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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Capacitating local farmers and traders to provide information on commodity supplies, units of measurement, prices, sources and challenges.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Justification (why it is important)
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.
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?
COVID-19 has had a different impact on the married, unemployed single mothers and widows.
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.
This is becoming a key unique identifier.
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.
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.