African countries need better ways of responding to bumper harvests

African countries need better ways of responding to bumper harvests

Why does a bumper harvest not get as much attention from governments and development agencies as disasters like droughts and cyclones? When there is a drought, African governments are quick to declare a national disaster so that food aid starts being mobilized from outside with support from development agencies. On the contrary, a bumper harvest does not seem to inspire swift action toward preventing the next drought. In addition, bumper harvests do not receive as much media coverage as famine.  

A bumper harvest is more than cereals

What is often ignored by policy makers and development agencies is that a good rainfall season does not only lead to a bumper harvest of cereals but bumper nutrition in the form of a wide range of cultivated crops, livestock, indigenous fruits, fish and wild animals including edible insects. It follows, nutrition-responsive strategies for handling a bumper harvest should certainly go beyond revamping maize silos. Due to a bumper rainfall season, a lot of field crops and horticulture will be produced throughout the year. More than 30% of the farmers will produce all-year-round.

However, issues facing farmers when there is a bumper harvest are national in stature and cannot be tackled by individual farmers or communities. Such issues include poor road network and connectivity to ensure farmers are constantly communicating with the market as well as organizing markets. In addition, a bumper harvest cannot be marketed through buyer monopoly. For instance, it cannot just be about selling to the Grain Marketing Board. Farmers should be given options because some just want to sell a bucket to solve immediate issues. They should not be forced to sell through a bureaucratic system that pays after several months.

The role of markets in managing bumper harvests

In the context of a bumper harvest, most farming communities produce more than can be consumed locally and have to off-load commodities on the market. This means government and development agencies have to understand the capacity and operations of different kinds of markets. The fact that formal markets cannot handle the bulk of the bumper harvest compels governments to support mass markets where the bulk of the commodities find their way from the majority of farmers. Efforts and resources should be directed at revamping and recognizing the aggregation role of mass markets so that they are able to meet the needs of consumers, processors and other value adders. Building a strong connection between mass markets and formal markets like processors and exporters becomes critical.

The media can play a more meaningful role by covering the entire value chain including markets not just focus on production. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the media is always seen accompanying the minister of agriculture when he is touring big farms and irrigation schemes but the minister does not visit mass markets at all. The Grain Marketing Board which the media covers repeatedly, especially when the same minister tours the grain silos, no longer has monopoly. It is unfortunate that the only time mass markets are covered in the media is when something negative like an outbreak of cholera happens or when there is suspicion that people in mass markets are too congested to practice social distancing.

Bias towards production also needs to be revisited. A lot of public and private institutions including NGOs are still pouring resources into field days, shows and other exhibits that are designed to celebrate high production through high yields.  Most of these events are confused with markets. If you pour all resources to demonstration sites, field days and shows, what about markets where commodities end up making a difference between moving out of poverty or staying in poverty for farmers? Although the market contributes more than 90% of the money and other resources squandered on production and field days, it does not receive commensurate support and resources. The fiscus also tends to be more inclined towards production as seen by how more than 90% of the agricultural budget goes to production with markets not even visible in budget lines except parastatal marketing institutions.

Most of the production becomes meaningless if the market is not able to absorb most of the quantities produced. When you produce you need to trade. A holistic focus that recognizes markets as drivers of food and nutrition security should see presidential input schemes and government input support interventions being extended to the market. The best ways of extending presidential schemes or government schemes to the market include establishing cooling and value addition facilities in production zones, grading infrastructure and other market-related needs so that farmers do not just push all commodities to the market as soon as the marketing season starts because they are afraid the commodities will go bad and be rejected by the market. 

The bias towards production also holds sway in the development sector where most consortiums comprising several NGOs continue to work in production which is already showing signs of being over-subscribed. Given that at least 70% of African agriculture is rain-fed, a critical factor for production is availability of water. This implies, bringing together dozens of NGOs to work in production where there is no water is just a waste of money and other resources like knowledge.  As if that is not enough, the NGO sector covers less than 5% of the population, which means 95% of the farmers finance themselves.

There should be a shift in resource allocation towards harvest periods in response to a bumper harvest, the same way development agencies quickly respond to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and cyclones so that the good harvest is not lost. Development agencies, farmer unions and other actors should adapt quickly rather than treat a bumper year like any other year.  Several agricultural companies requesting foreign currency allocation from the Reserve Bank are doing so to import commodities they should procure locally if they had built win-win relationships with mass markets that are the major aggregators of agricultural raw materials.

Importance of treating mass food markets as institutions

Mass food markets are institutions in their own right and require appropriate management skills. It is a colonial mind set to insist that mass food markets should be owned and operated by local authorities like rural district councils and municipalities. The fact that local authorities own the land on which markets are operating does not imply they should also operate the market. Private partnership models between local authorities and the private sector should be explored and solidified because the private sector is good at identifying demand and meeting customer needs.

By insisting that local authorities should operate food markets, governments are persisting with a colonial model. Agricultural markets should also be treated like formal institutions. There is no one playing a watch dog role in food markets run by local authorities, from which the majority of urban residents get their food.  While in residential areas, residents are watch dogs for service delivery such as water reticulation and refuse collection, such watch dog role does not extend to mass food markets which are business institutions where residents should be making noise about food safety and hygiene.

The situation is worsened by the fact that government departments do not have power of oversight over each other. The ministry of agriculture does not have power to tell the ministry of local government how food should be handled in mass markets under local authorities. Otherwise the ministry of agriculture, ministry of women’s affairs, ministry of health, ministry of youth as well as industry and commerce would be making noise about the poor handling of agricultural commodities in mass markets because such handling has a bearing on the success of each of these government departments’ mandates.  The ministry of health is also silent and far from markets yet the quality of food and how food is handled has a bearing on the health budget.

When government departments do not see their mandates or stakes in food markets, a vacuum is created for NGOs to seek donor funding by writing proposals based on bad things about mass food markets. For instance, instead of capacitating local authorities to execute their mandates, NGOs seek donor funding to provide water and sanitation in mass markets as well as revamp market infrastructure when a more sustainable approach is supporting local authorities. On the production side, NGOs are drilling boreholes and doing work that should be done by local councils instead of giving those resources to councils as part of a permanent solution. It seems the whole development space is being invaded by NGOs, pushing out government departments such as councils and extension services departments.

The power of evidence-based responses

All actors should come together and answer a question like: What can we do the abundant produce from farmers and production zones?  In much of Zimbabwe, most commodities like tomatoes, pumpkins and others are already rotting in farming areas.  Some are fetching below their normal value due to market failure and low consumer spending, following lockdowns.  When the majority of farmers get less than 30% of the potential value of their commodities, that means they will have lost 70% of potential income – pushing them back to poverty.  On the contrary, the price of inputs will obviously not go down.

This is how understanding markets becomes very important. It is not just about farmer unions because more than 80% of farmers do not belong to farmer unions. However, if farmer unions articulate and represent farmers well during a bumper harvest, it is an opportunity for them to mobilize membership towards tangible results and solutions.

Transportation With respect to the cost of transport, farmers are left to move their own commodities to the market using whatever means at their disposal. It seems government has no role in facilitating the movement of commodities.  Once in a while, the railway system is seen moving coal rather. How can it be used to move agricultural commodities from high production zones to low production zones?

HorticultureIn Zimbabwe there is no active institution responsible for horticulture.  Maize and other grains go to the GMB and its infrastructure but there is no similar board for horticulture. How do we preserve, aggregate and market horticulture commodities as well as facilitate exports when there is no appropriate infrastructure? The new horticulture board is linked to exports and controlled by exporters of selected commodities while the government is just a passenger.  The debate at horticulture meetings is dominated by a few actors and does not have a national complexion.

All commodities do very well in a bumper harvest and such commodities include livestock.  How are we going to help farmers market goats?  Indigenous chickens and fruits also do very well in a bumper harvest. How are we going to store and market commodities in ways that preserve nutritional content? A bumper harvest is so important as to merit a national dialogue on how to harness its benefits. Instead of waiting for national assessments like the second round of the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZIMVAC), there is need for a national dialogue on the bumper harvest because farmers are already harvesting.  More importantly, crops are not harvested at the same time because they are at different stages of ripening. 

National readiness for a bumper harvest requires swift evidence-based policy interventions. When marketing is well organized, it will prevent cases where farmers move around looking for markets and consumers travelling long distances looking for commodities and in the process exposing themselves to COVID19 or becoming super spreaders.  A bumper year should be turned into good returns. The pros and cons of gazetting prices should be backed by evidence. Evidence from the mass market demonstrates how gazetting maize prices leads to farmers getting lower prices from alternative markets which end up using the gazette prices to benchmark what farmers should get in the open market. Instead of gazetting prices when the size of the markets and its dynamics are unknown, it is better for government to build efficient market systems and supply chains.  / /

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An ideal market is more than a few companies buying from thousands of farmers

An ideal market is more than a few companies buying from thousands of farmers

Every marketing season (March to August) in East and Southern Africa is characterized by people from cities camping in rural areas to buy agricultural commodities cheaply. Farmers will have produced surplus commodities but with no capacity or space to store, process or preserve. Many buyers from cities take used clothes, shoes, kitchen utensils and other items for bartering with maize, groundnuts, sugar beans, chickens, goats and other commodities. The fact that this practice has persisted for decades is a sign that formal marketing systems have failed to meet the needs of the majority.

Local markets as foundation for local economies

In most cases, urban buyers and middlemen who mobilize grain and other commodities from rural farmers, masquerade as farmers and sell the commodities to marketing boards, benefiting from prices gazetted by governments in favour of authentic farmers. This demonstrates the extent to which colonial marketing systems preferred by African governments are rigged against smallholder farmers. Most policies are in favour of middlemen and consumers.

A more viable solution is building strong local markets to anchor local economies and ensure value addition happens in local production zones. African governments should get rid of the colonial model where one or two companies buy commodities from thousands of farmers for a song and go on to do all the value addition in the city. Building the collective common wealth of farmers is about empowering them to do most of the value addition and earning more from their sweat.

A case for data collection and interpretation at local level

Since much of the value addition happens in cities, nutrition knowledge tends to be concentrated in cities and as you go down to rural communities there is less talk about nutrition. Food diversity is also more pronounced in cities where markets aggregate as opposed to rural communities which may be stuck with their particular food. Mass markets and processing companies aggregate food for urban dwellers already embedded in nutrition. 

Instead of treating farmers and rural communities as data sources only, policy makers should ensure data interpretation happens at community level where impact should be visible. This means parastatals like ZIMSTAT have to change the way they present data to show what the data means in terms of nutrition at local level, for instance. Data should be interpreted at community levels. When that happens early warnings will no longer just be about deficits of staples but the entire food basket from community to national levels. Appropriate data collection and interpretation tools should be at community knowledge hubs where information from various sources can be consolidated and adapted. 

Local communities are generators of indigenous knowledge. They also play a fundamental role in disseminating what is coming from local experts, local leaders at the grassroots and outsiders. When they own the data collection and interpretation process, farmers and rural communities will participate in processing indigenous knowledge and creatively combining it with external knowledge for the benefit of local communities.

Demystifying nutrition at community level

A major barrier to the adoption of nutrition messages is the scientific language in which nutrition is largely conveyed to ordinary people. This is worsened by the fact that African countries have not invested academic knowledge into indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, nutrition and related knowledge is abundant in indigenous fruits, herbs, vegetables and other commodities but the amount of quantities someone should consume in order to attain the right nutrition balance remains under-researched and unknown.

When communities are part of data collection and processing, they will assist in demystifying nutrition from being considered a science to a living practice. Working with communities will enable governments to identify their own indigenous food systems.  It is easy to facilitate consumption of commodities which local people are already consuming.  To that end, identifying nutrition in existing commodities is a good entry point than, for instance, introducing peas to communities that know nothing about the new commodity. Nutrition is part of people’s food systems but what lacks is identification and expression of nutrition in what communities are already consuming. It is as if nutrition is only found in imported foods.

The Western world has taken time to align its food systems with nutrition. Western countries, food systems are derived from processing of food, for instance, into tinned beef, vegetables and other processed foods produced by experts using academic research and expertise. Conversely most African food systems have not subjected to experiments like processing by experts. For at least 99% of the food consumed in Africa, consumers do not know if they are meeting or surpassing nutrition requirements. Imported energy drinks are flooding African markets but people just consume irrespective of energy deficiency levels.  / /

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Knowledge inclusion is the most important of all forms of inclusion

Knowledge inclusion is the most important of all forms of inclusion

Digital inclusion, financial inclusion, gender inclusion and several other forms of inclusion have received too much attention over the past few years including 2020. What has been ignored is the mother of all inclusions – knowledge inclusion. All forms of inclusion are meaningless when knowledge existing within ordinary people and communities is excluded.  What is worsening this dilemma in Africa is the fact that governments continue to confuse knowledge management with higher and tertiary education yet these are completely different processes although they sometimes overlap.

To the extent it tries to maximize capabilities of the academically gifted, the imported formal education system of which higher and tertiary education is a component, excludes the majority. On the other hand, knowledge management recognizes all forms of knowledge wherever they exist and that includes knowledge generated by communities as well as ordinary people as they strive to make a difference. Knowledge management is conscious of the fact that African communities are good at providing a platform for people to recognize, preserve, and build on their many intangible cultural assets. While external knowledge systems imported through formal education do not have clear pathways for tapping into the knowledge held by retired knowledge workers, communities are adept at utilizing elders and retired knowledge workers in respectful ways.

Development will not be achieved without intentional knowledge inclusion

As 2021 beckons, African countries should revisit their knowledge agendas rather than continue with external research agendas that have been making it difficult for Africa to upscale and deepen its knowledge systems toward achieving inclusive development. For all countries in the world, natural endowments were the foundation of economic development. People started by understanding how they could add value to natural resources for the purposes of economic development. Western countries had all the time to experiment and develop knowledge for exploiting their natural resources. These countries did not just depend on formal education but harnessed inclusive knowledge which they packaged for exploiting and turning natural resources into tradable commodities.

This is what is lacking in Africa. Western countries started trading their own knowledge through formal education which was extended to Africa, the main focus being to get manpower which could convert African resources into tradable commodities for the benefit of the West.  To the extent formal education was used to extract African resources, physical slavery has given way to intellectual slave trade. There is no doubt that the West has used formal education to access African knowledge. Vehicles and machines produced using natural resources from Africa are coming back to Africa as finished products instead of the machines and vehicles being manufactured in Africa.

The West went further and converted part of its knowledge into academia but hid the formula for producing tangible tradable commodities.  This was part of extending Western knowledge to exploit African natural resources because Africans have not been smart enough to process their indigenous knowledge into tradable products using their natural resources.  No wonder most natural resources from Africa are being processed using external knowledge. As African countries process their natural resources using imported knowledge, whose agenda are they serving?

What is the science behind producing seed varieties in the laboratory and what is the nutrition content?  It cannot just be a one-size-fits-all knowledge system because people are different depending on their context such that a single recipe cannot apply everywhere. Having exhausted their natural resources, Western countries have invested in developing knowledge that they use to package products required to supplement their own food systems. As African countries promote exports, the demand for those exports are guided by Western countries’ desires to meet their nutrition baskets.

This means Africa is basically dancing to the Western agenda in relation to consumption patterns and food systems.  That is why the West is cherry-picking African countries in which to produce particular commodities. For instance, in Zimbabwe (blueberries, mange tout peas and others), Kenya (sugar snap, fruits and flowers, etc.,), Ghana and Ivory Coast (Cocoa) and so on.  Western countries are interested in specific commodities not everything that can really lift masses out of poverty. There is no way, a country serious about lifting its farmers out of poverty can dream of doing so through growing sugar snap, flowers and other commodities demanded by the West. The West looks at different countries where particular commodities can be produced economically to meet their needs.

Africa’s medical and health space is facing the same predicament

Africa is just a market for knowledge generated in the West as Western countries are interested in finding a market for their knowledge by exporting their medical syllabus to Africa.  Western countries have realized that they no longer have their own natural resources on which to apply their old and new knowledge.  In Africa they have several options and can look at several diseases like Ebola, Cholera, Malaria and others.  They use their knowledge to get natural products from diverse herbs and trees used to make pharmaceutical products through hidden scientific formulae. When the knowledge is converted into products it comes back as finished products.  Africa is only buying back its own knowledge extracted from Africa.

As if that is not enough, the West then takes an academic route and starts training doctors and pharmacists as well as bringing X-ray machines and other medical equipment.  By doing so, the West is basically developing distribution channels for its knowledge. African countries are not developers or inventers but implementers of other people’s knowledge.  The Western industrial revolution has moved beyond manufacturing to embedding knowledge into goods and services.

During the COVID19 era African countries, including industrial ones like South Africa are clamoring for equitable distribution of vaccines developed in UK and USA yet they have been doing nothing on the research and vaccine development front. African policy makers have not taken time to look and learn from how ordinary people are innovating using concoctions of local herbs to combat the pandemic. In spite of being custodians of local and indigenous health systems for time immemorial, African herbalists are largely neglected. African governments are not even trying to enhance the development of vaccines through working with local herbalists. African policy makers remain blind to the fact that the Western agenda is to develop a market for Western knowledge because all Western countries have exhausted their natural resources.

What is more important foreign currency or food?

Africans have not developed and packaged their knowledge consistent their own food systems. If you search information about an apple, you get tons of information including nutritional compositions, allergies and others.  But the same has not been done for indigenous fruits like mawuyu. Africans are running for grapes, ignoring their own muzambiringa to extinction.  Matamba and diverse edible natural fruits are not being developed so that knowledge is embedded in ways that turn them into exportable products.  African countries are being persuaded to grow blueberries for the sake of earning foreign currency. What is more important foreign currency or food?

It is now very clear that the external agenda has suppressed the development of African food systems. The West no longer has adequate natural resources like land, fresh water and favorable climatic conditions not polluted by industrial fumes to be able to produce diverse foods that meet their consumption preferences.  They go to Africa dangling foreign currency as an incentive.  African countries are exploiting and plundering their land, water, labor, immunity and other assets for the sake of foreign currency.  What is stopping African countries from converting their natural resources like minerals, wild life and abundant tourism potential into sources of better nutrition?  / /

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Harnessing the power of needs assessments in African countries

Harnessing the power of needs assessments in African countries

Needs assessments are some of the most under-rated and underutilized resources in African countries.  Development agencies that often start some work in communities with a baseline study often do so for purposes of getting donor money as opposed to fully informing and guiding their interventions. In some cases the baseline study is conducted when donor money has already been received, which begs the question: What informed the proposal for which donor money was provided?

Basing decisions on gut feelings

If development agencies full of educated people cannot collect reliable data, what about poor farmers grappling to feed their families?  After spending decades working in the same communities, one asset development agencies should strive to build is a strong culture of collecting and using data at local level. COVID19 would have found most farmers having switched from relying on gut feelings for most decisions to using data and evidence.

Who are the audiences for government statistics in Africa?

What has also become clear is that African countries do not assess the data needs of different actors like farmers, traders, processors, transporters, agro-dealers and many others who should benefit from carefully collected, interpreted and packaged data. Failure to conduct needs assessment is one of the main reasons why data analysis ends at provincial and national level when farmers and other people at the local level are the ones who need the data most for their own decisions. For instance, unless farmers know collective volumes of commodities produced in their community, they will continue making poor production decisions. 

In most African farming communities, at one point commodities are so abundant that they are sold for a song. A few months down the road, prices of the same commodities are tenfold. Assuming some of the food gaps used to be supplemented by imports pre-Covid19, what are some of the supplements during the Covid19 era which has disrupted imports?  Such questions can only be answered using data.

A case for keeping data fluid

Ideally information and raw data generated through annual national crop and livestock assessments should be kept fluid so that people who want to re-purpose it can easily do so.   Unfortunately, most national reports are closed and converted into portable document format. One cannot make sense of the situation through a string of tables and numbers with no clear context.  By the time a crop and livestock assessment report is published, the situation on the ground will have changed. 

Volumes are expressed in metric tons which is not how quantities are expressed at grassroots where communities talk in terms of bags, baskets, buckets and other contextual measurements. One of the challenges is that statisticians are not implementers on the ground who can provide contextual nuances. They just punch numbers in a machine and generate some numbers which may easily take the information out of context.

Naked figures are meaningless without stories

African agriculture comprises many moving parts which cannot be understood through historical data only. A string of naked datasets provided by national statistical agencies without nuanced interpretation tends to be meaningless for the majority.  Interpretation is what brings out lessons which can be converted into opportunities.  Farmers may not express their experiences or knowledge in figures or percentages but their decisions are intelligent and meaningful. For instance, they may prefer selling their maize to the informal market where they earn 30% less income which comes on time than wait six months for a higher payment which comes late. If the time-lag is carefully calculated and expressed in monetary terms, it may reveal that earning less on time is better than earning more after waiting for several months. 

The quality of answers is as good as the questions asked

Just as primitive and rudimentary tools make it difficult to mine minerals like diamonds, gold and platinum, primitive information gathering tools and interpretation frameworks makes it impossible for anyone to mine knowledge bases in many African communities. That is why most reports produced by governments and development agencies end up gathering dust because no one has invested in identifying users and their needs.  The same information end up being recycled at policy level because pathways for embedding it into communities have not been created. Crop and livestock assessment reports fail to speak to local communities who are the main sources of information and can enrich the reports if kept fluid.  / /

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How to move from ordinary to best agricultural practices

‘Best practice’ is not even a mouthful but what it means in practice remains unclear to many people who use the phrase. In African agriculture, it takes a lot for a farmer or trader to become a best practitioner.  Most value chain actors face challenges in identifying sufficient quality evidence that can be translated into best practice.  In the absence of consensus, they either rely on what is effective locally or depend on external extension agents, most of who lack contextual knowledge. While look and learn visits have become prominent ways through which farmers are expected to acquire best practices, there is lack of empirical evidence. Contextual differences make it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of conservation agriculture, contract farming and other practices.

 Season-informed best practices

In the majority of African farming communities, seasons have a much larger influence on the evolution of best practices. It takes a minimum of three farming seasons of producing a particular crop for a new farmer to attain best practice status.  This three year experience pulls farmers closer to best practice, with a farmer using particular crops to move through summer, autumn, winter and spring. Crop behaviour is different during each of these seasons.  The hot season, commonly called Spring stretches from late August to December in Southern Africa and has its own features which impact crops and livestock in different ways.   Summer is characterised by fungal diseases due to excessive moisture and too much rainfall triggers extreme crop growth patterns.  On the other hand, winter is characterised by low temperatures which limit crop growth.  While there are fewer diseases, all crops do not grow fast in winter.  During Spring, crops are exposed to excessive heat and low moisture levels.  Pests like aphids, leaf minor and white fly are common in this period.


Growth patterns, quality and yields are different in each season, irrespective of inputs. That is why curiosity is very important among farmers. Farmers who are not curious may not notice the difference between spring and summer. Curiosity will enables thorough understanding of crop and livestock behaviour in response to different seasons.

The next learning curve

Having gone through three cycles of each season, a competent farmer begins to focus on monitoring the changing characteristics of the seasons. One summer season is too wet with floods being experienced while the next can have less rain and less moisture.  One winter is too cold and frosty while the other has wild frost, with yet another experiencing no frost at all.  One spring is too dry with heat waves. After less than an hour of irrigation the soil becomes completely dry as moisture evaporates.  Another spring can have normal heat.  Sometimes winter over-stretches into Spring. Late onset of Spring or summer is another characteristic worth monitoring. A three to five year cycle of monitoring seasons is very important depending on area.

 The market can only go so far

As demonstrated above, every season has its lessons.  If a farmer decides to grow tomatoes only when the price is good, s/he may not have acquired enough knowledge to understand diseases and pests that occur at different stages of the growing period.  The market can only tell you what to produce and when.  It can also give you a price guide.  However, it may not tell you everything you needed to achieve best practices.  Best practice does not come from text books or lectures. You have to practically engage and get your hands dirty.

A major handicap is that farmers do not document what they see during each season in order to improve.  With documentation it should become possible to translate the knowledge into a ‘Farming Bible’ which the future generation can read and learn from.  Due to lack of a documentation culture, most of the existing knowledge is too general to be useful in attaining best practice standards.  Farmers who do not record what they see on their farms are vulnerable to wrong advice.  Documentation ensures they are able to correct wrong information through comparison as well as mixing and matching what they know with what is coming from outside.

The mindset is more important than the toolbox

It is through the right mindset that farming communities can leverage the strengths of complementary agricultural programmes. For instance, they can see the connection between livestock and crop programmes that are implemented separately by separate programmes in a one community. That means, as frontline value chain actors, farmers are best placed to identify and explain linkages between different agricultural programmes.  Getting a mentor is not enough if a new farmer or trader does not have the right mindset and beliefs because these can limit the application of new skills.  In addition, the wrong advice can become a mental obstacle to be overcome first before acquiring skills that lead to best practice.  Ultimately farmers and traders should focus on getting more buyers interested in their commodities than building larger toolboxes.   Without such capacity and knowledge it is difficult to sustainably implement proven agricultural practices.  / /

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The high costs of ignoring local knowledge

The high costs of ignoring local knowledge

The developed world looks at Africa only as a source of natural resources like land, water, raw materials and labour not a source of knowledge. In the same vein, African governments see rural communities as sources of raw materials and cheap labour, not sources of knowledge. By ignoring local knowledge, African countries continue to spend billions of dollars importing what can easily be produced locally. And that includes finished goods, vaccines and knowledge. If imported knowledge was relevant and easy to domesticate, by now African countries would be producing their own processing technology, vaccines and even exporting to other parts of the world.

In spite of being rich with indigenous knowledge, rural communities lack actors and support services that can facilitate packaging of this knowledge so that it can be integrated into modern sources of knowledge. If communities are endowed with natural resources but lack knowledge and information on how to transform those resources into better lives, such resources are not valuable to local people. Many research findings produced by academic institutions and development agencies do not find their way back to communities for improving decisions and practices.

Potential of existing structures

There is scope for taking advantage of local structures. For instance, African rural communities already have structures and pathways through which information and knowledge is shared continuously. However, such structures and pathways do not receive policy support in terms of technical and financial resources. All the support goes to formal structures like government departments, elected members of parliament, local authorities, development organizations and the mainstream media.  Much of the information generated in formal structures is not simplified enough for use by ordinary rural people. For instance, formal structures at lower levels generate information for reporting to higher level structures but there are no pathways for rural communities to access such information although these communities are sources of information.

Recognizing local knowledge retention nodes

It has become clear that African communities thrive on diverse knowledge retention nodes that development interventions should take into account. Conversely, formal education systems have failed to provide reliable knowledge retention mechanisms that are participatory enough to  embrace local knowledge. For generations, African communities have realized the value of keeping knowledge fluid and participatory as part of enhancing knowledge retention. Keeping knowledge fluid is a smart way of adding value by getting everybody involved unlike a few people seating down to write a report excluding people who will have contributed ideas and perspectives. When every contributor is involved, it reduces the problem of always starting afresh.

As African economies grow and external investors come to seize opportunities, strong local knowledge retention systems will minimize the danger of knowledge becoming privatized for the benefit of a few enterprising individuals. In the agriculture sector, knowledge retention is more than repeatedly teaching farmers how to grow particular crops or keep livestock but also capacitating them to provide accurate information in terms of volumes and planting plans because they are the ones who lose from inaccurate information.  Policy makers will assume there are shortages and open borders for opportunists to bring commodities that are already available in farming communities, knocking down prices. Farmers and communities can only see how things are evolving when they are  seamlessly informed in ways that enhance decision making and knowledge retention.  / /

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African countries should start investing in their substitute commodities

African countries should start investing in their substitute commodities

While the profile of indigenous food has been rising over the past few years across Africa, policy makers are yet to direct policies and public spending to the majority of indigenous commodities. A lot of support continues to be directed at exotic commodities that are being threatened more by a changing climate.

Sweet potatoes as substitute for wheat

Although more farmers produce sweet potatoes than wheat, support continues to go towards wheat production in spite of high cost of production compared to sweet potatoes.  Except Nigeria which has invested in substituting wheat flour with cassava in bread, most African countries are yet to focus on fully understanding their comparative advantages.  For instance, in Zimbabwe at one time the majority of consumers eat thousands of tons of sweet potatoes but three months down the road the commodity is no longer available. This seriously disrupts consumption patterns.

Simply preserving sweet potato will make it available throughout the year. If 1000 tons of sweet potatoes are consumed within three months, producing and preserving the same quantity for 12 months translates to 4000 tons a year.  This will guarantee good income for farmers and consistent nutrition for consumers. By not investing in preservation and all year production, African countries are depriving farmers of reliable income and consumers of all year round nutrition. Instead of importing wheat each time there is a looming bread shortage, why not produce and preserve enough sweet potatoes so that they substitute bread? More importantly, sweet potato production and preservation does not require foreign currency compared to wheat.

Small grains as substitute for maize

African countries are always in a hurry to import maize as soon as there are signs of maize meal shortages. Why not take small grains as suitable substitutes for maize rather than complements?  It is unfortunate that existing mechanization in Africa is not designed to produce, process and preserve indigenous foods. Mechanizations is about exotic foods that are much fewer than diverse types of indigenous foods that do well in different micro climates. What are African universities and research institutes doing to promote indigenous foods as ideal substitutes for western food? Western consumers are coming more health conscious and moving away from fast foods but African countries are still finding fast foods more fashionable. 

Who is responsible for supporting supply chains of our indigenous food systems?

There should be a government department responsible for raising the consciousness of Africans about the negative implications of junk food on people’s health and entire national economies. During gluts economic losses for most indigenous food commodities range from 100 to 1000%. For instance, in Zimbabwe a 50kg bag of sweet potatoes fetches USD8 during the harvesting period but during shortage periods, the same 50kg goes for USD80. This is about 1000% price increase within three months. Such an economic loss has a huge negative impact on sweet potato farmers because there is no mechanism for preserving the commodity during gluts periods. 

The same applies to small grains whose prices range between USD6-7 at harvest and rise three-fold to USD25 per 20 litre tin during shortage periods. Farmers suffer economic losses during gluts due to lack of preservation, processing and warehousing facilities.  This also affects African indigenous wild fruits that are only in the market for a month or two, during which period they are in abundance and fetch very low prices. 

Need for a government department responsible for indigenous foods

If indigenous food is going to receive the policy attention it deserves, each African country should set up a ministry in charge of indigenous foods including forest products such as medicinal herbs on which the majority depend. Such a ministry will support a transformative shift from production to marketing and preservation of indigenous foods as well as product development.  Currently, a typical ministry of industry and commerce in any African country focuses on commercialization and industrialization of exotic foods. If not supporting corporates, that ministry is focusing on importation of exotic commodities that do not meet the needs of the majority of African consumers. Efforts to improve food standards only focus on industrial food systems, not local markets form where the majority get their food.  When commodities like peas are rejected on the export market that is when they find their way to the domestic market. 

More importantly, African countries continue to lack value addition nodes where, for instance, at the end of a supply chain, sweet potato will have gained four to five times the value of raw sweet potato. A lot of research has gone into Irish potato with no equivalent attention going to sweet potato and other tubers that can easily compete with Irish potato, if not substitute it. If African universities and research institutes were really committed to developing indigenous foods, all African mass markets would be centres of research and development where diverse foods are researched, tested, developed and promoted.  / /

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Fostering knowledge retention in African agriculture and rural development

Fostering knowledge retention in African agriculture and rural development

Knowledge retention is still to receive the attention it deserves in sustaining African agriculture and rural development. Most efforts focus on knowledge generation and sharing which is mostly a supply driven approach. As long as communities and farmers do not have mechanisms for retaining knowledge, it remains difficult for them to sustain their performance.  

Knowledge exchange is a continuous process

Knowledge exchange is always happening in farming communities and local markets although no one may be documenting what is going on and collecting statistics.  The value of markets and production zones as centres of African memory is diminished when there are no efforts to document processes as part of building pathways for handing over knowledge to the next generation. When there is no one collecting statistics of agricultural commodity trading at local level, it gives the wrong impression that nothing is happening at the grassroots. With mass markets handling more than 80% of Africa’s food system, trading that happens in these markets cannot continue to be taken for granted because they show the extent to which rural development is driven by people’s markets. 

The value of platforms that foster knowledge retention

ICTs have expanded platforms for knowledge retention.  Where communities used to rely on their memory and note books, they can now use their mobile phones to capture names and other critical details. Discussions can now be kept fluid and fresh through several Whatsapp groups. To a large extent, digital technology has enhanced knowledge retention.  While a farmer cannot remember names and phone numbers of more than 200 fellow farmers and other agricultural service providers, mobile phones have become an extension of farmer memory and knowledge.

Platforms that foster knowledge retention are very important in farming communities where knowledge has remained oral for generations. Each community should have a structure or institution responsible for continuously gathering, processing and synthesizing information as things as part of keeping the knowledge fresh.  Waiting for information to be demanded before processing it can be overwhelming especially if many people request information at the same time. This work should be done by an institution or a platform because it may be beyond the capacity of farmers and ordinary people to keep sophisticated information like exchange rates over the past two to three years as well as how such details have a bearing on their income and profitability. 

As technology replaces human beings, can we use it to retain our knowledge. Traditionally our fore fathers had fewer options in knowledge retention which were mainly in the form of innovations like pfimbi, mufushwa, pottery and others.  But we have failed to modernize it and use natural resources to create storage facilities for food and knowledge. Conversely, West countries have used the education system to retain their knowledge for their own industrialization. African countries are just adopting western education without examining contexts and that is why formal education is failing to transform African economies because it is not entirely applicable.

Who is capturing new innovations and trends?

Knowledge brokers, marketing authorities, extension departments and local think tanks should be capacitated to monitor and keep information including price trends for farming communities as part of local institutional memory. The value is information consolidation as opposed to each farmer keeping his/her own information which may not be meaningful if not made part of the big picture.  That knowledge retention is key in African agriculture and rural development is no longer debatable.  Structural adjustment programs across Africa where not written in the context of the majority and that is why African countries are repeating the same mistakes. COVID19 has increased entrepreneurship but governments are pre-occupied with counting the number of cases dying, recovering and those vaccinated.  What about new innovators?

Creating institutions responsible for knowledge retention is critical because as African economies grow and with people from outside coming to invest, there is a danger of knowledge becoming privatized for the benefit of a few enterprising individuals. Formal institutions are more into descriptive reporting of information than knowledge retention. Knowledge is the finer part of the description which is often missed in most formal reports and minutes.  As if that is not enough, formal knowledge tends to be siloed. For instance, development organizations are fond of cherry picking the vulnerable, women and youth, ignoring the rest in the entire community ecosystem as if the vulnerable, women and youth exist in isolation. There is also much emphasis on quantitative yet the qualitative is where knowledge is embedded. You can count bridges, clinics, roads, boreholes an irrigation schemes but these are just numbers. What are the implications of setting up such infrastructure?  Knowledge is in answering such questions.

Establishing transformation pathways for knowledge retention

At policy level, each government department should have a knowledge management and retention system related to its mandate.  A lot of health knowledge should not remain undocumented when the ministry of health is available. The same with knowledge in the ministry of sport where questions should be raised and answered on why indigenous sports and games have been allowed to be overtaken by imported sports as if Africans did not have their own sports before colonialism. African countries should also stop throwing away knowledge through unfocused retrenchments.  In African culture old people are more valuable as advisors but African governments we are copying the Western notion which dictate that once someone reaches 70 years s/he must go irrespective of his/her knowledge.  Ideally, elders should be given strategic roles in socio-economic development because they bring valuable experience.  Life is too short for people to learn everything from their own experiences.

Most African countries are failing to write our own history. For instance, the History of Chimurenga in Zimbabwe is in bits and pieces that are not neatly consolidated.  Most academics do not even have family trees and that is a serious loss of knowledge and memory. Each community need centres of African memory where family trees and other knowledge resources are preserved. Christianity has gathered momentum in Africa because Africans have agreed to believe whatever is preached by Christianity is a source of wisdom. Had Africans retained their traditional knowledge and codified it into books or other artefacts, they would have built a firm foundation for knowledge and wisdom retention.  Absence of such a solid structure explains why African tradition has become overtaken by imported formal education systems. It is now as if anyone who is not formerly educated is illiterate and not knowledgeable about anything. Africans are confusing literacy with knowledge.  / /

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Free flowing information will ensure policies are backed by fresh evidence

Free flowing information will ensure policies are backed by fresh evidence

What has constrained the capacity of African countries to translate politics into economic development is paying lip service to the true value of information. For instance, the majority of African countries have not put in place systems for collecting data and information in ways that take advantage of existing structures from the grassroots to national level. This is seen how most governments wait for development agencies to finance data collection, analyses and utilization.

Shortage of curiosity for abundant information

Information is always abundant in communities if the right questions are asked and if proper systems of collecting it are put in place. Given the high literacy levels in most African countries, simple tools can be designed for community leaders to collect and send information with no need for researchers or statisticians to visit communities and ask generic questions.  While most interventions by development agencies happen within three to five years, real impact shows up from five years onwards when most project funding has ended. That is why relevant government departments should have detailed information about each development agency’s activities so that such information is used to track impact from each project. Most development agencies are willing to share such information when it is requested but government departments often lack the appetite to ask for such information, preferring to generate their own information.

A possible winning structure for fluid data collection

Agricultural content is everywhere. What is only in short supply is curiosity on how that content can be used to improve lives. In most African countries, information is not published into documents or journals but kept fluid within people, communities and relationships. The same way soya bean or sunflower is processed into cooking oil and other by-products is the same way ideas should be processed into knowledge and information.  

Information has to be co-created with farmers, SMEs and marginalized communities whose lives should be transformed through better evidence. Such co-creation can follow the following steps:

  1. Identifying key informants at local level, mainly active farmers and traders in local markets. Community markets often do not have too much diversity such that a local trader is likely to sell an assortment of all commodities demanded by local consumers. By patronizing 20-30 commodities, a single trader can be aware of sources and market trends for each commodity.
  2. Capacitating local farmers and traders to provide information on commodity supplies, units of measurement, prices, sources and challenges.
  3. Capacitating farmers and traders to compile a database of farmers, traders or buyers who can end up evolving into members of a dynamic information and knowledge platform.

Given changes that are happening across African agro-based economies and food systems, knowledge brokers are needed to consolidate what is happening in such flat and fluid economies. That is how economic actors can end up belonging to structured information and knowledge ecosystems.  / /

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Agricultural economies should develop farmer-responsive pricing models

Agricultural economies should develop farmer-responsive pricing models

The past few years have seen climate change-induced droughts constraining the capacity of African countries such as Zimbabwe to predict future harvests. Consequently, when a bumper harvest happens governments are compelled to lead agricultural value chain actors in building buffer food stocks against future shocks.

Developing responsive pricing models

One of the key interventions badly needed is coming up with appropriate pricing models that ensure better Return on Investment (ROI) for farmers and other supply chain actors. That will better respond to the current scenario where, on one side we have independent players like farmers injecting their own resources to facilitate production. On the other hand, once farmers have produced, corporates, middlemen and government come in to set prices.  While government price-setting mechanisms may be well-intentioned, farmers are often short-changed.

The situation is more complex in Zimbabwe due to a multi-currency system. For instance, while most input suppliers peg their prices in foreign currency, commercial and institutional buyers like the GMB, processors, wholesalers and supermarkets pay farmers in local currency whose stability remains unpredictable. This makes it difficult for farmers to save for the next planting season because by the time farmers buy inputs, the local currency will have lost a big portion of its value.

Apart from significant bumper harvests on the supply side, surplus commodities are outweighing demand especially during the harvesting months.  On the other hand, evidence of how long surplus from the bumper harvest will last is sketchy. COVID19-related disruptions have also caused low demand as the economies are still on a recovery path, especially for SMEs that have become key economic actors. Low demand suppresses prices in ways that constrain farmers’ ability to prepare for the next production season due to huge losses incurred during bumper harvest-induced gluts.

What can be done to addresses challenges and minimize damage?

It has become very important and urgent for policy makers to come up with strategies that can regulate the supply of produce to the market so that farmers get their Return on Investment (ROI). That way, farmers will be able to sustain production in the coming season.  Such policies can include:

A. Accelerating Community Warehouse Receipt System

Community warehouses should be set up for different commodities and financiers brought in to support particular commodities. Policy makers can also come up with a pricing model appropriate for community warehouses to ensure farmers earn Return on Investment (ROI).  For example, if a ton of groundnuts is currently going for USD400 but can reach USD700-800 at peak, groundnuts can be warehoused at USD600/ton. That becomes the basis for farmers to offer their commodities in the community warehouse. As part of enabling farmers to meet their urgent financial needs, the ministry of finance through the Reserve Bank should work with banks in developing a special warehousing fund that ensures farmers get their expected income from the warehoused commodities.  That facility is not really a loan but an advance payment for farmers’ commodities.

It is important for the government or Reserve Bank to participate in this arrangement so that it controls money in circulation. As the commodities are sold, the Reserve Bank will withdraw the equivalent amount of money from the warehousing fund. For example, if a farmer is paid USD600/ton upon delivering groundnuts to the community warehouse and at the time of selling a processor pays USD700/ton, RBZ will withdraw USD600 from the warehousing fund, leaving USD100 or less as a bonus to the farmer or for meeting other costs. This will control money in circulation unlike paying the farmer USD600 upon delivery and letting the processor pay another USD600 when s/he purchases the commodity, which will be more like doubling the value of the commodity.

The model being proposed is different from the Gran Marketing Board (GMB) where farmers are paid the current price without taking into account the possibility of price increases in the coming months or peak selling periods.  The profit-sharing model being suggested her in the community warehouse system is a very important incentive for farmers. The USD100 mentioned in the above is a value accumulation due to price increases.  In the current GMB model, millers and processors are the major beneficiaries because they buy at USD320 from GMB and stock commodities for reaping benefits when the price of maize increases as demand for maize meal rises but such benefits are not transferred back to the farmer.

B. Commodity exchange model

The community warehouse model will also safeguard community food security. By setting these structures, government will give communities the first priority to buy back their commodities as household food stocks become depleted. Commodities to be sold outside the community will be monitored to ensure the community is food secure first before outsiders get commodities.  A commodity exchange model will also be another complementary marketing avenue. Due to cash shortages, it makes sense to promote alternative marketing routes like barter trading or commodity exchanges.  Instead of a farmer selling maize to GMB, getting cash and going to buy cattle, the cash stage can be skipped by linking communities that have maize with communities that gave cattle. For instance, Shamva district can have abundant maize which farmers are keen to exchange for cattle with livestock farmers in Gwanda district. Such deals can be facilitated through community warehouses.

Agreements can be reached so that the processor pays for the farmer’s inputs directly to the input provider. For example, if maize farmers need fertilizer and seed, National Foods can pay directly to ZFC and Seed Co using RTGS which the formal companies insist on using as part of abiding by financial policies. The farmers get their inputs even if their maize held in the community warehouse end up going to GMB from where National Foods can get it.

Such an arrangement is a very quick recovery path for the agriculture sector. Where farmers have other commitments like school fees, payment can be made directly from processors and other potential buyers on the strengths of maize held in the community warehouse. This will reduce the demand for foreign currency.  A major reason why the foreign currency black market rate is always higher than the official rate is because farmers and ordinary people lack operating systems for financial inclusion.

C. Reverse contracting

For a very long time, the contract model has seen contractors/buyers contracting farmers but the reverse should happen when community warehouses are established. Farmers should be the ones contracting buyers using their maize in the community warehouses. “We will give you maize and you bring us inputs,” farmers will say to processors and other buyers. A community warehouse will be a pathway for buyers to come and be contracted by farmers. 

One major challenge faced by farmers is that at harvesting they get low prices or delayed payment but they are expected to buy inputs or equipment. Normally, farmers prefer buying towards the planting season but due to high demand prices of inputs will have gone up. Delayed payment also means farmers buy inputs later even if they want to buy now.  The local warehouse will contract the inputs suppliers now and whether the inputs suppliers supplies now or later, it’s the decision of the supplier. Farmers will have calculated their maize at the projected price 3-4 months later while inputs are calculated now. This way, commodities empower farmers to make good decisions.

Coordinating nutrition baskets

More importantly, community warehouses will coordinate nutrition baskets for the population. Currently, the government is concerned with 3 – 4 crops which only benefit less than 10% of high production zones. The same way GMB is seen buying maize for distributing should see similar efforts buying fruits from Honde Valley and small grains from Mwenezi as well as indigenous fruits like masawu from Dande for distribution to areas of deficit.  / /

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Market literacy is more important than financial literacy

Market literacy is more important than financial literacy

Financial literacy has gained prominence as a necessary intervention in most developing countries. However, what has become clear in most agro-based African countries is that market literacy is more important than financial literacy because the market provides the broader context in which financial literacy can be understood.

While almost everyone can grow crops or keep livestock, very few people are literate enough about market processes to be able to earn incomes that sustain their agricultural operations. This is because dynamics in agricultural markets go beyond what is taught in farming as a business courses or what is written in text books that are used in schools or colleges.

The power of literacy about market processes

In most cases farmers and value chain actors lack critical literacies on market processes. Ideally, such literacies should start at harvesting when farmers should carefully think about how to handle commodities in ways that will meet the needs of different markets (formal and informal markets). This is will prevent cases where the majority of farmers who take their commodities to African mass markets like Mbare in Harare or Makola in Accra have no idea who they are going to meet and how the commodities will be received. 

Farmers should also strive to know operating hours for different markets as well as shifts in those operating hours depending on seasons and other factors. For instance, most African farmers mass markets open around 4:30 – 5am and close between 12 noon and 1pm so that farmers go back to the farms on time. Usually the wholesale market sells to consumers what will have been hoarded from farmers. There are also instances where the retail and wholesale markets operate concurrently. However, shorter trading hours for farmers have a bearing on the number of farmers who should be in the market per day as well as volumes that should be brought by those farmers.

Knowledge around measurements and packaging

Measurement and packaging is often used by middlemen to get more commodities from unsuspecting farmers for less money. That is why farmers should be aware of different types of measurements and packaging used in the market before they bring commodities.  For instance, in Zimbabwe, more than 45% of potato pockets are now sold from Mbare market.  There are specialists who import and sell much cheaper than formal companies.  They are the same pockets used to pack onions, butternuts and garlic. Plastic polybags are used in the market, mostly by vendors wherever they do their business to pack chilli pepper, okra and other commodities.

Although there are companies which produce sacks, Mbare handles more than 50% of the 50kg bags in circulation, all types, some new and others re-used. Companies that import bran, flour and feedstock often dispose of the sacks which end up in Mbare. Popular measurements are sacks called Saseka or Semia. Like most packaging, choices for saseka and semia where informed by vendors of butternuts and cucumber. When these vendors tried to break bulk from 50kgs into heaps they discovered that the 50kg bag contained less commodities and as they looked around they stumbled on the 62kg saseka which landed itself very well to breaking bulk, heaping and other forms of repackaging that happen in smaller residential markets. The other influence came from transportation where it was discovered that given that transporters charge per bag and not per entire load, the 50kg was expensive to transport although it contained fewer commodities. 

Another permanent feature in mass markets is the wooden crate. The introduction of the wooden crate into the market was driven by communal tomato production but are gradually being replaced by plastic sandaks.  The 8kg wooden box is also targeted at low income consumers who cannot afford large packages. No one is researching the possibility of coming up with an alternative container that can replace the wooden box and of smaller weight.  Manufacturers are not investing in research and development and the market has not strongly expressed the need for that to happen.  However, the wooden box is slowly moving out as most communal farmers engage with traders who are bringing 30kg plastic crates to the farm as standard measurement. The nature of the product exchange at the farm is replacing the role of the wooden box.

Understanding market processes is key for policy formulation and enforcement

When financial institutions lack literacy on market processes, chances of financing over-subscribed commodities and agribusiness models are very high. That is why financial institutions should finance the development of robust information and knowledge ecosystems around agricultural markets.  It is not enough to invest in piece meal corporate social responsibility initiatives mainly designed for marketing or self-promotion. On the other hand, in order to come up with the right market policies, policy makers should be adequately literate about prevailing market processes.  / /

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Potential for youth employment through making livestock feed from urban agriculture

Potential for youth employment through making livestock feed from urban agriculture

While the majority of youths in African countries are still interested in white collar jobs, a monthly salary or wage, agriculture offers new platforms for young people to participate in creating their own employment. These opportunities extend from communal to urban farming. The growth of urban agriculture has been driven by the need for urban dwellers to meet household food security in response to the increasing cost of food commodities and loss of jobs.

Adding value to urban farming by-products

Good rainfall seasons always reveal how urban farming cannot only be source of food security but a strong foundation for youth employment as well as a source of livestock feed. However, most urban agriculture skills have largely been on producing maize and other crops like legumes and small grains. As urban farming gains momentum, there is scope for adding value to by-products such as maize husks and other crop remains like what happens in farming areas where crop remains are turned into livestock feed. This is also how urban youths can tap into indigenous knowledge on adding value to urban agriculture.

In rural areas, value addition of grasses focuses on grazing and thatching. Rural communities know that if they feed cattle with natural pastures, the cattle will be strong enough to provide draught power and milk which is a rich source of nutrition.  Cattle and donkeys have remained a major source of draught power. With healthy cattle and other animals, farmers get good harvests which guarantee food security. Bumper harvests also provide sufficient mashanga or stover which is preserved as cattle feed for use in the lean winter season.  Another bonus is manure from the livestock. 

Making livestock feed in cities

Using the same technology and systems that have sustained rural agriculture for decades, urban youths can add value to urban agriculture through:

  • Making basic stock feed from maize stalks in several urban fields. Maize production has increased in African cities like Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Maputo and many others following good rainfall seasons. 
  • Making hay from grasses found in open areas, along roads and streams.

Products from the above two activities can have ready market in dry regions where climate change is negatively affecting the availability of livestock feed throughout the year.  One of the issues is that in most rural areas, grasses and maize husks as well as other crop residues have multi-purpose uses. Good grass is used for thatching houses while maize stalks have a short period for cattle and mainly consumed while still in the field. By harvesting mashanga and grasses, youths will clear dangerous areas and minimize incidences of theft especially against women. Local authorities and development organizations can be approached to provide resources for committed youths. Both young men and women can champion this initiative that has high potential for generating income.

Connecting urban and rural youths

The above efforts can be linked with rural youths who can be assisted to set up feedlots at community level. Development agencies like the FAO and others focusing on livestock value chains may be convinced to support the intervention.  Currently, stock feed is competing with human food security. While maize is used as stock feed for elite livestock producers who can afford such feed, the majority of rural farmers feed their cattle on natural grass and crop by-products. That is why it is important to promote the use of by-products from urban agricultural activities for producing stock feed.  Bringing cheap stock feed from urban agriculture will minimize cattle diseases while increasing productivity as cattle will be fed closer home unlike travelling long distances for pastures.

Once centers where stock feed is produced are known, people will bring mashanga just like some people are taking paper, bottles and other materials to recycling centers. This is also how feed for goats and sheep that are often kept in stressful urban conditions in cities without feed by traders while waiting for buyers. Some youth can end up planting crops and grasses that are good for preserving wetlands.  By-products from the shelling of groundnuts and maize roasting will be aggregated and taken to drop centers where they will be picked and taken to stock feed manufacturing sites.

Eventually, knowledge gained from making stock feed can be transferred to farming areas where farmers will learn how to make feed while youths scout for markets in dry regions.  In most cases, regions where crops do well due to high rainfall lack cattle and that means there is always abundant plant by-products like mashanga which are badly needed in dry regions where livestock do better.  Local authorities can also be assisted to build business models around stock feed manufacturing since they own most of the land on which urban agriculture happens.  / /

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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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