As agricultural value chains in developing countries become over-crowded and hyper-competitive, real-time awareness has never been so important. While digital technology is being presented as a solution, more efforts have to go into ensuring information satisfies the needs of farmers, traders and other value chain actors who want to engage in evidence-informed decision making. Many organizations that currently produce manuals for farmers do not realize that some farmers have no time to read such manuals from cover to cover but can only consult the publication when a need arises.
There is a difference between availing information to agricultural value chain actors and making it user-friendly in ways that increase real-time awareness. Most digital initiatives that focus on disseminating information to farmers do not spend enough time figuring out if such information is user-friendly or contributes to real-time awareness. As a result, there is information over-load, especially for particular commodities. For instance, while commodities like maize, cocoa, cotton, tomatoes and banana can be characterized by information over-load, information scarcity is a permanent feature of orphaned crops and livestock. There is more information about cattle production than rabbit farming, for example. In the absence of smart content developers, digital technology might increase the gap between famous commodities and orphaned ones.
Building new ways of handling evidence
Value chain actors have to be capacitated in analyzing existing data in new ways. As they set and tackle priorities in competitive ecosystems, it is critical to start from existing data or evidence. Every community has its own community software in the form of reliable practices and what has stopped working. While such knowledge may not have been codified, community members might want to consider what they already know about particular markets and different consumers. Formalizing these ideas and turning them into opportunities can be a good entry point.
Many African farming communities already have a wealthy of information that just needs creative application. They may even advice formal institutions like government departments to search for new insights from unexpected places unlike over-depending on traditional surveys like annual crop and livestock assessments. Formal institutions may also be pointed to new sources of evidence like different types of markets such as spot markets, road side markets, formal markets, institutional buyers and others. This will increase appreciation of the full range of factors affecting consumers’ experiences.
Exposing farmers to new sources of evidence
In most cases, traders interact more directly with consumers while many farmers do not have that chance but rely on secondary sources of feedback. There are also many cases where farmers are fed commercial data sets like advertisements from seed companies or input distributors whose information may be biased towards selling inputs irrespective of effectiveness. The real value for farmers may not be in messages from companies that are selling inputs but combining such messages with local knowledge and advice from independent knowledge brokers like government extension. Where farmers do not have access to feedback from satisfied or unsatisfied customers, they will continue doing things the wrong way and fail to retain customers. Like all other value chain actors, when farmers tap into effective customer feedback, they will be able to improve relationships with diverse consumers and expand their market share.
Identifying the right value chains
Real-time awareness makes it possible for new farmers and investors to accurately identify value chains in which they can invest profitably. For some commodities, price elasticity can be so high that a fall in price suddenly leads to huge losses. Evidence can show how some value chains can be disqualified by both internal and external factors. On the other hand, commodities like tomatoes may continue to be produced in one area because a lot of knowledge has been generated and applied in the same community for generations such that almost everyone now knows how to produce tomatoes without need for extension support. Some commodities like potatoes and banana can continue to be produced in a particular community because tastes and preferences have been honed and extended over time.
It is through real-time awareness that choices like producing a commodity where it does well in order to generate better returns on investment can be anchored. With the right support, one production corridor can become a market for other production corridors. For instance, the potato corridor can become a robust market for the livestock production corridor. Where some value chains for fruits like oranges and apples have already been developed, support might only be in the form of creating an enabling marketing environment. Through real-time awareness and evidence, agricultural decision makers can see how much is flowing to the market from a particular farming community, how much is left for local consumption and how much is lost through poor post-harvest handling practices. Since what normally comes to the market is the best, if poor quality commodities come to the market it might mean nothing is being left at local levels – signaling malnutrition in production areas.
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