Why African food systems need watchdogs and whistle-blowers
One of the key lessons from COVID19 for African agro-based economies is the importance of fast and frequent early warning systems. Countries are being forced to think about how early is early? Vulnerability assessments whose results and reports come out after a month or more are no longer fit for purpose. Raising an alarm when there is already an outbreak of pests and diseases or locust invasions is way too late. What if there are also indigenous ways of predicting impeding locusts?
Absence of early warnings in markets
Raising an alarm when gluts and shortages are already prevalent in the market is too late because by then farmers have already lost income and livelihoods. The importance of watchdogs and whistle blowers along food systems all the way to markets cannot be over-emphasized. As part of keeping an eagle eye on food systems and supply chains, watch dogs and whistle blowers should see when consumers are exposed to unsafe food and ensure those responsible are issued with red cards.
When a shortage or bumper crop for even a single vegetable or field crop there is need to raise alarm so that appropriate action is taken. This is very important than waiting until there is a crisis to announce a disaster. Without a watchdog or whistle blower it is easy to declare national food security when some production zones have been negatively affected by too much rainfall.
Positive and negative warnings
While the current conventional notion of early warnings seems to focus on negative aspects. Positive early warnings of impending good harvests are not often taken seriously yet they are critical in cultivating alertness on too much food at micro level looking for a market in the next few weeks. Such local information sources can generate a lot of lessons that can be replicated in other areas or at national level. For instance, tracking commodities like brown indigenous rice from wetlands can show the value of these crops, leading to lessons on how to grow such a commodity in wetlands. This will ultimately lead to innovative ways of reviving indigenous brown rice so that it can be grown at commercial scale towards substituting imported rice and responding to climate change.
Whistle blowing should not just be about turning information into news but should be an avenue for community voices on what is happening in real time. When timely and frequently done, whistle blowing can generate action-oriented insights that can be consolidated into national solutions. The power of whistle blowing is in bridging bureaucratic gaps by avoiding cases where information follows a hierarchical pattern before it is finally announced. If there is a pest outbreak in a local community, farmers should be capacitated to quickly send messages on Whatsapp groups and create timely alertness.
Increasing responsiveness to emerging issues
The essence of setting up watch dogs and whistle blowing mechanisms agricultural and food systems is increasing responsiveness to emerging issues which, if not addressed on time, can build up to a point where some areas end up being considered drought-prone regions merely because emerging issues and signals were ignored over time. It takes 3 -6 months for a food glut or shortage to show up but most African countries are always caught napping because they lack responsiveness strategies. They are rarely prepared for questions like:
- What do we do when an irrigation scheme that we have been supporting with inputs suddenly produces a lot of butternuts or tomatoes?
- What happens if bananas ripen at the same time in 17 communities due to seasonal production?
Information systems are critical in responding to such issues. It is too late to wait for newspapers or radio to convert warnings into news and then share it through newspapers or radio which most people in marginalized areas do not access. The best experiences and solutions come from peers. If a farmer raises an alarm, other farmers who have gone through the same experiences often have the best solutions. Solutions are not found in offices based in cities. That is why platforms that broker information and enable interaction between farmers, traders, transporters, buyers and other actors are very important.
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