Africa Day should now be more about knowledge than politics

Without belittling the importance of celebrating independence, African countries should now be using 25 May (Africa Day) to take stock of knowledge-based achievements and gaps. If all African countries had created a university education model relevant to their development needs and aspirations, African Day would be ideal for celebrating home-grown science around indigenous food systems. By consuming imported food during special days like African Day, African countries limit the capacity of indigenous food to participate in socio-economic development. Indigenous hotels should lead by example through serving indigenous food as a unique selling proposition for each country.

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Recognizing intrinsic knowledge and indigenous science

African leaders should use African Day to reflect on why imported science that continues to control formal education systems in Africa is still failing to produce graduates with relevant skills, knowledge and dispositions for generating solutions. For instance, much of the indigenous food systems are driven by intrinsic knowledge and indigenous science especially in relation to food preparation. Where imported knowledge systems emphasize boiling for 20 – 30 minutes, African food preparation systems and skills are in-born. There is no measurement or scale for putting salt besides tasting.  Unfortunately, African university graduates have not been able to process indigenous science into a knowledge basket that can also be exported. Cooking sadza with mugoti and making hodzeko milk are skills that should be exported as intuitive knowledge worthy studying in higher institutions of learning.

When you ask formally educated Africans why they are not solving simple problems the main answer is lack of money. Yet not everything needs money because there will never be sufficient money for solving problems.  That is why people acquire knowledge so that they do not associate every advancement with money but knowledge. Indigenous science is different from imported science which takes learning as memorization and reproduction of facts, figures and rules. It is not only about using available resources to solve problems but also includes building the capacity of young people to interrogate their attitudes, beliefs and mentalities as part of formulating solutions.

Need to domesticate imported science

If imported science was easy to domesticate, African medical doctors trained through the Western university education system would by now have used their knowledge to develop local drugs combining western science and indigenous science. After spending more than five years studying medicine and thereafter practicing as a medical doctor for more than 10 years, an African medical doctor still cannot generate new knowledge in the form of drugs or new ways of treating diseases. Although some diseases and ailments are contextual, African western trained doctors continue to merely administer medicines and cures developed by other people in the West.

Medical professionals around the world are failing to find cure for COVID-19 because they are using borrowed knowledge developed by a few individuals. By now African doctors should have been able to contextualize imported knowledge and created unique medicines using local herbs. If medical doctors were paid by results, what would be the results of African doctors who continue to use imported science?

After spending 7 years studying veterinary science and practicing as veterinary doctors for decades, African veterinary doctors can only administer imported veterinary products while millions of farmers continue to lose millions of cattle from Therleriosis (January disease), Antrax as well as Foot and Mount Disease (FMD) among others.

As they celebrate Africa Day on 25th May 2020, African leaders should be worried that imported curricula remains a barrier to innovative solutions using local plant materials and indigenous science passed from one generation to the other. The more an African absorbed western education, the more s/he is alienated from local science and indigenous knowledge systems.  / /

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Rediscovering the value of indigenous knowledge through COVID-19

By restricting movement between rural and urban areas, there is no doubt that lockdowns in African countries have weakened domestic trade and social fabrics that sustain most low income economies. Contrary to views from policy makers, African economies are not sustained by international trade but domestic commerce and social capital. COVID19-induced lockdowns have made it difficult for urban dwellers to get bags of Nzungu, Nyimo and Mumhare from parents in rural areas as long distance buses have been stopped from operating. Neither can they taste favorite indigenous fruits like tsvubvu or herbs like Zumbani and others famous for fighting flue which is common in winter.  However, that is where the bad news ends.

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Going back to the roots

Failure to transport perishable commodities to cities is beginning to inspire a new sense of self-reliance among farmers and rural people. So important has become traditional ways of preserving food that most farmers are wondering why they were always rushing to sell their valuable commodities for a song when they can wait and add more value. On the other hand, urban consumers who have previously over-depended on imported food systems to the point of associating mufushwa with poverty are beginning to look for it to fill gaps created by absence of fresh vegetables from rural areas. Those in the fresh meat and fish industries are dusting their knowledge on drying beef into chimukuyu which after all is said to be superior because it does not cause gout. Pre-COVID-19, the promotion of indigenous food was labelled informal food vending – of Mutakura, Mahewu, road runners and Mazondo.

Drawing lessons from COVID-19, if African policy makers had promoted a very strong culture of food preservation, the impact of the pandemic would be softened.  More than 90% of our major staples in Africa are rain-fed which means they are seasonal. The same applies to indigenous vegetables like nyevhe as well as fruits like mawuyu, nyii, tsvubvu and masawu which come in abundance leading communities to suffer economic losses.

Unfortunately policy makers’ notion of preservation is just about storage and warehousing yet food should be warehoused when already preserved. African grandmothers made different kinds of mumhare and mufushwa to last until the next harvest. Sweet potatoes were preserved in pfimbi and ripening of fruits through kupfimbika remains a very common practice today in Zimbabwe, for instance. All that knowledge is now due for assessment and improvement although preservation technology is yet to fully embrace indigenous knowledge systems.

No need for preservatives

A major attraction for indigenously preserved food is that it does not have preservatives which are said to be causing different kinds of cancers that are claiming the lives of many eminent Africans. There is a strong emerging view that if properly done, preserved indigenous food can go through the retail supply chain involving agro-dealers who are an integral part of processed food distribution chain.  Farmers have observed that the growth of the modern food chain like fast foods is not contributing much to the growth of smallholder farmers. Recipes and spices used by fast food outlets are meant to promote producers from source countries. For instance, recipes and spices that go into pizzas and niche restaurants are not produced locally as a way of preserving global supply chain from which fast food chains originate.

Upgrading and simplifying indigenous value addition knowledge

Developing countries have not looked at appropriate technology that can simplify value addition knowledge especially traditional knowledge such as on drying mufushwa and brewing mahewu. Consequently there has not been much preservation and quality improvement of mufushwa and other indigenous foods into ready to eat products for better domestic nutrition and export. At national or regional level there has not been meaningful efforts to add value to traditional knowledge on preservation methods.

There is still overwhelming preference for imported knowledge like canning beef and beans as well as tomato sauce which process requires hitech. Africans who grew up in an agrarian society remember producing their own baobab yoghurt through mixing with cow milk while herding cattle.  It is possible that such indigenous knowledge was poached and commercialized.  Now it is not clear who is coping who in producing yoghurt. Mahewu was brewed using chimera but now some companies are producing mahewu but have kept the original sources of knowledge invisible.

For how long are African food systems going to remain locked in specific areas or regions?

This is another fundamental questions triggered in people’s minds as they grapple with the consequences of COVID – 19 on their food systems. Suddenly they realize how their food systems are still locked in specific rural areas and production zones and why they need to develop supply chains through which different production zones can enrich each other. Another telling observation is that more than 50% of the urban population lack rural knowledge. Little knowledge of what urban people are aware of is obtained through informal markets like Mbare in Harare and many others across African cities. However, Zumbani and Mufandichimuka cannot be found in supermarkets where the majority urban dwellers shop.

A lot of knowledge gaps exist between the young generation and local food systems. By not cultivating such knowledge, Africans are killing future demand for indigenous food. The young only know about pizza and Ice cream but very little about sources of food. In terms of demand it is not about young people knowing the plant but developing taste and appreciating home-grown food and associated advantages. Another mistake being corrected is packaging food in modern measurement like calories, kilograms and alcohol content, among others. “Our own knowledge systems should empower us to desist from expressing our food through medicinal properties because the food end up being associated with diseases or illnesses. We should elevate the nutritional side associated with wellness although we are aware of medicinal properties in the food”, one farmer from Mutoko district of Zimbabwe told eMKambo.

 Combination of medicine and nutrition

Farmers added that nutrition and medicinal properties are closely linked in the African sense and knowledge systems. However, many lamented the fact that when food is expressed as medicine through modern science it is taken like a drug although it has preventive elements. On the other hand traditional foods like small grains are mostly promoted from a nutritional perspective while their medicinal angle is not elevated. When food is a combination of nutrition and medicine it is consumed as a package as opposed to imported practices where Vitamin A tablets can be consumed separately.

These are some of the discussions happening between farmers and traders trying to continue trading during and after COVID-19. While the majority of African mass markets may have been closed physically, trading of knowledge and real commodities is continuing underneath as part of economic self-reliance and keeping indigenous food trading vibrant.  / /

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COVID-19 shows symbiotic relationships between formal and informal economies

Among other revelations, COVID-19 has shown the extent to which formal and informal African economies do not work in isolation but are more like Siamese twins. African economies are structured in such a way that there are no distinct supply chains that can be locked down without affecting entire ecosystems. For instance, agriculture is tightly interwoven with the non-food informal sector which consume more than 70% of the food, constituting the key demand side for agricultural commodities.

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Given that less than 10% of the demand for food comes from the formal sector, opening that sector without opening the informal sector does not improve agricultural incomes.  One of the most important decisions in opening economic sector while others remain closed in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 should focus on stimulating the buying power. Suppressed buying power affects smallholder farmers more because there will be few buyers for the commodities, leading to enormous losses. That is why it is important to link the safety net system with food markets so that farmers earn income that will enable them to go back and grow more food.

The power of data and evidence

While mass African markets generate a lot of fluid data about the movement of food, African countries do not have institutions responsible for collecting and interpreting such data to inform policy decisions during pandemics like COVID-19 and other disasters. If such an institution existed it would show how much food is consumed by the transport sector, health sector and other non-food sectors. Careful analysis would reveal the implications of opening up one economic sector while keeping others closed. It would also show how opening the formal sector without opening the informal sector compromises demand because it cripples the buying power of the pro-poor majority, mostly those who depend on the informal sector that apparently drives the economy. Evidence would also show how social safety nets are not the solution on their own unless cash meant for social safety nets is plugged into the food supply chain so that poor people do not spend their little money looking for food.

Technology should be playing a more meaningful role

Most African countries still lack technologies that can help them to collect or process information and data. By now, digital technologies should be producing maps for diseases like Malaria, Cholera, Food and Mouth Disease, Fall Army worm and many other diseases that have made Africa their home. Such maps would provide wider sets of fluid data, demonstrating linkages between disasters or particular diseases with food systems. Unfortunately, African ministries of finance do not set aside specific budgets for gathering such important fluid data which remains fragmented in different government departments, local communities and development organizations.

Technology-driven data and evidence can demonstrate why progressive farmers and traders should be interested in mastering trends that contribute to their growth pathways.  If you are a potato trader, it is not enough to know only about that particular commodity and competitors. Understanding the entire ecosystem is more fundamental because fruits like oranges and Nyii can have an indirect but very serious impact on potatoes. Appreciating the role of data and understanding one’s business performance is critical. Banks are realizing that a bank statement is no longer a sufficient instrument for evaluating a business’s performance especially given that companies that have not been operating for months due to COVID-19 have not been banking or generating income but virtually in limbo.

Importance of post-harvest policies

COVID-19 has also revealed the extent to which African countries need post-harvest policies as opposed to too much focus on inputs provision, mechanization and irrigation issues at the expense of post-harvest issues. For a very long time, farmers and traders have been finding their own way around post-harvest challenges, developing their own economy with no policy guidance. Information and knowledge has remained in silos, for instance between farmers and traders who build a close relationship among themselves.

Information asymmetry, barriers to market participation and negligence of market infrastructure has remained the order of the day for decades. Policy makers have never questioned how food finds its way to urban markets from diverse farming areas.  Likewise, few people have been curious enough to find out how urban consumers get potatoes, carrots and other commodities. Very few policy makers know that to operate on full throttle, formal businesses depend on the informal economy for much-needed oxygen without which the whole formal economy cannot breathe. Most food and beverage formal companies would not be getting cash if they did not work closely with the informal sector in the form of tuck-shops and street vending of food. For instance, in Zimbabwe a big sausage making cottage industry is an extension of the informal sector on which many people are depending for food and income.  / /

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Reflections on costing of agricultural commodities – thanks to COVID19

In addition to disrupting food supply chains, COVID-19 has presented a pricing headache for smallholder farmers in African countries. If government directs supermarkets to revert back to pre-COVID19 prices they can easily do so because they have a tradition of keeping records on stocks and prices.  On the other hand, mass markets will not be able to do the same because there is no institution responsible for keeping records and tracking prices. Neither can local authorities like municipalities provide such records because their main mandate is collecting revenue through providing trading space without bothering to collect commodity prices.

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Worsening an already bad situation

PreCOVID-19, fluid interaction between supply and demand in mass food markets at scale assisted farmers and all value chain players in setting prices.  For instance the demand side was made up of specific urban populations which guaranteed uptake for huge volumes of commodities from smallholder farmers. In fact there was a neat match between demand and supply.  However, following lockdown induced by COVID-19 commodities from farmers started flowing to cities through middlemen since the majority of farmers have been restricted from coming to the market in huge numbers.

This scenario has destroyed the previous playing field where demand and supply used to meet in ways that determined prices fairly. Where some farmers try to price their commodities when selling locally, it is difficult unless they are aware of prices in other areas they are competing with in producing the same commodity. Due to the lockdowns, food supply chains are being controlled by opportunists who are determining prices that can be given to farmers desperate to get rid of perishable commodities and prices that consumers desperate for food have to pay. Consequently, there is a big difference between the selling price and the buying price. While farmers are getting very little for their commodities, consumers are enduring very high prices.  Opportunists are the ones reaping abnormal profits. These challenges can be addressed if African countries build robust food supply chains in which every actor’s role is clearly defined.

A case for contextualizing costing in the agriculture sector

Agricultural extension methods in Africa are yet to design dynamic costing models taking into account all commodities produced by smallholder farmers in diverse production zones, especially for informal farming systems and their ecosystems like informal markets. Costing is still based on formal farming systems informed by inputs like fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, cost of water as determined by ZINWA, gazetted labor costs based on representations by National Employment Councils and General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) or their equivalent in other countries.

There are still no formulas that take into account major production cost components for smallholder farmers and informal markets. For instance, the majority of smallholder farmers still depend on natural resources and their own resources for producing commodities. Such resources whose costs have not been calculated by extension agents include communal land, livestock manure, rainfall, family labor or Nhimbe, retained seed, draught power and many others.  Farmers still struggle to convert most of these inputs into monetary value for easier costing.

It is a huge anomaly for African economies not to have costing models for smallholder farmers and informal markets in which the majority trade.  That is why most smallholder farmers have remained price takers for decades.  Usually when farmers sell their commodities, their pricing is based on the gravity of challenges they wish to solve not how much has been invested in agriculture production. A typical question in the smallholder farmer’s mind is: “How many bags of groundnuts or maize can I sell to meet school fess worth $1000?”  In this case, selling commodities is not related to farming as a business but solving external needs like school fees, meeting basic needs like sugar, cooking oil or travelling a long distance to attend a funeral.  Any surplus income from trading commodities is by chance.

Closing a huge knowledge gap

Lack of statistics from the mass markets is a big knowledge gap that every African country should strive to close. By not collecting statistics from the expanding Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector of which mass markets are a key component, African countries are under-valuing their economies and piling pressure on the fiscus to provide social safety nets. The best brains in African economies have remained concentrated on the production side, for example agronomists, equipment engineers and economists, among others. Conversely the market and commodity handling side has been left to illiterate and semi-illiterate traders whose interest is mainly to maximize profit.

Such traders can only deal with food and markets to the extent their knowledge allows them to do so. Given the knowledge-intensive nature of food and markets, most traders cannot be expected to come up with solutions beyond their levels of knowledge and expertise. For instance, trader may not see anything wrong in selling all commodities using sacks, wooden crates and baskets yet that is a major avenue through which farmers lose income.  / /

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