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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There is still hope for African countries to restore their original food systems

There is still hope for African countries to restore their original food systems

In the face of intensifying climate change, voices calling for Africans to go back to their original food systems are getting louder. Such voices are guided by changes in the natural phenomena that once existed in several African communities and countries. Many voices are lamenting the fact that policy makers have embraced foreign food production systems at the expense of natural ecosystems like rich forests teeming with insects, wild animals and indigenous fruits, among others. 

Some of the major questions being raised repeatedly include: As Africans destroy or remove natural forests to set up infrastructure like buildings and roads, what is replacing natural resources that existed before setting up these structures? When forests are cleared for mining purposes, what happens natural ecosystems and livelihoods that used to survive on natural resources? 

What are Africans losing by replacing natural ecosystems with imported assets?

While there are no easy answers to most of the questions, should Africans cry foul about climate change when they are allowing natural resources to be destroyed? It is clear that African countries have been facilitating the destruction of their natural ecosystems and replacing them with colonial imported assets.  Another major question is: How can African countries use natural food systems to develop their economies?

Traditionally, Africans developed tastes and preferences for foods that grew naturally without destroying local economies and ecosystems. Unfortunately, by embracing industrialization, these countries have over the past decades been importing in-organic knowledge to replace organic knowledge as well as destroying natural forests to grow hybrid maize and other imported foods. By destroying natural food systems, Africans are also destroying embedded knowledge. The majority of African countries have not cultivated pathways for developing or propagating local knowledge toward increasing production and utilization of natural foods. Much attention has been directed at supporting food systems for economies that have done research on their foods which they are bringing to Africa so that Africans produce for them in abundance and export to their countries.

That is how African countries have become food production zones for foreign countries that have destroyed their natural ecosystems.  For instance, of the two million kilograms of tobacco produced in Zimbabwe, less than 2% is smoked locally.  As Africans produce export-oriented crops like cocoa, cotton and tobacco, they destroy their natural ecosystems and replace them with imported plant species. In the same vein, Africans are destroying soils and micro climates on which natural foods used to grow. As Africans build infrastructure like barns for tobacco curing, they destroy forests which are an integral component of natural food systems encompassing wild animals, birds, bees and others for generations. 

Honey production which used to happen naturally has gone down and Africans are trying to use scientific methods of keeping bees. The decrease in the amount of bees is affecting pollination for all crops that depend on pollination. In addition, the destruction of forests has led to marked decrease in the natural production of mushrooms, resulting in attempts to produce mushrooms artificially.

Existing and emerging opportunities

In all sectors, African countries are trying to develop their economies without strategies for replacing the destruction of natural ecosystems.  Road networks are good but to what extent are they benefitting natural ecosystems?  Most highways and roads are used for exploitative purposes and destroying natural resources. Roads going to areas where tobacco, tea and cotton is grown are mainly for exploiting those crops and taking them to the export market. Measures to stop some of these negative practices and reversing climate change through supporting indigenous food systems can include:

  • Raising awareness on the potential that exists within natural food systems – not only focusing on human benefits but a holistic approach that embraces wild life and nature.
  • Conducting research, not only for academic purposes but for consolidating knowledge on indigenous foods, from seed and all the way to establishing plantations for indigenous fruits, trees, pastures and vegetables.
  • Value addition –exploring processing and preservation of indigenous food.
  • Export promotion of indigenous natural foods – these have untapped potential to earn foreign currency if properly promoted.  Africans can then invest in further reproduction to replace imported food systems. This can become a smart climate mitigation strategy while reducing foreign currency deficits. Using indigenous knowledge to produce natural products can be a better solution to foreign currency challenges.  / /

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Pitfalls of embracing a natural farming region approach to agriculture development

Pitfalls of embracing a natural farming region approach to agriculture development

Agricultural practices in much of Africa have always been done in line with natural farming regions. While this approach is sensible, it has consistently disadvantaged dry regions. There has been a tendency to think that drought-prone areas do not have resilience pathways that can be commercialized. Most agricultural decisions continue to be influenced by rainfall patterns as drivers of investment.

Artificial boundaries

Looking at what happens in African mass markets, it is possible to conclude that boundaries between dry regions and high rainfall regions may just be artificial.  There are strong synergies between the two.  Just as drought-prone areas are a market for food from high rainfall areas, high rainfall areas also constitute a huge market for commodities like small grains that do well in dry regions. An integrated approach to building food systems will ride on the strengths of both regions.

However, most African countries are yet to tap into the existing and potential strengths of dry regions. For instance, most mechanization investments are directed at high rainfall regions at the expense of dry regions. Instead of identifying appropriate mechanization for dry regions, governments have tried to foist crops that do well in high rainfall regions on dry regions together with associated equipment like combine harvesters and heavy duty tractors. Crops like wheat that consume a lot of water are often imposed on dry regions where small grains grow naturally but there have not been efforts to support the necessary innovation that would see small grains being produced under irrigation, possibly in winter.

Mapping of existing resources

Agricultural investments should be guided by careful mapping of existing resources like land, soil types and water sources including forests which also contribute to local food systems. Such efforts should also look at knowledge and human skills. Dry regions have been left with old people as the young generation migrate to high rainfall areas because they do not see agriculture-related opportunities in dry regions.  Youth from dry regions are often found working in horticulture plantations of high rainfall regions and sugar cane farms when they should be applying their knowledge in their home areas.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) also have to be carefully mapped so that such knowledge does not completely disappear with the old generation. Much of the land in dry regions is lying idle as the old generation which has the knowledge on how to use the land in producing traditional crops no longer have the energy to work the land. The old generation has abundant knowledge in producing small grains, indigenous vegetables and indigenous poultry but youths are not available to receive that knowledge.

Infiltration and dilution of IKS

A disturbing trend is the infiltration and dilution of indigenous knowledge systems by modern companies scrambling for relevance. For example some livestock feed manufacturing companies now claim to produce road runner feed suitable for indigenous poultry.  How authentic is that feed and why are African researchers or innovators not upgrading and commercializing indigenous poultry feed that has been produced traditionally for generations?  What value is being added by local universities and tertiary institutions that are located in dry regions?  How much of their curricula or content comprises local knowledge or IKS? Rather than adopting foreign syllabus, these institutions should be focusing more on contextual issues like developing local food systems for local, regional and global consumers.

Which supply chains are informed by small grains, indigenous fruits, indigenous vegetables, indigenous chickens and many other local resources that can drive growth? Serious efforts should go towards developing appropriate supply chains and markets. Many development organizations are promoting production of small grains and indigenous chickens but they are not developing markets. If a region has enough potential to produce its own food, 10% can be local consumption while the rest goes to markets.

Opportunities in value addition

Appropriate technology for small grains is lacking and that presents a challenge for commercialization.  Most few quantities produced for surplus get to the market through public transport which is uneconomic for every farmer to come with his/her bucket of small grains. Better markets tend to be distant from smallholder farming areas.

Given that much of the production across Africa is seasonal, there is no control over production cycles and supply is rendered inconsistent. Preservation of indigenous fruits for consistent and organized supply to the market is also lacking. Universities should participate in promoting the utilization of wild fruits, indigenous vegetables and other crops that are abundant during rainy seasons. Seed for propagation of indigenous crops and wild fruits is another critical pursuit. Small grains have remained labour-intensive for generations, making the crops unattractive to the youth.  Why do we not have plantations for indigenous fruits which do not need too much attention and can give young people time to multi-task? Building on existing IKS is the best way of developing dry regions rather than bringing foreign innovations and knowledge which cannot tap into these areas’ competitive advantages.  / /

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COVID19 has worsened the plight of disabled agricultural value chain actors

COVID19 has worsened the plight of disabled agricultural value chain actors
For more than 10 years, Samson Mundodzi a gifted blind farmer from Nyazura in Manicaland province of Zimbabwe used to be accompanied to Mbare market for selling his commodities. Like all other farmers, Samson would have his commodities loaded onto long distance buses that passed through his home and get to Mbare market in time for consumers to snatch his commodities before returning home with the same buses.

By banning long distance buses as part of measures to contain the spread of COVID19, the government of Zimbabwe unknowingly cut the livelihood for Samson and thousands of disabled people like him. While the pandemic has turned the economy into a survival of the fittest ecosystem, where able bodied people can walk long distances to scavenge for transport or jump onto the back of trucks, disabled people cannot even attempt such tricks. The level of hassling induced by COVID19 is beyond the vulnerable.

The pull of agriculture and need for targeted responses
Given its low barriers to entry, most disabled people across Africa have found a home in the agriculture sector and agriculture-related income generating enterprises. Where governments have tried to introduce cushioning allowances for the SMEs sector, such measures have not been carefully disaggregated to cater for the needs of people with different levels of disability. If the state of infrastructure has been unbearable for able-bodied people for a very long time, what about the disabled who have many other challenges?

COVID19 has presented an opportunity for policy makers and development agencies to look critically at some of these issues with a view to developing better solutions post-COVID19. Besides being a moment of truth, the pandemic has revealed how African mass markets are a better expression of interdependencies that bind food systems and society together including different forms of disability.
The power of addressing widening inequalities
The first step for policy makers and development agencies to change the current system that is characterized by exclusion is to recognize that they are part of it. The COVID-19 pandemic forces has exposed interdependencies and inequalities that threaten to widen if not carefully addressed. Business have been presented with an opportunity to be a force of good beyond public relations gestures such as being captured on camera donating COVID19 masks as part of corporate social responsibility activities aimed at getting media publicity for marketing purposes.

To the extent COVID19 is a warm up training for society to deal with a changing climate, private companies and development agencies are being compelled to consider the impact of their decisions on communities and the environment. There has to be more purpose than making money or appetite for donor money through writing reports that paint a rosy picture when things on the ground are different.

Instead of embracing interdependence, Pre-COVID19 there has been an increasing tendency by development agencies to muscle out government and the private sector from rural agricultural ecosystems by creating consortiums that distort markets and grab roles that should be played by government and the private sector. Just as the pandemic is compelling the private sector to think deeply about how to build businesses that have a positive impact on society, the development sector should be doing the same by ensuring development programs are more inclusive to all members of the society including the disabled who should also own interventions not just be considered beneficiaries.

However markets cannot solve everything
What has also become clear through COVID19 is that markets on their own cannot solve all shocks. For instance, while in the early days of the 21 day lockdown period formal markets like supermarkets were allowed to operate, they could not meet the needs of most consumers in terms of diversity and quantities of food required. Neither was there space for the disabled to get what they wanted ahead of everyone. Some entrepreneurs and businesses may have tried to practice business differently but were constrained by the culture and rules of the market.

In the mass market it became clear that the right infrastructure did not exist to understand whether food supply chains were having a positive impact on society and lessening shocks on different actors including the disabled like Samson Mundodzi. The pandemic has shined the spot light on the need to change the system so that markets create value for all actors and different classes of consumers. Without the right comprehensive infrastructure it is difficult for farmers, consumers and other value chain actors to understand whether the agriculture sector or a particular value chain is having a positive impact on society.

That is why, post-COVID19 should see drastic changes in the marketing system so that agriculture can create value for all value chain actors, not just for funders and middlemen. Appropriate infrastructure can also enable data collection -making it possible to see who is positioned where and who is doing what as well as who is being excluded. Such immense systems change requires some interdependent combination of behavior change, culture shift, and structural change. Unless government, the private sector and development agencies commit to changing the rules of the game, outcomes will remain the same for value chain actors including the disabled and poor communal households.

When development organizations empower communities to produce their own food and add value to existing resources, they contribute in building strong communities and minimize government spending to solve problems being created by externalities like environmental damage. The same applies when private companies and financial institutions provide better incomes and unlock opportunities that prevent environmental damage caused by low wages and limited sources of livelihood. Such interdependencies are rarely explored as most private companies and development agencies are obsessed with pursuing isolated impact.

The best thing the private sector and development agencies can do is creating a socio-economic system that enables people and communities to be resilient in the face of future shocks. Dealing with COVID19 is a good training for dealing with climate change which certainly presents a much bigger disaster because it cannot be cured with a vaccine like COVID19 to limit its impact.

Business can still much for social good
The tendency by African countries to appeal for support to the donor world runs the risk of underestimating how much business including local businesses such as SMEs can do for social good if the system is structured in the right way. While COVID19 has shown that there is a limit to what the free market can solve, when properly organized African mass food markets can solve much more than they are currently doing. As part of the private sector, agricultural markets have enabled the agriculture sector achieve more than what the development sector has done.

Using agriculture as the main catalyst, the private sector has pulled millions of Africans out of poverty and created innovations like value chain systems that have improved many people’s loves. There is no doubt that if restructured properly post-COVID19, the private sector can become a more powerful force for social good. The private sector cannot solve all problems because there are plenty of challenges that the market cannot solve by itself. For instance, disability issues cannot be fully solved through private agricultural enterprises. To a large extent, all countries class and social justice issues that the market is not able to solve by itself.

Some elements of the environmental crisis we are currently facing are not going to be solved solely by business behaving differently. Such issues ae going to require public-policy solutions. This is where the government and the not-for-profit sector like development agencies are absolutely necessary in generating collective solutions. That will ensure Samson Mundodzi and millions of disabled people in the developing world will do not continue to remain marginalized. / /
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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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The rising prominence of communication, thanks to COVID19

In much of the world including developing countries, COVID19 has re- positioned communication as the key driver in project implementation. Before the pandemic many organizations were reluctant to increase the communication budget. Working from home and restrictions in movement have seen ICT channels and tools moving to the centre of most communication efforts. The pandemic has also shaped information and knowledge seeking behaviors of many people. For instance, compared to the pre-COVID era, when farmers call the market, they now ask for more information beyond just price. Inquiries include – how is the market performing? Are more buyers coming?  Where do I get cheap transport?

Source: eMKambo 2020

Software as a conference venue

For organizations previously fond of workshops, Zoom has totally replaced face to face physical conferences and workshops. Hotels and other conference venues had become unintended beneficiaries of donor money at the expense of poor communities. For farmers, fisher-folk and pastoralists Whatsapp has become the main platform to stay connected with peers and the market.

Zoom and other online conferencing channels eliminate unintended participates who used to gate-crash conferences or workshops just for lunch or per diem.  This time those who really care about an issue under discussion are the ones who participate.  Zoom has also got rid of unnecessary air travel that has had a negative environmental footprint.  There is no longer need to fly more than 300 participants from around the world to Munyonyo Resort in Uganda or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, wasting resources in the form of air tickets purchases, hotel accommodation, meal, fuel and other logistical costs including calling. 

De-rolling through virtual conferences

Virtual conferences have got rid of physical conferences that were characterized by protocol processes  where a high table was set up for dignitaries who would in most cases come late to open the conference and disrupt proceedings. Zoom does not have space for such unnecessary expression of power. When you are late to the virtual conference you join in quietly and follow proceedings irrespective of your title. Such de-rolling enhances knowledge sharing by making everyone equal and doing away with hierarchy.

By insisting on protocol government information services lack dialogue as it is only one-way communication, more of announcements. While the ministry of information can be responsible for communicating COVID-19 issues to the nation, there is no room for anyone to either agree, add more value, offer constructive criticism or expand on what has been presented as part of flavoring it with context. Such methods of communication are hopelessly inadequate during shocks and creates vacuums that are often filled by social media which end up becoming the default mouth-piece for policy messages.

Obviously software cannot solve every challenge

There is no doubt that online software like Zoom has demonstrated the power of ICTs in breaking through communication barriers and removing the stigma associated with working from home. However, there are circumstances where digital technology is far from being a panacea. For instance, in African mass markets physical commodities have to exchange hands. That process cannot be completed virtually.  More importantly, African agriculture and mass markets have many moving parts, with multiple elements that must be addressed together to meet the needs of all value chain actors ranging from farmers to consumers. Digital communication may not meet the needs of all actors.

Communication platforms are as important as dams, roads and livestock pastures

The importance of communication in building local agricultural ecosystems and markets has never been so important. Where previously farmers would easily take commodities to markets in big cities, that can no longer happen due to lockdowns, forcing people to cultivate local markets through talking to each other, gathering local statistics and working collaboratively.

That is why governments and development partners should reserve budgets for information and knowledge sharing platforms because these have a bearing on the quality of information shared.  Such budgets can be used to bridge information and knowledge gaps between those who can afford participating in Whatsapp groups, calling or sending short message services and vulnerable groups who are not able to do so. It has been proven beyond doubt that accurate information and knowledge enhances farmers’ enterprises. For example, where farmers are being supported with seed and other inputs, they would certainly need information from the market before they start thinking of harvesting. Generic information is less useful in the current era prone to pandemics and climate change-induced shocks.  / /

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The power of clear role definition in African food systems

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

covid mbare

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to a dynamic environment

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

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

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Reimagining a new socio-economic fabric for African informal economies

Lockdowns as a major method for containing COVID-19 has undoubtedly destroyed social fabrics that sustain most low income economies. While governments have tried to soften the pandemic’s blow by providing cushioning allowances and other social safety nets to vulnerable members of society including vendors,  Mukando or Stokvel and other forms of voluntary and savings clubs will no longer be the same. Vendors and other low income earners who live from hand to mouth are wondering how they are going to repay loans they had taken before the pandemic arrived.

Capture covid

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:

Profile element Justification (why it is important)
Personal details  
Name and sex Name is about identity. Who are we dealing with?  In the final analysis, sex reveals the extent to which the informal sector is dominated by women, for instance.
Age This has economic implication for business. What has been the impact of closing businesses on youth in response to COVID-19? What is the impact on the elderly pensioners?  How many young people have become unemployed due to the lockdown?
Marital Status COVID-19 has had a different impact on the married, unemployed single mothers and widows.
Household Size Household size has an influence on the pace at which small enterprises can recover from the pandemic. For most SMEs, more than 90% of the business income is more of a salary for the household.
Level of Education This has a bearing on the introduction of financial literacy and provision of technical skills.  How many graduates and school drop outs are in the informal sector?
Home Address (Location) Where do informal traders and SMEs stay? If staying in Epworth, why do they prefer selling to Mbare? What are the business factors for staying in Epworth and doing business in Mbare? This is a description of the ecosystem.  While policy makers may want to be directed by availability of land and by-laws in allocating work spaces, traders and SMEs know what should be considered in setting up a business.  They know the behavior of their customers and target market.
Mobile Number This is becoming a key unique identifier.
Business Information
Business Name and Location Where is the business operating from?  This assists in mapping and revealing the concentration of SMEs.
Is the premise a. rented from i. private property ii. Council property. owned c. home This will assist in assessing risks. If one is renting at a private property, does the by-laws allow or property owners are just taking advantage of desperate SMEs. In most countries private property owners have become more of tax collectors. What plans can be put in place to bring commodities closer to consumers and de-congest Mbare? How can some premises be combined into industrial parks that accommodate street vendors and those operating from home? If you chase street vendors you are saying where they bought is also illegal.
Year business started This provides landscape in terms of experience as shown by years.  Are SMEs growing? What is dominating in terms of years?  What is the age of the business? How old is the SMEs?  If an SME has been running for 20 years but policy makers still do not recognize it, there is something wrong with government policy not with the SME. One cannot continue to be called informal merely because s/he has not been given works space or there is no supportive legislation. For instance what company registration is needed for brick molding? Youth enterprises should not be called projects but enterprises.
Average monthly sales How much is a SME contributing to the economy? Such information will provide a basis for clustering. It will also lays the foundation for creating a growth path. If someone has been in business for 20 years but sales are going down, it could signal lack of adaptation or existing knowledge has reached a limit.
Number of employees: a. full time b. part time This is a key component of economic growth.  By closing SMEs, how many families have been affected?  Any support required may not just be for the business but enhancing employment creation.  Job losses need to be accounted for as SMEs may not be able to sustain full-time employees post-COVID19.
List of assets and estimated value This shows production capacity and contribution of the SMEs to national economic growth.
Do you have any running loan? If yes state amount and lender? What is going to happen to enterprises that had acquired loans pre-COVID?  Their reputation with financiers is likely to get sour?  If more than 60% had loans, how are they going to be repaid?
What kind of support does your business currently need? Provide details This is critical. Most countries do not have fluid needs assessment management systems for the SMEs sector. In most cases there is an assumption that SMEs need loans when they probably need knowledge and skills.  Some have their own knowledge and should not be locked in five day training courses. Others are always learning from each other and can produce items without having gone to college.
Equipment As technical people, SMEs know what equipment is lacking.  In clustering SMEs, policy should be informed by existing type of equipment or come up with special grants that can enable SMEs to import appropriate equipment. A supply chain for equipment can anchor rural industrialization with no need for every aspiring entrepreneur to visit the capital city for everything.

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

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Africa Day should now be more about knowledge than politics

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

charles dhewa covid

Recognizing intrinsic knowledge and indigenous science

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

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

Need to domesticate imported science

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

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

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

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

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