For every US$500 million that has goes into agricultural production in Africa, another US$500 million is not injected into the market in order to stimulate demand for what is produced. As a results, gluts continue to alternate with shortages of commodities. A major reason is lack of investment in gathering and re-using fluid evidence. Monitoring and evaluation activities are usually for accountability to the funder instead of informing programmes in ways that fuel continuous adaptation. It is through strong feedback loops that agriculture and rural development interventions can stabilize growth and expand opportunities. A consistent focus on feedback would have seen most of the knowledge generated by development actors in Africa over the past decades leading to business partnerships between business people from donor countries and local African communities. This can be more sustainable than continuously compelling poor people to work hard for hand-outs.
Building a solid identity
Feedback provides an opportunity for value chain actors to establish a solid identity and generate unique customer engagement. Fragmentation of feedback is one of the reasons why smallholder production is still considered risky by most financial institutions. Feedback is critical in building and strengthening value chains through which detailed profiles of producers and traders can be continuously updated. Without investing in feedback, financial institutions will not be able to put in place systems for making agriculture less risk and boost producers’ capacity to repay loans. Financiers will continue to foist contract arrangements on farmers irrespective of effectiveness set the same interest rates for different agricultural commodities regardless of market dynamics like seasonality.
The role of feedback in building relationships
As demonstrated by most African informal markets, feedback can build confidence, trust and relationships, leading strong business cases among traders and farmers. Due to relationships built over years of sharing feedback, some farmers continue to get the market. Spending time to cultivate resilient feedback pathways results in better understanding of the market. For new entrants, it is easy to exist the market but difficult to enter due to a thicket of relationships that have been built through feedback sharing.
In African people’s markets, pillars of growth include knowledge, feedback, confidence and relationships. When farmers and traders realize that their knowledge is reaching its ceiling, they use feedback to generate new knowledge so that they stay current. There is also a realization that locking knowledge in a few Communities of Practice often leads to a reduction in impact. New knowledge is built through feedback nodes from different communities. This is where ICTs have started playing a significant role by strengthening feedback loops.
If they did not invest in building strong feedback loops, cut-throat competition would be the order of the day in most informal markets. Due to relationships and trust fueled by feedback, informal markets comprising more than 2000 traders are able to set and agree on prices for more than 100 different commodities in which they trade. A form of standardization happens on prices such that price information becomes a public good. A customer can walk along the market seeing almost similar prices for the same commodity. While some consumers may look at this as collusion, it is not but actors would have agreed to set a standardized system of quickly sharing information and knowledge.
On the other hand, most farmers give the market different prices because they will not have created a standardized system of sharing knowledge among themselves before going to the market. Rather than enable farmers to negotiate and set prices, formal markets force farmers to react to prices that the market will have offered in line with its absorptive capacity. In informal markets, knowledge is not highly privatized. Customers can learn through observing and asking questions. Many consumers frequent informal markets because there is a system connecting farmers, traders, consumers and the market in ways that facilitate knowledge transfer through human relationship building. Traders have set systems and rules of engagement based on feedback and this enables knowledge to travel through commodities.
Making community knowledge findable
African communities have all facets of knowledge which cannot be defined in one word. If you need knowledge about seed, goats and other things you can find it through asking. A knowledge seeker should first define what s/he wants. Communities do not display knowledge like in supermarkets because the knowledge has to be continuously updated. It has to be kept fluid and that means such knowledge cannot be wholly stored in libraries but built in fluid ways that are part of the community where it is kept alive and some practices discarded. Community knowledge does not have a syllabus and it takes time to acquire or discard it.
Resilience should be defined in terms of knowledge as an intangible asset. Unfortunately, most development interventions start with tangible assets like irrigation equipment, seed and other inputs. They end up confusing skills with knowledge. One can easily acquire skills on using certain tools but may not quickly acquire knowledge which is more durable and provides capacity to survive when equipment no longer exists and inputs have long been exhausted.
The contribution of feedback to mindset change
Mindset change is one of the most common phrases being thrown around as if it can be done overnight. Without investment in feedback it is impossible to change people’s mindsets. Feedback loops require participation by communities, specialists and individuals. Mindset change and feedback is about information and knowledge. Some people prefer sending information anonymously without drawing attention to themselves. They should be allowed to do so and need confidence that their preferences are respected. It can be the role of the broker to foster such freedom of expression and non-expression without some people feeling victimized for exposing what other people want to remain hidden due to different incentives. Through a robust feedback mechanism, people can be encouraged to proffer problems and solutions.
Continuous feedback can lead to mind-set change. It is not an event whose results can be achieved through a three to four year project. After 30 years in agriculture using their own shared resources and coping strategies, farmers cannot suddenly decide to take an agricultural loan. Unfortunately, banks are not investing in understanding pathways to mindset change. If you suddenly start advertising financial services, most farmers start questioning your motives especially if you have ignored their concerns for decades. Due to lack of a feedback culture there is an increasing tendency to start, close and re-start projects under different labels and names.
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