Building pathways for commercializing research findings and knowledge

Days of doing research for its own sake are numbered in developing countries. The same applies to an enduring tendency by researchers to be satisfied with publishing research findings into journals. Many African researchers are waking up to the fact that academic excellence will not solve teething challenges like mass poverty and unemployment among graduates. From all the investments that have gone into agricultural research in Africa and other developing parts of the world, there has not been meaningful efforts to lay strong foundations for commercializing research findings and knowledge.

zimbabwe agriculture

From the laboratory mentality to a commercial mentality

While it is known that agricultural researchers are not commercial experts, smart partnerships can assist in commercializing research results. Across Africa, efforts to commercialize research have mostly revolved around government research stations working with private seed companies who would reap the benefits of government investments in public research. Such relationships have not translated to substantial benefits for government research institutions which continue struggling to sustain their operations.

Much talk about impact pathways has not seen public research institutions being assisted to go beyond demonstration plots and trials to visible pathways for upscaling their research findings into commercial products. Most research findings continue ending up in journals and academic theses. Lack of a commercial pathways has seen several cases where farmers and consumers fall in love with bean and potato varieties bred at public agricultural research institutions being disappointed by unavailability of enough seed for mass production. This is one of many ways in which research institutions squander  opportunities to upscale and fully commercialize their research results into demanded products.

While government research institutions are largely considered public entities, there should be a limit to which their products and knowledge should remain public. For instance, there is another part where their knowledge should be valued and paid by users like when they produce seed should be bought by farmers and other value chain actors. The same way artists like musicians are paid through royalties should be the same way research institutes are allowed to craft cost-recovery business models for sustainability.

It is not true that smallholder farmers cannot pay for research or knowledge

The notion that smallholder farmers cannot pay for research is retrogressive. If farmers can pay to get national identity particulars like passports or to be treated at a hospital, who says they cannot pay for seed and knowledge? When farmers begin accessing knowledge and information from a local research institution or knowledge centre, they become members of knowledge ecologies that support research institutions. Likewise, when researchers are adequately informed by users, pathways for redistributing relevant knowledge and products emerge organically. Such sharing contributes to community resilience.

When citizens continue to expect free knowledge, products and services from government they lose their right to complain about receiving below par services from government.  All value chain actors including farmers should pay for knowledge. More importantly, it is critical to separate public information from private information so that farmers who want information for subsistence can be separated from those interested in commercial information that can only be assembled from many actors.

Publishing is not a sufficient indicator of knowledge and success

Many African researchers are beginning to realize that their performance and prestige as researchers cannot continue to be expressed through number of publications.  They are also starting to question why scientific ideas have to continue being shared in the form of papers. More importantly there is some emerging consensus to the effect that although publishing is important it remains largely foreign to African countries where knowledge travels more through relationships, trust and networks than publications. To that end, livestock and seed breeders cannot continue to be more famous for producing papers about their research than producing and commercializing their research findings into tangible products.  / /

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Why policy makers should know the difference between information and news

By confusing information with News, most African countries have neglected vital information that is neither News nor statistics but more important. What is ignored is information that continuously informs and guides socio-economic activities in rural communities. A lot of research has been done in many African communities by several institutions like NGOs, the private sector and government departments but the information cannot be found in one place. Most of the research reports and studies do not speak to each other while some organizations focus on individual value chain studies for narrow purposes.

zimbabwe agriculture

No one has taken time or put resources toward consolidating all these studies and researches into a holistic and fluid body of knowledge that can inform local development. When studies and information sources are fragmented, you cannot deduce trends that inform community development pathways.

What roles are ministries of information satisfying?

In most African countries, the ministry of information is about the media, news and political information at the exclusion of fluid socio-economic information. On the other hand, government officials think information is statistics yet without the contextual interpretation, statistics are just a set of meaningless numbers. Given that national statistical agencies lack a business angle, business people and investors always miss business sense in the data held by statistical agencies at national level.

The ministry of information also tends to avail information in other government departments in the form of news rather than part and parcel of daily work. For instance, the ministry of agriculture generates a lot of information daily and should not wait for such information to be converted into news and then shared with the majority. Digitalization should assist in turning such information into a fluid resource and an inclusive knowledge ecosystem that keeps communities updated and in touch with early warnings.

 Information is now a necessity and not a luxury

Ministries of information are yet to wake up to the fact that information has moved from being a luxury into a necessity. Therefore, besides inviting sabotage, leaving a commodity or service that is in high demand like information in the hands of private actors like Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) puts such commodities and services beyond the reach of the majority especially when decide to increase the cost of data bundles and airtime. For the majority to participate in economic development, a necessity like information should be a public good and government should ensure information that matters in economic development is accessible to the majority.

African governments that invest in fluid information collection and analyses will soon minimize food imports because farmers and other producers would be adequately informed to make quality decisions, contribute to solutions and provide early warnings. Being proactive means clarity on affordable and effective ways of generating information. Setting up knowledge gathering platforms within ecosystems is the fastest way of gathering information about diverse value chains. Such information and knowledge will become part and parcel of local farmers’ enterprises unlike expecting farmers in remote rural areas to subscribe to an information platform owned by a MNO based in the capital city more than 400km away. Local platforms can enable farmers to provide information and statistics to their local knowledge centers as well as begin to build their track records for financiers and other potential partners.

Farmers belonging to a community should have their socio-economic information pooled together for the purposes of guiding investment unlike leaving each farmer with his/her fragmented information or in the hands of MNOs. Fluid information gathering requires active, reliable and timely information sources. Currently much of the information coming from the ground does not have a clear destination. A system that does not link producers with diverse markets is dead. Farmers, traders and other value chain actors should interact freely.

 African communities have been over-researched

Most African communities have been over-researched such that asking them the same question is unproductive and causes fatigue among local people.  Those going to collect information should just be asking for new information instead of different organizations going to ask the same questions when doing their own separate baseline studies.

Had government and development organizations focused on setting up pathways for keeping local information fluid, each community would be having some consolidated demography such that if, for instance, someone goes to Binga district to collect information there would be no need to ask about levels of education or marital status since the information will have been gathered already and kept in a fluid state. The researcher would just ask people if their circumstances have changed since the last time information was collected and update the details unlike repeating questions.

Given that they already keep information about their population, village heads should be empowered to collect and update demography information regularly. They can even be given tablets in which they can easily update and keep their data in a fluid state. There is no reason why those conducting a census continue to estimate populations when the exact number of people in a community is known including where they are staying and those who have migrated. Why conduct a census every 10 days when people and communities have information that should simply be made fluid and shared in real time?  Instead of spending millions repeating researches that have been done, it’s key to keep the information as a flow.

 How the media can contribute positively

In addition to converting socio-economic information into fluid news, the mainstreaming media should paint a clear picture of the changing agricultural landscape in African countries. Media should be clarifying who is who in agriculture-driven economies? They should also be democratizing economic and financial news that has remained a preserve of economists and bankers for too long. Economic and financial information is still to be brought to the level of major economic actors like SMEs and farmers.

More importantly, the media should be simplifying monetary issues through programs like “Know Your Economy” through which ordinary people can be exposed to the dynamics of the economy. More than 80% of Africans do not read newspapers or listen to television when ministers of finance and reserve bank governors issue financial and monetary statements. It should be the role of media to translate and communicate some of these issues to the majority who remain excluded from formal financial issues.

The situation is worsened by the fact that African governments have not bothered to invest in economic and financial literacy for the majority. Economic plans and systems are still too complex for the majority to understand what is going on. When citizens do not understand their economy their contribution to solutions is limited. For instance, they stop caring about the national budget because they won’t see how it directly speaks to their aspirations. If you ask smallholder farmers how much they know about the national agricultural budget as announced by the minister of finance, they often don’t have a clue. Even policy makers like members of parliament are uninformed.

Using fluid information held by communities and taping into community knowledge centres or platforms, the media can nudge institutions like the National Economic Consultative Forum (NECF) to think about building their influence from the bottom, starting with convening Village Economic Consultative Forums,  Ward Economic Consultative Forums, District Economic Consultative Forums, Provincial Economic Consultative Forums and finally, NECF. The NECF cannot just start and end at national level and expect to be considered a serious national institution that fosters effective decision making about the economy.  / /

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Why are pathways for uplifting rural communities still missing

In spite of presence in rural areas by African governments and development agencies there are still no meaningful pathways for uplifting communities out of poverty.  A recent trend has seen development agencies working through some kind of consortia in one rural district or county but still after three or four years when the consortia is disbanded due to donor money running out, these rural areas remain the same if not worse. Information remains fragmented and it’s not clear who should be consolidating information and knowledge from diverse actors like agro-dealers, NGOs, processors and many other actors in rural communities?

clever mkove

Need to map interventions in rural communities

The way companies, governments and development agencies deal with information and knowledge has a bearing on the quality of products and services. If these institutions wait for agricultural information to become news for it to be taken seriously, they will not be able to develop pathways for uplifting rural areas. The mainstream media is interested in news not agricultural information and socio-economic trends. Interventions in each rural community should be properly mapped into a body of knowledge.  It is not just about producing a database of actors but interpreting activities, overlaps and synergies in ways that can inform investors. Every African country’s agricultural extension department should be capacitated to consolidate local knowledge into a strategic resource. It’s not about waiting for the national department of statistics but keeping agricultural information fresh and fluid.

While many development agencies and some private companies are now working in marginalized rural areas, what is often missing is a strategy or plan for them to leave such areas better. There are no rural development pathways for uplifting communities and rural areas the way private companies map a growth trajectory.  Such steps should see rural communities being assisted to map a clear pathway from rural electrification to infrastructure development to irrigation development and then setting up warehousing facilities, for instance. The private sector including banks are not investing long-term in agriculture and rural development. Otherwise all farmers producing commercial crops like cocoa, cotton and tobacco will now be owning irrigation systems. It appears most private actors are interested in taking what farmers produce and use it to develop their own enterprises, leaving farmers with their poverty.

Who can be appropriate custodians of local knowledge?

Ideally, agricultural extension services and local knowledge centres should become custodians of contextual data gathering, processing and sharing as pathways for uplifting rural communities. Such a task cannot be done by consortia of development agencies which only exist for a few years.  Farmer unions are also too membership-focused to embrace everyone in a community while individual NGOs only focus on their beneficiaries to the exclusion of local knowledge champions who may not be part of specific projects.  For instance in a ward comprising 10 000 households, an NGO or consortia may only collect information about its beneficiaries not everyone.

With adequate support, extension services should be able to consolidate all the data including details of how much maize is milled by local grinding mills per week in a district or ward as well as the number of cattle leaving for urban abattoirs. Such information has a huge bearing on food security and the local economy.  When agricultural extension officers become present at the burgeoning African informal markets, it becomes mandatory for each farmer who visits the market to leave information with extension officers. These extension officers can also easily consolidate information from diverse classes of farmers and other government departments like ministries of health, local government and ICTs.

It’s time to remove the colonial straight jacket

What is stalling development is the fact that most African governments are still stuck in colonial hierarchical reporting structures which are less about interactive knowledge sharing but more about a subordinate angle. Information going up the ladder from the grassroots to the head office is rarely value added along the way from the farmer to extension officer to district and province. Ideally, the district Agritex officer should be empowered to consolidate and respond to issues from the ground as well as synthesize information from the head office and private companies into local languages for the grassroots.

There is no reason why simple information gathering and sharing tools have not been developed for use by extension officers and farmers at local level. High literacy levels are useless if local people cannot contribute to policy making processes through gathering and sharing information on what is happening in their contexts. A visit to any African rural community reveals a lot of ideas and knowledge nuggets that are unfortunately not finding pathways for enriching government decisions.

Stock cards have for decades been limited to cattle information but not extended to other livestock like donkeys, goats, sheep and chickens yet more than 90 percent of rural households own chickens, goats and other small stock that deserve some tracking system similar to stock cards. Small stock are a source of resilience for smallholder farmers and should be part of a very strong information management system starting from the grassroots to national level.

Statutory Instrument on enhancing the flow of agriculture and livelihood information

Why do political elections have a powerful information collection system while agriculture and rural development don’t have? In all African countries including the poorest, election periods are characterized by an efficient information collection system, making it possible for election results from the remotest Kazingizi primary school to reach the command centre within a few hours. If a whole command centre can be set up for elections, most of which leave communities more divided, why can’t the same attention and resources be devoted to something as fundamental as agriculture and rural development information?

Data related to food distribution and input distribution is easily collected country wide but the same is not being done for agricultural value chains and rural development information. Each African country should consider enacting a Statutory Instrument on enhancing the flow of agriculture and livelihood information. There is no doubt that a fluid information collection system is the foundation of effective service delivery and development. Transformation should start with redefining the role of grassroots actors. Expertise and information on how to produce most agricultural commodities is now public knowledge that just needs to be harnessed nationally and globally for farmers to access it. That is why if anyone does a google search on producing cattle, groundnuts, oranges or any commodity, more than a dozen documents show up.

 The supremacy of communication

African service delivery would be better if communication was not one of the most under-rated activities and roles in African countries. Policy makers may have the best strategies but without reliable pathways of sharing, such strategies are useless. In fact, strategies are not tangible products unless they are transformed by communication into tangible results.  Farmers don’t care about strategies crops and livestock resulting from the application of strategies. Smart governments and organizations are beginning to ensure communication is fully resourced not just broadcasting stations or newspapers that are only interested in selling news.  Interpretation is a fundamental part of communication. How can developing countries make their communication tools more relevant and purposeful? African countries are losing billions of dollars annually due to poor communication and paying lip service to information.  / /

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How do we build pathways for reinvesting back to the original source?

Once raw materials leave Africa for other parts of the world, there is no clear pathway fir re-investing back. The structure of the global economy is such that Africans who migrate to the diaspora will not be able to re-invest back home as much as they would want. Likewise those who leave rural areas for the city also struggle to re-invest back in their home areas.  The formerly educated have become satisfied in investing in the city than in rural business centres and growth points close to where they grew up. It is not clear whether capitalism is to blame for this dilemma or not.


How can policy makers address this issue?

Instead of tailoring easy of doing business incentives in favor of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), African policy makers need to come up with incentives for Local Direct Investment (LDI). This will spark local people’s appetite to re-invest where they were born and bred. Government parastatals responsible for collecting levies from agricultural commodities and minerals should lead by example through re-investing more in areas that produce the highest earning agricultural commodities and minerals. That way Gokwe and Muzarabani districts of Zimbabwe would fully enjoy the benefits of cotton production while farmers in Gwanda and Insiza districts would be enjoying the benefits of cattle production.

A major challenge is that once money gets into government coffers, there are no pathways for the money to trickle back to the original sources of raw materials. Such pathways must be enshrined in the constitution to avoid cases where people who were moved from Chiadzwa ended up deserting nice houses that were built for them in new areas to which they were relocated to give way for diamond mining. The people said nice houses are not a worthy investment without sources of income. Why should community share ownership deals give only 10% shares to the community which owns the resources?

Need for national constitutions with a conscience

African countries like Zimbabwe have not done much to decolonize national constitutions to support investments in rebuilding people’s livelihoods and local ecosystems. Zimbabwe’s national constitution still have colonial biases that compromise ordinary people’s home-grown solutions.  Some people are clutching on fundamental resources like land by hiding behind the constitution which priorities private property rights. The local elite are also using the constitution to defend themselves in courts, especially those in business deals related to agriculture, energy and mining. Meanwhile the only time an ordinary poor person hears about the constitution is when s/he commits a crime and is hauled before the courts.

Instead of holding onto imported notions like property rights as if communities and individuals do not have rights to land and resources, governments should use national constitution to guide the development of the economy as opposed to being a barrier. Many African constitutions are not relevant for smallholder farmers. For instance, in Zimbabwe the national constitution says nothing meaningful about protecting natural resources like land from privatization. It is also completely silent about protecting farmers from exploitation by mobile money agents.  As if that is not enough, constitution does not protect farmers from delayed payment by the Grain Marketing Board or processing companies yet that is about people’s lives.

Toward a constitution that speaks to local economic actors

A people-friendly constitution should protect ordinary people from dubious prophets, loan sharks, contracting companies, predatory banks and Micro Finance Institutions. The national constitution should also be simple to understand for ordinary people who cannot afford a lawyer to interpret it for them.  More importantly, the constitution should speak to the development of the local economy by supporting reinvestment to the source. It should not just be for legal experts and the elite but for everyone including farmers, informal traders and SMEs who are now driving most African economies.

If seed sold to farmers fails to perform there should be a constitutional provision for farmers to sue seed companies or be reimbursed. Unfortunately farmers are often blamed for not using the seed properly when the problem is with the seed. Ordinary people and their knowledge are also not protected by the constitution. A constitution that does not empower farmers and the majority is not useful. That is why farmers and ordinary people do not bother reading constitutional documents or buy newspapers. In fact they would rather use newspapers for smoking tobacco because the content is not relevant to them. Instead of protecting the majority and fostering investments into local communities, African constitutions are used by politicians and high profile people to settle their personal scores.  / /

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