If development organizations and NGOs were investors, districts like Buhera, Binga, Chimanimani, Insiza and many others in Zimbabwe would be towns by now. The same can be said for several rural areas in whose name millions of United States dollars have been spent in most African countries. Each rural county or district has received not less than 10 development interventions over the past 10 to 20 years. But whose mandate is it to develop rural business models? For instance, is it the role of NGOs to develop cattle, piggery and poultry business models when the private sector should be doing so?
Absence of role definition and investment in evidence
In the absence of a clear definition of roles, the above questions cannot be easily answered. An additional question is how much of the information collected by development agencies can be turned into investment opportunities? Information that is collected through rapid assessments for quickly responding to calls for proposals is not useful to investors who are more interested in trends showing investment opportunities. Unfortunately most of the information focuses on a few wards in a district or districts in a province. Lack of fluid information gathering systems does not only limit investments.
Humanitarian NGOs that want to rebuild livelihoods after cyclones or floods find it difficult to know who had how many assets like cattle when the cyclone struck, what was the volume of food in the community households and how much food was flowing to markets from the community before the disaster? As a result, recovery interventions end up based on assumption of what existed. If people are going to be compensated, where is the basis and how are we going to start when everybody has become vulnerable? The intervention is focusing on recovery from what and how can investors come in? The existence of an information gathering and sharing system would show the direction in which the community was growing prior to the disaster. It would also be easy to retrieve data on different actors and production patterns.
This is the main reason why national statistical agencies should be present at grassroots
Instead of concentrating in capital cities, there are good reasons why each African country’s department that deals with statistics should have a presence in rural areas. This will ensure fluid data is collected, processed and availed in the right context. If data collection is more fluid, it becomes an ideal platform for marketing each county, district or local area to investors as they are able to access information online. Such information should show investment opportunities, culture, labor, local expertise, resources and other assets in the local area. Such information should not be scattered within development agencies who are using it as a secret weapon to compete with each other in the same area.
To the extent information and knowledge is power, it is only power when properly gathered, processed and shared. A fluid data collection and management system is very feasible and just needs the following:
- Commitment from government and development agencies in providing initial funding for setting up the system.
- Raising awareness and consciousness among communities and districts about the importance of gathering their own knowledge and information hubs at community level which they can continuously update. This is the genesis of authentic empowerment.
- Setting up the knowledge and information system.
The power of relevant content
The local platform should gather fluid literature that is more current and relevant. Currently most information platforms across Africa lack appropriate content and clear demand. They also do not have sustainability models as promoters confuse ICTs with knowledge. Ideally, each platform should have a mechanism for people to access knowledge for a fee as part of sustaining its operations. For instance, academics and universities which already know the value of data and knowledge can subscribe in order to access data and literature reviews, the same way they subscribe to international libraries and journals, most of whose content is irrelevant to the local context. Students doing their research and those on attachment can be trained on processing and managing diverse datasets related to their disciplines. A major challenge for most university students who try to engage with agricultural value chains is failure to get information they will be looking for and end up resorting to stale literature review.
At the heart of the platform will be ensuring communities and students have access to fresh knowledge not just literature review. Critical content that can be provided include how much was harvested from the local community in the last season, how much was consumed locally and how much was sold, where? Such data will also help researchers and students to follow the knowledge along value chains and be able to get information all the way from grassroots to national level. At provincial level they can get information on all the districts. Schools can also subscribe to the knowledge hub and access information through their agriculture teachers instead of depending on books written decades ago. Students in livestock areas should get real-time information relating to livestock populations and conditions in their communities. That way, a culture of appreciating and valuing local resources will be instilled in youths.
Knowledge exchange between agriculture and health departments
The platform will enable health institutions to get real-time information on nutrition issues affecting different communities. For instance, local clinics are currently more famous for providing drugs, maternity issues, tablets and injections but do not have information on the local population’s nutrition status which has a significant bearing on local health. Statistics on crops and livestock in a community can alert health personnel to the nutrition condition of a community. If data shows too much production of leafy vegetables at the expense of other crops that contribute to a balanced nutrition, it is a powerful signal for nutritionists to generate the correct advice in liaison with government extension departments. The department of roads and Civil Protection Unit can be called into action once information on bridges and roads that are in a poor state is collected and quickly shared.
Fluid information should flow frequently and aggregated by platform administrators. This is the kind of modernization that should be supported by governments and development organizations if they want to be relevant in solving real issues. People in the diaspora with a strong feeling and resources to build their communities from wherever they are should be able to use the knowledge platform without passing through government structures in which corruption is endemic. It is retrogressive to have some organizations selectively promoting their own pieces of projects in vast communities with enormous potential. African countries cannot continue to stage-manage community development through demonstration plots and field days which are conducted by one in more than 3000 farmers. This is not representative of the entire community’s potential.
Technology without appropriate content is a waste of resources
Most of the knowledge-based challenges affecting African countries cannot be solved by drones. Knowledge is largely a social and emotional issue than technological. Fluid information gathering requires active, reliable and timely information sources not technology gadgets. For instance, a technology system that does not link producers with diverse markets is not useful even if the producers can be highly productive. Farmers, traders and other value chain actors should interact freely without being wedged to a single mobile network operator. Most communities discuss their issues either as individuals or villages and should decide how to use their knowledge and where to send their information.
In the current era of fake news, the capacity to sift correct knowledge from fake news is fundamental. Ensuring every farmer has a mobile phone is half the story if farmers are not able to tap into streams of processed insights. That is why administrators are important in filtering knowledge so that farmers and many people do not get lost in the sea of information. Instead of trying to solve challenges directly, development agencies should build the capacity of government extension to gather and process information into appropriate decision-making knowledge. The role of extension officers will switch to become more of responding to emerging issues and questions than pushing information to farmers who are also being spammed by mobile service providers.
Aggregation starts with aggregating statistics in terms of what is available and what is needed in different markets followed by aggregation of physical commodities into proper grades and specifications. Several markets can be connected with the local knowledge hub in ways that extend knowledge about aggregation, quality, production calendars and many other aspects. Ultimately the platform will play a key role in organizing local production and linking the county or district with the world. The local knowledge hub or platform can also become a source for the media. Economic commentators on how economic policies are affecting ordinary people at the grassroots can be identified and accessed through the hub. At the moment, most economic commentators quoted by the media are based in the capital city and have no clue about what is happening in rural communities.
Rather than leaving communities hanging, after three to five years, development organizations should hand over to the local platform all the information, lessons and networks built over the course of the project. That is where investors can go to find details about opportunities in the county or district –what was tried, failures, successes and emerging opportunities.
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