How informal markets are redefining agricultural extension

Given their openness and competitive nature, informal agriculture markets enable farmers to see their knowledge gaps. This shows up in a comparative sense where farmers use consumer choices, quality and prices to compare their commodities with those from their peers. If a fellow farmer gets a better price, one who receives an inferior price strikes a dialogue with the one who is doing well.  That is how face to face knowledge sharing begins before it is sustained by ICTs and trust. Besides being a seller, in the market farmers are also knowledge buyers who can identify and buy commodities that do better.  In most cases, observation is a powerful knowledge gathering method.


From ordinary farmers to advisors

Following active market participation, some farmers become advisors, especially after two to three cycles in the market.  Consumer preferences and patterns are picked from the market.  For instance, in Zimbabwe, chicken farmers who do not visit the market may not know that most consumers now prefer small portions like chicken feet which are becoming more affordable than other pieces of meat. Someone can simply buy chicken portions worthy 50c and still be able to eat meat with vegetables. On the other hand, you can’t buy beef for as low as 50c.

Learning through comparison

The market enables farmers to see the scale of some marketing challenges.  For instance, a farmer who loses five crates of tomatoes due to a glut in the market can compare his situation with a fellow farmer who losses more than two tons.  That is a learning point in its own right. Through the market, a farmer can see the performance of a crop that looked very good on the land when it starts competing with commodities from other areas. Field days and agricultural shows are incomplete learning platforms without markets.

In conventional field days, knowledge sharing is more on the agronomic side (fertilizer application, pest control, yield, etc..,.).  On the other hand, the market enables farmers to share knowledge about varieties, climatic conditions and rainfall patterns.  The can ask the following questions and get answers: In what soils do you produce these butternuts?  What are your rainfall patterns?  How much water do you have?  When do you actually plant?.  Farmers take this knowledge and use it to compare with what they are doing.  New relationships are formed and mobile phones are then used to continue the dialogue when famers go back to their farming areas. The farmers make arrangements to meet again in the market again.  Seeing a crop in the field is different from seeing it on the market.  The market also exposes farmers to other alternative forms of extension from traders and vendors. Traders can provide genuine reasons for lower commodity grades and prices by looking at what is on the market.

 Learning from good and bad practices

Niche markets like food chain stores and supermarkets do not provide opportunities for farmers to compare and seek advice from consumers and other actors.  On the other hand, informal markets enable farmers to get first – hand information which is often more valuable and reliable than second-hand information which is often stale and distorted. The market also enables sharing of both best and bad practices so that preventive measures can be devised.  Farmers who do not often visit the market have inadequate knowledge.  Without market participation, some information is not useful for farmers. For instance, market prices have less meaning to farmers who do not take their commodities to the market. That is why look and learn visits to agriculture markets are a very valuable process.

The market also provides a lot of wisdom around standards, varieties, crop calendars and opportunities for credit facilities.  In the market, farmers are able to build relationships with traders who can help them deal with market failure and constraints such as cash shortages.  Such relationships enable traders to sell commodities on behalf of farmers while the farmers go back to the farm rather than waiting for market prices to improve.

The importance of community knowledge centres in farmer to farmer extension

Every community has keen learners with capacity to borrow knowledge intelligently. Given the increase in the amount of information that farmers and other rural people require in order to participate in mainstream economic activities, community knowledge centres are becoming more important. In conventional extension models, the knowledge hierarchy has been entrenched in such a way that most farmers find it difficult to contradict official extension officers by providing contrary evidence. It takes enterprising farmers to acquire private knowledge and implement quietly.  These are leaders by experimentation who are not interested in consensus-building for its sake but producing good results. Developing local markets should be considered an important investment in knowledge sharing. Markets bring a certain dimension to knowledge generation and sharing. By visiting and understanding markets, farmers get a grasp of the economics of knowledge.

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