Using agriculture and natural resources to decolonize parliamentary debates

Using agriculture and natural resources to decolonize parliamentary debates

Except in Burkina Faso and Uganda, parliamentary debates in the majority of agro-based African economies are completely disconnected from issues that affect ordinary people daily. Ideally, Members of Parliament (MPs) from production zones should be conversant with issues in their constituencies to be able to articulate the situation convincingly. Unfortunately, that is not the case. 

Strengthening the role of Members of Parliament

Members of Parliament are key policy makers whose offices should be the hub for generating, processing and consolidating socio-economic knowledge and information in order to contribute to policy development or review.  In most African countries, the participation of MPs in parliament is not guided systematically so that they are able to package their presentations into policy. The kind of knowledge and information they should bring to parliament is not clear.   

If there is an organized way of gathering, processing and packaging knowledge and information, the speaker of parliament would facilitate thematic areas to be dedicated to specific sessions.  For instance, MPs would be requested to go and look at how to handle a bumper harvest in their constituencies and gather information that would be turned into powerful parliamentary discussions.  Since MPs come from different regions, information from diverse constituencies would easily be harmonized at national level into strategies that inform policy. Lessons would be drawn from short-term and medium-term strategies that will ultimately feed into a 3-5- year policy.

MPs are the bridge between parliament and the grassroots and that makes them true knowledge brokers.  As they gather, process and package information from the grassroots, they can present this to parliament portfolio committees, for instance, on issues related to agriculture and food security.  The office of the MP should not be too political to the point of excluding knowledge from alternative sources that should contribute to local development. Most MP offices are incapacitated with only a secretary when they should have experts in economic, social and development issues. These officers can also become watch dogs for government departments like agriculture and can also contribute their insights into the national budget processes.

Turning parliament into knowledge cafes

To enrich the process, there is need to capacitate political structures so that they are able to broker political, economic and social knowledge and information. The speaker of parliament should chair and facilitate dialogue from different themes unlike the current situation where most motions raised are more of witch-hunting as if seeking clarity when some have already shared incriminating information behind the scenes. A thematic area will guide conversations better unlike cases where most parliamentary debates focus on fault-finding and finger-pointing.

Due to lack of proper knowledge-based systems, most MPs only feature when campaigning, during which time they are not basing their campaign messages on the contribution to policy formulation but making false promises which are difficult to fulfill individually.  Some end up using their own resources to buy votes.  On the other hand, due to lack of knowledge, most voters end up voting for MPs with businesses although they know nothing about developing enabling policies that empower self-determination.  Some MPs end up claiming that they are bringing food aid to communities.  It should not be the role of MPs to look for donors who can provide food aid to communities that should be capacitated to produce their own food. MPs must strive to make policies that awaken people to existing opportunities and add value to abundant resources.

Need to let go of colonial institutions and systems

A major challenge is that most African countries that went through the colonial experience ended up adopting colonial systems at Independence. They did not examine how they could integrate pre-colonial structures into the modern African contexts without losing the past.  The role of leadership is to respond to followers and their contexts. Currently, the majority of the population do not understand the roles and meanings of adopted structures.  They know the role of a chief and a local village head but if you ask them about the roles of the Councillor, Member of Parliament, District Administrator and CEO of a Rural District Council, they are not sure. Ordinary people know more about government departments that provide them direct services. These include agricultural extension services, local clinics and offices where they get national identification documents. 

When people who should benefit from policies do not understand roles of different policy drivers, that is a big knowledge gap because ordinary people are the implementers of policies.  As if that is not enough, most government structures overlap in ways that increase confusion among ordinary people.  For instance, pre-colonial African countries used to rely more on traditional structures like chiefs but now, although chiefs are still available, it is not clear what they are really supposed to do as well as where their roles begin and end. In most cases chiefs deal with agricultural issues, justice issues, health issues and many other domains.  However, within the same community, some justice issues go to the magistrate’s court.

The transition from traditional leadership to modern adopted colonial structures has been fraught with gaps and no smooth pathway.  Who has more power and how are their roles defined, for instance, between the Chief and MP?  These leaders need clear TORs.  More clarity is also needed between the councilor and the headman.  More confusion has been introduced through new boundaries of wards and constituencies on top of boundaries of each chiefdom. A constituency can straddle several wards and two or more chiefdoms.  / /

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Why each agricultural food commodity needs a solid profile in the market

Why each agricultural food commodity needs a solid profile in the market

The COVID19 pandemic has provided sufficient reasons why agro-based countries should not wait until there is a crisis to invest in data collection, analyses and sharing. Given the extent to which agriculture is a baseline for most African economies, the value of agricultural data is increasing daily. If organizations working in the agriculture and food sector do not come together to share and manage data, they will not be able to create meaningful value individually.

The power of commodity profiles

Almost every domesticated crop and livestock has an agronomic profile in terms of how it can be produced. However, beyond crop and livestock census and production factors, the most fundamental but undervalued details are market profiles for each agricultural commodity. This is important because agricultural commodities participate in a competitive environment and, like any other product, areas of improvement should be identified towards meeting customer expectations. It is important for farmers to know market profiles and performance of commodities that they produce. Unfortunately, most farmers focus on production and productivity but lack information on market-related profiles and performance.

Know thy competitor

Farmers also need to know competitors of their commodities (very close substitutes that compete with what they produce) because any change in the price of their commodities in the market result in significant change in demand of the same commodity as consumers move to or from substitutes. When farmers reduce a price for a commodity that does not have close substitutes, such an action has no influence on demand because consumers have no other option.  Conversely, in cases where a commodity has very close substitutes, when farmers reduce prices, they tend to attract more customers from the close substitutes. Examples of close substitutes are leafy vegetables like Covo, Rape and Tsunga as well as sweet potatoes and yams (madhumbe) which often compete for customers because they are very close substitutes.

Know thy companion

It is also important for farmers to be aware of complementary commodities that are demanded in combination with other commodities. For example, carrots, peas and green beans are complementary commodities which often move together. The same applies to cauliflower and broccoli.  Rather than just producing cauliflower, it becomes wise for farmers to produce broccoli together with cauliflower because these are demanded as a combination. Once you find a market for broccoli you have found a market for cauliflower.

Extending these issues to nutrition

Developing thorough market profiles lays the foundation for examining the extent to which agricultural food commodities that substitute or complement each other in the market have potential to do the same from a nutrition perspective. When that is known farmers will be persuaded to produce commodities that nutritionally complement or substitute each other throughout the year. After consolidating the finer details, next steps should include mapping major production zones in order to align production zones within supply chains. As supply chains are smoothened, market-related challenges are also addressed automatically in ways that take farmers to the next level like from mass to formal or export markets, acquiring new knowledge in the process.

The need for strong links between farmers and markets saved by middlemen cannot be over-emphasized.  Across many African countries, farmers see middlemen coming to buy goats and other livestock in bulk but they never ask where their goats are being taken to and what are they going to be used for? Several underground markets exist but there is no mechanism for farmers to access such markets. That is why indigenous small livestock animals are still being marketed through informal channels although demand is rising.

Unless data on these trends is collected, consolidated and shared, such information and knowledge will remain hidden. One of the issues is about diverse measurements used in rural areas where crops like maize are usually measured in scotch-carts which are then converted into tons by formal knowledge systems. On-farm yields are measured in number of scotch-carts not tons. Such details can eventually be the basis for comparative advantage trading between districts or communities as fluid data shows what is abundant or lacking in different communities or districts.  / /

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The power of clear role definition in African food systems

COVID-19 has revealed the importance of understanding roles of different actors in Africa’s food systems. When roles and responsibilities are unclear, smallholder farmers are exposed to conmen.  For instance, in Zimbabwe farmers are losing produce to unregistered buyers. The situation would be better if all buyers were registered and the trading of all agricultural commodities was properly regulated.


Due to lack of coordination, there is so much overlap and duplication of roles.  Farmers need value added services and these can come from knowledge brokers. There should be an institution whose core business is knowledge brokering and consolidating knowledge in ways that show overlaps in service provision.

Role of the Reserve Bank: Farmers and other value chain actors think the reserve bank and ministry of finance in each African country should have a budget for information or knowledge gathering and processing if it is to really unlock the potential of agriculture and food systems.

Farmer unions: While their role seems clear, it is still confusing when considered in the same breath with other service providers.  Since unions are membership-driven, they should become a local hub for information dissemination to their members.  This can be their main value added service and they can be a conduit between their members and other service providers and markets.

Agricultural marketing authorities: These should regulate brokers and service providers in the market.

Agritex extension services:  Their role should shift to monitoring farmer activity at grassroots and providing generic information, mainly for new farmers or those getting into a particular commodity for the first time. For learning purposes, extension officers can ensure knowledge barriers are  lowered so that a farmer can obtain the basics before becoming an expert.  Most farmers, particularly those new into a particular commodity, may not know what they need to know.  Self-learning works where farmers have acquired enough basic knowledge to know what they need to know.

Associations: Ideally information should travel from the farmers/associations to brokers to buyers/processors/end-users.  Associations can provide vital information required by markets. Ideally commodity associations can be built in the framework of farmer unions.

Knowledge brokers: As a way of controlling costs that farmers may end up incurring, knowledge should facilitate information movement between informal markets and processors who often find it difficult to consolidate information in terms of what volumes, quality and types of commodities in the market.  Markets also find it costly to get information from the production side, especially for specific commodities. The broker can consolidate all this information and share it with all actors including marketing authorities who can use it for policy review and crafting responses to COVID-19.

Chambers of commerce:  These should have sectoral representations from farmers unions/associations, manufacturing, input suppliers, equipment manufacturers, etc.

NGOs: These should focus mainly on social enterprise so that vulnerable groups are not left out of socio- economic activities and interventions.

Responding to a dynamic environment

All the above categories of institutions are targeting the farmer. However, if a farmer is to belong to an association, farmer union or chamber, what services does a farmer get from an association which s/he cannot get from a chamber of commerce?  There should be levels of membership and service access.  An association should provide well defined services different from what can be obtained from a chamber or marketing authority. If these roles are not neatly defined, farmers will continue losing through membership fees.

Given than the benefits of belonging to one category are not clear, farmers end up trying to belong to all and thus ending up belonging fully to none. Farmers who used to produce major staples like maize had no reason to worry about market information because prices were set by the government for the entire season. In addition to new farming dynamics associated with horticulture and other high value commodities, farmers have to keep monitoring prices and other changes.  This is where ICTs like mobile phones have potential to provide solutions beyond just calling, short message service and Whatsapp groups, some of which are leading to information overload due to lack of fresh content.  / /

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Reimagining a new socio-economic fabric for African informal economies

Social safety nets will not be able to cover ordinary people’s coping mechanisms. Where economies were functioning normally, many farmers, traders and other entrepreneurs were busy servicing loans taken from banks and Micro Finance Institutions. What is going to happen?

Importance of careful business profiling
The biggest challenge for policy makers is navigating difficult trade-offs between promoting public health and stimulating socio-economic revival while competing for limited resources. Widespread informality and information asymmetry in most African countries makes it easier for government to mistakenly subside what is in abundance and miss sectors that need critical help. For instance food distribution remains an unsustainable option when it is better to provide resources to communities so that they can produce their own food in gardens, wetlands and production zones.

Teasing out all these issues requires careful profiling of people, communities and available resources. A biggest headache for countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe where the informal economy employs more than 80% of the population is how this economy can be re-opening during the lockdown and post-COVID19. The importance of careful profiling of economic actors in the informal economy cannot be over-emphasized. The following is how a detailed and meaningful profile will look like for each actor:

Capture covid

Profile element Justification (why it is important)
Personal details  
Name and sex Name is about identity. Who are we dealing with?  In the final analysis, sex reveals the extent to which the informal sector is dominated by women, for instance.
Age This has economic implication for business. What has been the impact of closing businesses on youth in response to COVID-19? What is the impact on the elderly pensioners?  How many young people have become unemployed due to the lockdown?
Marital Status COVID-19 has had a different impact on the married, unemployed single mothers and widows.
Household Size Household size has an influence on the pace at which small enterprises can recover from the pandemic. For most SMEs, more than 90% of the business income is more of a salary for the household.
Level of Education This has a bearing on the introduction of financial literacy and provision of technical skills.  How many graduates and school drop outs are in the informal sector?
Home Address (Location) Where do informal traders and SMEs stay? If staying in Epworth, why do they prefer selling to Mbare? What are the business factors for staying in Epworth and doing business in Mbare? This is a description of the ecosystem.  While policy makers may want to be directed by availability of land and by-laws in allocating work spaces, traders and SMEs know what should be considered in setting up a business.  They know the behavior of their customers and target market.
Mobile Number This is becoming a key unique identifier.


Business Information  
Business Name and Location Where is the business operating from?  This assists in mapping and revealing the concentration of SMEs.
Is the premise a. rented from i. private property ii. Council property. owned c. home This will assist in assessing risks. If one is renting at a private property, does the by-laws allow or property owners are just taking advantage of desperate SMEs. In most countries private property owners have become more of tax collectors. What plans can be put in place to bring commodities closer to consumers and de-congest Mbare? How can some premises be combined into industrial parks that accommodate street vendors and those operating from home? If you chase street vendors you are saying where they bought is also illegal.
Year business started This provides landscape in terms of experience as shown by years.  Are SMEs growing? What is dominating in terms of years?  What is the age of the business? How old is the SMEs?  If an SME has been running for 20 years but policy makers still do not recognize it, there is something wrong with government policy not with the SME. One cannot continue to be called informal merely because s/he has not been given works space or there is no supportive legislation. For instance what company registration is needed for brick molding? Youth enterprises should not be called projects but enterprises.


Average monthly sales How much is a SME contributing to the economy? Such information will provide a basis for clustering. It will also lays the foundation for creating a growth path. If someone has been in business for 20 years but sales are going down, it could signal lack of adaptation or existing knowledge has reached a limit.
Number of employees: a. full time b. part time This is a key component of economic growth.  By closing SMEs, how many families have been affected?  Any support required may not just be for the business but enhancing employment creation.  Job losses need to be accounted for as SMEs may not be able to sustain full-time employees post-COVID19.


List of assets and estimated value This shows production capacity and contribution of the SMEs to national economic growth.
Do you have any running loan? If yes state amount and lender? What is going to happen to enterprises that had acquired loans pre-COVID?  Their reputation with financiers is likely to get sour?  If more than 60% had loans, how are they going to be repaid?
What kind of support does your business currently need? Provide details This is critical. Most countries do not have fluid needs assessment management systems for the SMEs sector. In most cases there is an assumption that SMEs need loans when they probably need knowledge and skills.  Some have their own knowledge and should not be locked in five day training courses. Others are always learning from each other and can produce items without having gone to college.


As technical people, SMEs know what equipment is lacking.  In clustering SMEs, policy should be informed by existing type of equipment or come up with special grants that can enable SMEs to import appropriate equipment. A supply chain for equipment can anchor rural industrialization with no need for every aspiring entrepreneur to visit the capital city for everything.


Clustering as a success factor

The above profile is critical for clustering business according to services and products. The SME sector should work hard to classify commodities towards clustering. Profiling is important for systematic formalization. The informal sector is already in motion and most SMEs in urban centers are now very dynamic. If government policy says passports can be applied online from today, everybody will apply. Likewise, SMEs should be able to take advantage of ICTs by filling in their profiles online and send completed forms digitally without travelling to towns and cities for such simple processes.  / /

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Helping communities to benefit from their information and knowledge

Helping communities to benefit from their information and knowledge

Marginalized communities and farmers always find it difficult to access relevant and reliable information. Their capacity to objectively assess that information is also inadequate. The situation is worse during the marketing season when information overload increases especially from different buyers competing to portray themselves as offering the best deal for unsuspecting farmers.

Market information is more than price

One of the major issues is that market information is a public good which any one can get by getting into the market and asking around. However, while people think market information is all about price, there is always a story behind each price and that story is more important than the figure. Although it is a public good, market information is very valuable.  How do people like farmers possessing this public information benefit from it?  They benefit only if such information is consolidated into a final product that helps them make better decisions and take next steps.  Prices from a single community may not be valuable unless consolidated and compared with prices from other areas. 

The main difference between market information and tangible products is that knowledge brokering can introduce a feedback mechanism that adds value to the generators of information like farmers. That is how farmers end up benefitting from the information that they have. If a trader buys a commodity that trader is also buying information about that commodity and that information can be used for comparative advantage trading.  What is needed are pathways for consolidating community information so that it comes back as a value added product for farmers and local communities.  Armed with that feedback and intelligence, farmers are empowered to decide whether to build local markets or not after realizing that local markets are better than distant markets. They also start thinking about value addition and investing in preservation for the purposes of prolonging the shelf life of various commodities.

Who can assist farmers to protect their knowledge and information?

Across much of Africa, communities and farmers do not benefit from their knowledge and information.  Most social services offered by lawyers in African countries tend to focus mainly on human rights issues, especially of the political nature and in urban centres.  There are no lawyers who deal with justice in agriculture and rural development. If they were to exist, such lawyers would assist farmers and rural make sense of contracts which they often enter with private companies and financial institutions. Farmers in cotton growing regions have lost property like scotch-carts and farming equipment to contracting companies due to lack of legal representation. 

Such lawyers would also provide legal advice to relationships between communities and development agencies so that relationships are not one-sided in ways that cause communities to lose their indigenous knowledge and other sacred resources. For instance, poverty in most rural communities is often used by many NGOs to write proposals but when money and other resources are obtained to purportedly address that poverty, communities are not told. 

Most rural communities do not know how to fight for their rights. Local authorities and rural communities, in whose name development agencies get donor money, have a right to know the full details of the money accessed in their name including salaries of NGO officers working in the communities. When a project phases out, communities should remain with some of the assets such as vehicles instead of these being given to other NGOs who continue seeking funding without fully involving the beneficiaries. 

Farmers and other less powerful value chain actors should be protected against abuse of power by big players. Financial institutions write contracts that are assessed by their legal departments before loan borrowers like SMEs are asked to sign. Since most farmers and SMEs cannot afford lawyers let alone setting up legal departments, in the event of misunderstandings, financial institutions take advantage of smaller less powerful partners.

Many development agencies know that what happens in Africa does not happen in the Global North. For instance, the European Union has gone a long way to mitigate some of the rights infringements resulting from the mass extraction of data from ordinary people by setting up the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Similar regulations should be introduced in Africa and other developing regions of the world as part of protecting ordinary people’s knowledge and information.  / /

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Decolonizing African Food Systems Has Never Been So Urgent

Decolonizing African Food Systems Has Never Been So Urgent

African countries have remained stuck in colonial food systems and structures where grain silos, abattoirs, processing centres and other important food handling facilities are located in cities. By now, silos and processing facilities should have been established at community level, close to production zones. Why should maize leave rural areas to cities just for milling and return back to rural consumers? Soya bean and sunflower should just be processed in production zones. Devolution will become meaningful when the same infrastructure in cities is also found in production zones.

Food security should not just be discussed at national level

Each community should have its food security initiative, enabling it to exchange food with other communities through relationships that have been built over decades. Governments should not only continue supporting colonial institutions like grain marketing boards and industrial milling but also support local alternatives. The colonial model becomes a disadvantage to farmers and local communities when grain marketing boards aggregate grain from farmers for millers who are paid on time while farmers are paid many months down the road when their maize has already been consumed. 

If the issue is about maintain quality in milling, governments can simply formalize and standardize milling technology or practices for different types and sizes of hammer millers at local level so that local millers provide the same quality of maize meal and milling services.  Decentralizing such services closer to farmers distributes benefits to producers unlike the current centralized food system which benefits consumers at the expense of producers. The same standardization can be introduced in oil processing and fruit processing services so that they are devolved to local levels.  When that is done, maize, groundnuts sunflower and fruits will not be transported from rural areas for processing in cities only to return back more expensive for the majority of farmers and rural people. This is critical given the high cost of transporting commodities from production zones to cities. Maize, oil seeds and fruits should just stay in production zone and processed at source.

Ensuring nutrition security throughout the year

Centralized food systems borrowed from colonialism undermine Africa’s capacity to meet people’s basic requirements of ensuring year-round affordable access to nutrition rich food.  Most of the nutritious commodities can only be stored and value added at local level. It means communities have to be empowered with appropriate resources for handling food at community level especially at critical moments in the life cycle of agricultural commodities when maximum attention is needed.

Given the complexity of handling agricultural commodities in a bumper harvest, storage of abundant agricultural commodities should not be left to individual farmers but be escalated to community level. Individual farmers can simply set aside the amount of food they know their households consume per given period and take the surplus to a central local warehouse centre where value addition can also be done.  The community warehouse system can provide a sense of food security at community level while also serving to provide early warnings in terms of food availability. If many farmers are seen going to get food from their community warehouse, it is a signal that their subsistence levels have gone down.

More importantly, the collective warehouse should be growth focused and set up at a neutral venue with no political inclinations. In most countries, constituency development funds focus on building social amenities like clinics when the priority should be building food reserves like community warehouses which guarantee food and nutrition security at local level.  A community food warehouse will reduce the number of people visiting clinics for treatment of nutrition-related diseases which could have been avoided by availing nutritious food all-year round.

Decentralizing data collection and market regulation

When efficient systems of managing agricultural commodities at community level are set up, eventually communities will be able to conduct their own food assessments by collecting local statistics. For instance, they can introduce the notion of controlled selling of agricultural commodities from the community.  Due to excessive focus on production at the expense of market issues, in most African communities, extension officers, chiefs and local members of parliament have no clue how much food is sold from their communities per month or per year.  No one knows whether community sales are benefiting communities or not, let alone volumes of commodities leaving the community forever.

Addressing some of these issues will require regulation and information brokers at community level to ensure socio-economic justice through collecting and sharing local statistics on what is happening.  This will prevent cases where middlemen from cities buy goats for USD10 each from the community and sell for USD40 in the city. Appropriate regulations and empowered local authorities should be able to indicate when agricultural commodities should not leave the community as evidence will show the extent to which that may compromise local food and nutrition security at given periods.

The value of a community is in its people and natural resources

Empowered communities should not just allow cattle and other key resources to be sold but will become informed enough to safe-guard community resources. Local knowledge brokers should lead in educating people on the importance of preserving their resources. The value of any rural African community is its people, cattle, goats, indigenous fruits, forests and other natural resources. By allowing commodities to leave their community without asking questions, local people lose water, soil nutrients, pastures, nutrition and other resources that will have been used to produce those commodities.

Communities should also be empowered to know the genetic potential of their crops and livestock. Most African communities are aware of the limit to what can be commercialized in a communal set up where knowledge, labour, water, rivers, land and other resources are a common pool resource. For instance, in the African sense, neighbours do not really sell food to each other. They just exchange food, services and knowledge. When there is a bumper harvest it is a taboo to sell food to your neighbours. Field crops like sweet reeds (Ipwa) and water melons are not sold to neighbours. At community level food is part of social capital and should you decide to sell, you start selling at the district level onwards.  / /

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