of trading. In fact all forms of transaction modes and business practices found in the formal economy are also characteristics of mass markets. Many traders in the mass market provide agricultural commodities to hotels and restaurants on credit terms ranging from 7 to 15 days, the same terms given to farmers by some hotels and supermarkets. Commodities that are given to the formal market on such credit terms include butternuts, carrots, green beans, potatoes, peas and many others.
  1. Commodities traded in the mass market lack freshness compared to those traded in the formal market. In fact the opposite is true. The reason why high income earners visit mass markets is because they get commodities fresh from the field unlike commodities that would have moved from one cold room to the other over a week or more days. Consumer consciousness on freshness is increasing and most consumers prefer commodities from farm to fork than from farm to factory to fork. Long supply chains that are typical of formal markets result in some commodities losing freshness, quality and taste.
  1. Another decades old lie is that mass markets experience high commodity losses, especially of perishable commodities. In mass markets only poor quality commodities that would have been brought for speculative selling may be lost. High quality produce is rarely lost since everything is sold fast and cleared daily within hours. Any losses that happen are in proportion to the volumes sold which means they are very minimal. Conversely, formal markets can sometimes throw away high quality commodities due to low sales.
  1. Finally, there is a wrong impression that mass markets do not deal with high value commodities like grapes, strawberries, pears and mushrooms yet all these are traded in the mass market.

Practices that are unique to mass markets

Unlike the formal market where some companies engage merchandisers to promote their products in supermarkets, traders in the mass markets are merchandisers for farmers from whom they buy commodities for breaking bulk and reselling. The merchandising function has been embedded in the owner (trader).  This is an advantage against formal markets where commodities are just displayed with the assumption that the customer knows what s/he wants.  Trader-merchandisers have acquired intimate knowledge about their commodities are ready to share such knowledge with consumers. Such knowledge can include nutritional benefits and methods of cooking particular commodities. The trader-merchandiser-knowledge broker role is critical in mass markets where 100 traders can be selling one commodity, meaning everybody has to bring out his/her product’s unique selling proposition.

Another unique feature of mass markets is that they use informative advertising as opposed to persuasive advertising used by formal markets which border on deception and over-selling commodities as if they perform magic.  Informative advertising provides benefits of each commodity. Forms of sales promotion in the mass market include allowing customers to taste products. Mass markets also have a wide product range and there is always a discount for volume purchases, for instance if you buy 20 cabbages you can get one or two for free. The more significant the volume purchases the more the discount. Mass markets have room for negotiation – all prices are negotiable and no commodity is returned to farmers due to poor sales like what is done by formal markets where perishable commodities like lettuce and spinach can be returned to farmers if not sold.

Mass markets as pathways of innovation

Most seed companies use demonstration plots to develop and assess the performance, size, shelf life and fruit filling (brics) of the their horticulture varieties usually over two to three seasons before releasing the varieties to farmers. Market acceptance for these varieties is also tested through formal markets without investing in getting feedback from the mass market. While formal markets give them feedback on how tomatoes and vegetables are performing in the kitchen and in sandwiches, mass markets are where performance is really proven.

For instance, when Charter Seeds began introducing tomato varieties in Zimbabwe, it started with 11 star varieties but it was in the mass market that Star 9009 and Star 9003 proved to be champions. Feedback from the mass market enabled the company to save resources and concentrate on the few most popular varieties. Star 9003 sold very well in Bulawayo market due to appropriate environment like temperatures and adequate levels of heat. In cold temperatures like Mashonaland East, Star 9009 has remained the performer, thanks to evidence from the mass market.

In another example, the mass market is refusing to accept all other jam tomato varieties except HTX14 which is performing better than Riogrand, Petrorosa and others.  HTX14 has good fruit size while Riogrand has small fruit size. In addition to long shelf life and high yield in the field, HTX14 has good inside flesh (brics) which is required by processing companies. Besides not buying and experimenting with a wide range of varieties, formal markets do not sell jam tomato preferring green-house tomato whose uses are very narrow. On the other hand, mass markets order and sell by variety while formal markets do not ask about variety but are more interested in whether the tomato is produced in the open field or green house.

Decisions to buy seed and other inputs should be informed by micro climates as opposed to generic information. Unfortunately most farmers just buy any seed they see in the retail shops without adequate knowledge on whether it will perform in their area. It is more of guess work than informed decision and that is how farmers lose income through risks associated with wrong decisions.  / /

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The easy of doing business fallacy in low income countries

Besides focusing on pleasing foreign investors, the easy of doing business hype gives an impression that business is easy. If doing business was easy everybody would be a business person. Farmers and entrepreneurs who wait for conditions to become favorable in order to get into business will stop forever. Most organizations and people who promote the notion of easy of doing business have never run businesses themselves.


Isn’t it correct that fortunes are born in bad markets?

The ability to navigate uncertainties is the most powerful skill in the business world.  Those who do well in hard times will survive anywhere. For a long time, development organizations have pretended to simplify people’s livelihood including doing business but this has happened at the expense of innovation. Open markets in developing countries have for decades been proving that doing business is not easy. If business was easy those with collateral would easily get all the money from banks and succeeding in doing their businesses. Conversely, small actors like SMEs who do not have the collateral required by banks have a better sense of the business environment than big boys who can easily walk into a bank and get what they want but fail to run businesses.

Lessons from dynamics in African mass markets

Every farmer who brings commodities in the mass market is expected to sell everything within four hours irrespective of the volume of commodities s/he brings. The farmer will have to know different actors including opportunistic traders who jump onto every fast moving commodity.  Being opportunistic, these traders go for a commodity when it has the best price. For instance, when tomatoes are in short supply they colonize them but when there is a tomato glut they leave farmers to struggle on their own. A desire to quickly seal a deal is one characteristic of a trader. Before the farmer knows it, s/he has already agreed to a deal.  These are the same techniques applied by some foreign investors on uninformed government officials who end up signing deals that do not help ordinary people like farmers.

How mass market traders also use behavioral economics

By looking at dressing and walking style, traders can tell whether one is a farmer or trader. Traders walk much faster. The way commodities from a farmer and a trader are stacked is also telling. Traders have a structure of stacking and grading by stacking while the farmer’s commodities are often mixed up. A  trader’s commodities are well packed and in large sizes or portions on top.  When traders visit farms they go with experienced packers – packing is where some of the manipulation happens through over-packing. Since most smallholder farmers do not have scales to weigh commodities on-farm, measuring through observations sees the trader getting an extra crate from at least four crates. This is just to illustrate how there is no real easy of doing farming as a business.

How competitors close to the market end up setting prices

A farmer who brings 1000 crates of tomatoes tend to set the price and rules of the game for the farmer who brings 200 crates.  If a box is going for $10, the farmer who brings 1000 crates will earn $10 000 while the one who brings 200 crates will earn $2000 within the four hours of marketing.  Assuming transport costs constitute 20% of sales, the 1000 crates farmer will incur $2000 transport costs while the 200 crates farmer will incur $4000 transport costs because s/he has to do five trips in order to match the 1000 crates farmer who will have brought his consignment in one trip.

This means the 1000 crates farmer enjoys economies of scale, enabling him/her to set prices. He can afford to drop prices to $8/crate and still break even while the 200 crate farmer will not be able to survive. This is how big volume farmers can push out smallholder farmers who bring small volumes. The same scenario applies to the inputs side. Farmers who are subsidized with inputs push those who buy their own inputs out of the market. It means prices will not be set by supply and demand but by some farmers with hidden advantages that enable them to set prices downwards. The market does not care that commodities coming to the market were produced with different costs.  It is the same with formal education. Children in rural areas are expected to write the same examination with urban children who have many advantages like electricity and libraries and be expected to compete for the same employment opportunities.

In agriculture, farmers close to supermarkets have a lot of advantages like good road network and abundant transport. On the other hand, farmers in Rusitu which is a good production zone but beset by poor infrastructure are less competitive in the same market with farmers from Mazowe or Norton. That is how they are taken advantage of by farmers close to the market whose price settings influences prices on the entire market.  Farmers close to the market end up becoming buyers of commodities from those in distant production zones.

Promoting easy of doing business through exploring other competitive advantages

Besides price, what other competitive advantages can be used to assist farmers far from the market?  Nyanga potato farmers in Zimbabwe have managed to stand up to the competition due to their unique micro climate which enables them to produce high quality potatoes and supply when competitors do not have the commodity. What competitive advantages can be identified in distant farmers so that they can have a percentage share in setting prices?  When such advantages are identified and cultivated, price stops becoming the only determinant of consumers’ decisions to buy.  From that angle, there will be a justification for prices to differ as farmers from distant areas will have a unique selling proposition justifying higher prices to compensate market-related costs. Unless policy makers understand these issues at a granular level, easy of doing business initiatives will not benefit farmers and small entrepreneurs.  / /

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Empowering communities to appreciate and conduct research

If developing countries are going to only recognize and respect research results from formal research institutes and universities, they will continue excluding diverse voices and stifling ambition. While formal institutions in Africa are doing their thing, ordinary people in farming communities, fishing villages and informal markets are creatively shaping their own future and adapting in the moment. It is unfortunate that the conventional notion of research does not arm ordinary people with principles of conducting research that informs their daily lives in ways that inform national policy.


Before making recent overnight monetary pronouncements, the government of Zimbabwe could have benefitted from throwing a few simple research questions to ordinary people. Such questions could include: What are the uses of money?  To what extent do local communities understand what money is and its role in their daily lives or economic development?  What is foreign exchange?   What do you think are the benefits of a country having its own currency?  Such basic questions can open the door to a lot of knowledge and should not be a preserve of monetary circles.

The surprising power of genuine consultation

Getting ordinary people to answer the above questions does not require a sophisticated consultancy firm using imported methodologies but simple tools and consultative processes. When key economic actors like farmers and informal traders participate and contribute in such research, it become easy for government to come up with informed monetary policies owned by the majority. Economic fundamentals like currency are an example of public knowledge which should be understood by every citizen starting from a tender age. Such knowledge can speed up adoption and implementation of policies. Implementers are people on the ground who face different contexts daily and any changes in monetary policies directly affects their daily lives.

Injecting relevance in agricultural research

The need to democratize research is more telling in African agriculture. In as much as knowledge is said to be in research institutes, chemical companies and seed companies, when such knowledge comes down to farmers, it is brought more as remedies like drought tolerant varieties or chemicals to control diseases and pests. There is scant explanation why the recommended seed varieties are drought tolerant and why other seed varieties do not have the same characteristics or why chemicals have an expiry date.

Communities are wondering why experts are failing to control Fall Armyworm with local medicines. A question being asked repeatedly by farmers is: What is in Fall Armyworm that makes it resistant to all existing ways of controlling it without having to resort to imported chemicals?  In the absence of convincing scientific explanations, farmers in Gokwe North district of Zimbabwe have been quietly conducting their own experiments to kill Fall Armyworm by inserting grains of sand in the heart of the maize plant in which the Fall Armyworm will have created a home for itself. The thinking among the experimenting farmers is that sand will squeeze and suffocate the pest as it tries to feed or move.

Farmers in Gokwe and Hurungwe districts of Zimbabwe are also experimenting with different ways of controlling American Bollworm which they have given a nickname “Madzibaba” because of its white presence resembling clothing used worn by members of the Apostolic sect.  Those in tomato production are also quietly grappling with diverse ways of controlling Tuta Absoluta. The fact that formal research is not providing adequate answers does not only fuel local experiments but increases speculation among farmers that new diseases and pests are being manufactured by chemical companies so that they can continue selling different chemicals as remedies.

After decades struggling with cattle ticks, farmers continue to wonder why science and formal research has not found a permanent solution. They notice that some researchers have been making a living from researching and studying the same pests for decades.  Why should pests and weevils like maize grain borer be part of a syllabus for 30 years when such insects should be controlled or killed? By now, such pests would have been removed from the university syllabus if there had been commitment to using research in finding permanent solutions. Farmers and ordinary people may be forgiven when they think that research has become more for business and academic excellence than a source of solutions.

 Governance and political structures as knowledge and research pathways

Since not all research findings or pieces of knowledge can be conveyed through conventional extension methods, there is scope for using political and government structures as pathways for sharing knowledge and research findings with ordinary people who are supposed to be the consumers of research-driven knowledge.  Most African countries have the same structures. On the political side are councilors or local authorities and members of parliament connected with the grassroots. On the other hand, some government departments have representatives at village level, for example government agricultural extension officers and village health workers as well as veterinary officers and nurses. More than 60 percent of these officers need re-training if they are to convey fluid research knowledge in the digital era.

The importance of embedding financial literacy in service provision

Wherever the above service providers go they use money. That means financial literacy should be part of ordinary people’s knowledge. Unfortunately many African countries are locking core facilities in silos for different economic sectors like Agriculture, Environment and Health.  They are not building the financial component into service provision yet behind every service are budgetary and monetary issues which should be known by ordinary consumers of the services. Supply trends for services are affected by budgetary implications. For instance, because farmers do not know financial underpinnings of the extension worker, when an extension officer does not show up they will just say, “Our extension officer is very lazy” yet his/her failure to deliver services is being affected by budgetary issues.

Likewise, behind NGO programs are budgetary and monetary implications which communities are entitled to know. When commodities coming into communities are more expensive than elsewhere, local people blame the store owner who brings the commodities just as farmers blame the traders in the market when commodity prices remain low. When ordinary consumers do not understand underlying budgetary and financial issues related to availing goods and services, they blame the service provider yet service providers like agro-dealers are messengers of budgetary and financial issues. There is no platform for sharing the message behind the message. Failure to use research in clarifying these issues invites political implications based on lack of correct information and knowledge. Localizing research can ensure knowledge flows from the grassroots frequently.  The government should focus on consolidating solutions from the ground such that if those solutions go back as feedback, communities quickly buy-in because they recognize their contributions.

Decolonizing knowledge systems

One of the reasons formal research is not speaking to informal ordinary people’s daily research in most African countries is because knowledge structures and systems are still very colonial. For instance think tanks and experts are still located at head offices in capital cities. While the Ministry of Agriculture has largely been set up for farmers, an individual extension officer is expected to work with more than 100 farmers at the grassroots while economists and other professionals are based at the head office. The extension officer is expected to be conversant with agriculture, energy, finance, environment, climate and many other issues that trouble famers daily.  Of the more than 20 government ministries, less than five have grassroots representation.  In the digital era, why does the ministry of ICTs not have an ICT officer at the grassroots? The ministry of finance also does not have officers at village or district level. As a result, financial and ICT issues are left to financial institutions and Mobile Network Operators who are mostly profit-oriented and not subscribe to the notion of knowledge as a public good.

As if the above is not enough, African countries are building universities that are disjointed from the ecosystem in which they exist and not bringing value into communities where they are located. Why are local communities in which universities are located still struggling with commercial and financial issues when university students are studying those courses for at least four years? These universities should be conducting knowledge cafes in their surrounding communities and building knowledge hubs to address local people’s real like aspirations, challenges and opportunities. Such knowledge should also inform educational curricular so that commerce and finance is taught at primary school than beginning at secondary level. School children in the digital age have become conversant with foreign currency, exchange rates and mobile money at a tender age.  / /

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