How agriculture markets can pinpoint knowledge gaps

Until feedback starts flowing from the market, farmers may not know what they need to know. Knowledge about production is now fairly easy to find. Who doesn’t know how to produce maize or chickens? Obtaining this knowledge can be as easy as asking your neighbour. However, what remains unknown is who else is producing in another community at the same time. Farmers may also not know the impact of too much water in their tomatoes until the commodity reaches the market and starts competing.


Rainfall-based knowledge is now common sense among smallholder farmers.  For instance, a number of farmers can use a rain gauge to figure out the amount of rainfall in their areas. However, some of the most important missing knowledge relates to understanding the amount of underground water. While communities can count the number of boreholes and other water sources in their area, they can’t tell the status of their underground water in terms of amount and quality. If you ask farmers: how deep is your water table in this area and how much water do you have underground, most likely you won’t get an answer. They can probably tell you the number of months they can get water from their boreholes or weirs but specific knowledge about underground water is unavailable.

While it is important for communities to be able to compare rainfall with groundwater fluctuations and dams in their hydrogeological basins, such knowledge has remained in the heads of hydrologists.  This is in spite of the fact that the bulk of agricultural commodities produced during eight months of the year rely on underground and surface water in most rural African communities. Working from informal agriculture markets has enabled eMKambo to witness how farmers translate surface and underground water into food flowing to the market and into households.  For example, during the month of May 2015, a total of 42 diverse agriculture commodities were supplied to Mbare Agriculture market of Harare, generating an estimated revenue of more than two million United States dollars ($ 2,094,602.40) as shown in the table below:

Table 1: Produce Classes supplied to the market



Except for field crops such as groundnuts ( which generated $210,540.00),  roundnuts ($97,180.00 ), sugar beans ( $55,440.00), cowpeas ( $1,350.00 ),   Sugar cane ($5,258.00),  sweet reeds ($11,585.00) and tubers such as sweet potatoes ($89,345.00),  most of the commodities in the market were produced from underground and surface water.

Some of the knowledge gaps

Given the immense contribution of underground and surface water to food on the market, knowledge on monitoring of local underground water sources is more important than just monitoring rainfall using rain gauges. Some of the missing knowledge includes answering questions like:

  1. How much water is used in producing a crate of tomatoes?
  2. How much water is used to produce a crate of eggs?
  3. How much water is used to produce a sasseka of squash butternuts?

In an increasingly changing climate, such fine-grained knowledge is becoming very important. Financial institutions keen to fund agriculture should also be interested in this information. A credit rating system which focuses on the individual farmer and ignoring access to fundamental resources like water and the market completely misses the mark. What we already know may not be very useful. African communities should know everything about their local water resources. A community can be sitting on huge underground water bodies but still wait for the rain to produce food for the market and local consumption.

Rather than continue recycling courses and producing graduates whose knowledge is irrelevant to African economies, African universities have to urgently revisit their knowledge generation models towards motivating young people to learn for themselves. By interacting with informal agriculture markets, African intellectuals can be inspired to expand frontiers of knowledge in ways that are relevant to local contexts. An academic degree is not knowledge unless you use it to solve basic challenges facing local communities. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear someone saying, “I have a PhD in Participatory Hydrology or a Master of Science in Collective Agriculture Market Intelligence?

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Why calls for proposals are not ideal for African agriculture and rural development

Over the past few years, calls for proposals have become the main instrument used by development organisations to support agriculture and rural development initiatives in African countries. Besides setting the agenda, this approach has also become a way for development organisations to freely harvest ideas. There is also a lot of double dipping in calls for proposals with bidders recycling proposals to fit particular calls.  For most calls for proposals, evaluators are people from outside the country who do not understand the context or the business of the applicants.  This means the main result is a desk appraisal rather than physical appraisal where the evaluators engage in face to face dialogue with applicants as well as with other actors who are currently working with the applicants, for instance farmers, processors and traders, who should be used as references in appraising proposals.  It doesn’t make sense to base funding conclusions and decisions on written documents when development is about people not documents.  Again, calls for proposals processes tend to be very long – proposals writing, baseline, validation of value chains, identification of beneficiaries, training, etc.  This process can take a whole season and can interfere with communities’ on-going activities.

Projects under calls for proposals do not easily adjust to calamities like drought.  Where a budget is for training farmers in farming as a business, such training will still go ahead even if there is a looming drought in the community.  Due to the circular game of setting and responding to targets, the same resources cannot be re-allocated to immediate livelihood activities that may be more important to the community.  In agricultural communities, everyone has a sense of belonging. Therefore resources have to be properly aligned and informed by the interests of community members.  Unfortunately, most projects implemented via calls for proposals hide important information. For instance, the community is not told how much has been allocated to what activity and how much is being spent for what purpose. Communities are excluded from resource allocation decisions.

The calls for proposals approach has resulted in many disjointed projects which do not speak to each other. African countries badly need funding approaches that support interventions that have struggled with their own challenges and have promise for resilience. In response to the calls for proposal approach, we now have full time specialists in proposal writing who are paid even if the proposal doesn’t succeed.  These proposal writers write on behalf of communities they barely understand.  That is why most projects face challenges during implementation.  Most monitoring and evaluation tools used are not context-specific.  For instance, one programme can cover six districts in three different provinces with the same implementation strategy and same monitoring and evaluation tools as if the districts have the same dynamics.  For an agriculture project, monitoring and evaluation tools for farmers close to the market should be different from those who are far from the market. Farmers close to urban markets can get cash for their commodities while those in remote areas can end up resorting to barter trade due to cash shortages in remote areas (exchanging goats with groundnuts or clothes; vegetables with salt, etc.).  Monitoring and evaluation tools by most of the calls for proposals projects do not take these differences into account but use the same baseline (income from beginning to end of project). A tool for farmers trading in cash should be different from those using barter trade.


Although they are critical value chain actors, traders and agro-dealers don’t get support from calls for proposals

Most the calls for proposals projects are also fond of supporting a few disconnected agricultural value chains. They can support farmers ignoring traders, agro-dealers and processors who are critical parts of the value chain. If households receive cash for work under a donor supported programme but the local agro-dealer has no seed, these households will go and buy seed in urban areas where they leave cash which was supposed to be locked in the local community.

What are some of the alternative funding approaches?

Rather than continue using calls for proposals as funding mechanisms in African countries, development partners should explore other methods such as crowd funding. A few of these approaches are being explored by a few development organisations.  Using a crowd funding strategy, initiatives can be funded based on their competitive edges.  Rather than competing through a documentation process, applicants can post their innovative ideas which can be objectively vetted and funded.  This can be different from the calls for proposals approach where applicants end up trying to squeeze their ideas to fit a given budget.  Assumptions used to limit the budget to $100 000 per project under calls for proposals are not based on full understanding of context.  The crowd funding approach will be ideal for funding emerging ideas unlike the calls for proposals approach which has no room for the way ideas and innovations naturally emerge.

Given that most projects under calls for proposals are implemented in two to three years, such a stint is too short to claim any positive impact. That is why we need collaboration between NGOs and the private sector for smooth transition of interventions from a non-profit angle to a for-profit, commercial and sustainable path.  Lack of proper hand over take over between sectors results in too much reinvention of wheels in between white elephants.  Under a crowd funding strategy supporting agriculture development, agro-dealers, traders and processors can receive subsidised grants so that they are able to buy commodities from local communities to ensure market readiness.  In most cases, unwillingness to support these actors by programmes under calls for proposals leads to suppressed prices when farmers produce more than traders, processors or the market can take.  Farmers lose at the end.  If you support bean production in one community like Chipinge but don’t support local agro-dealers traders, there will be a glut of beans in the district because the market has no capacity to absorb the commodities.

Through a crowd funding approach, a community can identify its own potential interventions as well as actors such as farmers, agro-dealers, traders, processors and food chain stores. A needs- based programme can be designed from community to provincial levels.  Local businesses like agro-dealers and food chain stores can be funded to support local farmers. This inclusive strategy can move communities out of poverty in a more sustainable way than calls for proposals most of which are being implemented by international organisations with branches in developing countries. How can an organisation be in a community for more than ten years and still be unable to come up with sustainable solutions but still continue accessing funding through calls for proposals?

The crowd funding strategy can be extended to empowering Community – Based Organisation (CBO) most of which are being side-lined or swallowed by outside organisations through projects under calls for proposals.  A number of CBOs still exist but focus on social projects like HIV & AIDS.  These CBOs should be capacitated and funded so that they can work effectively with the local private sector.  A useful intervention should start with CBO needs informing resource mobilisation with some resources re-directed and targeted at particular community activities.

With many African governments calling for resource sharing among mobile service providers and other actors in the same sector, there should be a method of reinforcing resource sharing among development organisations in ways that help communities.  We still see different organisations driving different vehicles into the same community.  One is focusing on agriculture, another on water and sanitation and yet another on HIV & AIDs.  This is wasting community time and denying them the dignity and self-esteem that comes from surmounting their own challenges.

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How and why data should underpin transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture

The majority of African smallholder farmers still produce for household consumption before thinking about the market. Moving from a subsistence to a commercial mind-set will take more than repeating what farmers already know through workshops and training courses.  Gathering and providing data on the amount of commodities produced by each village, community or district as well as how much gets to the market can be a useful starting point in commercializing smallholder agriculture.

In an effort to provide some of the missing evidence in Zimbabwean agriculture, eMKambo continues to track the volume of commodities from farming communities into people’s markets like Mbare in Harare.  The following tables capture what happened within one week (29 June to 4 July 2015). This information is important for farmers, traders, processors, consumers, financiers and policy makers.

Table 1: Avocado pear produce sources


Since what comes to Mbare is just a fraction of the total production in Chimanimani, Chipinge and Honde Valley, there are opportunities for setting up avocado value addition factories in these areas. By moving the bulk of these commodities to urban areas like Harare and Mutare, these districts are moving potential jobs and incomes away from sources of production.

Table 2: Banana produce sources


While banana production has become pretty easy for farmers in many districts, value addition is a missing component.  The volume of bananas from a given community can inform the size of equipment to be bought for processing and potential employment levels.

Table 3: sugar bean sources


Sugar bean production has expanded in most districts around Zimbabwe but what is missing is how else the commodity can be used besides boiling and consuming as relish.

Table 4: Cabbage produce sources


Mhondoro district is becoming a major producer of cabbages than Mutoko and Murewa districts.


Table 5: Carrot produce sources


Table 6: Cow pea produce sources


Although not produced at commercial levels, cow pea is a favourite of many consumers.

Table 7: Cucumber, Garlic, Ginger and Green bean produce sources

mbare market

Garlic, ginger and green beans command significant respect during this time of the year.


Table 8: Ground nut produce sources



Groundnut is now produced in many villages and wards across Zimbabwe.  However, value addition has not gone beyond peanut butter which almost everyone is now producing.  Opportunities to extract oil from groundnuts have not been explored.


Table 9: Masawu and Mawuyu produce sources


There are opportunities to process Masawu and mawuyu fruits into numerous value-added products.




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Why African agriculture requires a market-based rapid response system

In almost every African country, smallholder farmers have problems dealing with external and internal factors that affect agriculture as a business. This is one area where the market can act as an important rapid response system. While weather reports are important at a general level, when rain falls, farmers often need real time advice based on the amount of moisture in their particular soils.  Some of their challenges include estimating the amount of rainfall or moisture in their soils, how long to wait before planting, time taken by crops to germinate and planting depth depending on specific amounts of moisture.  These issues can only be addressed through localised context – specific advice as soon as rain touches the ground.

Rainfall is an external factor on which farmers need assistance so that they can accurately manipulating it.  Currently, the majority of farmers follow the reactions of lead farmers. However, a farmer in sandy soils requires different advice from the one who produces in clay soils.  Desperation is worse when rainfall comes late and this results in losses among farmers.


Accurate information as a basis for an agricultural rapid response system

Information is the basis of a rapid response system in the agriculture sector. Agricultural extension departments should be capacitated to gather as much information as possible about production in their areas as well as surplus for markets. At the moment extension services are mainly biased towards production, leaving farmers to handle marketing on their own. On the other hand, farmers lack information and knowledge around demand projections.  Very few farmers know what is required by a particular market in the next two to three months in terms of volumes, varieties and probable prices as well as location.  Farmers under contract farming models have some idea about the price offered but not the size of the market and consumer preferences.

More than 90% of useful information is obtained from the people’s market where the majority of consumers buy commodities.  However, in most African countries there is no one responsible for consolidating information in these markets. Yet farmers have to know how much is demanded by 20 Agriculture markets that can feed five to seven million people in one African city like Harare or Nairobi in the next one to three months.  Gathering such information requires a policy framework and support from players working in agriculture markets.  Currently farmers rely on ad hoc information from one or two traders, peers and some farmers unions.  Information asymmetry is leading to mismatches between production and supply in terms of yield, varieties and volumes.  In most cases farmers lose out because there is no demand during gluts.  They also get low value for their commodities thus worsening their production capacity.  All this leads to a reduction in farmers’ capacity to continue producing. It also affects other value chain actors such as equipment suppliers, input providers – thus threatening our food security.

African agriculture will never be sustainable unless there are deliberate efforts to carefully understand and develop markets.  Information shouldn’t just be about prices because prices without volume and variety of commodities are just one piece of the puzzle. Development partners should not only extend their support to production, ignoring markets where farmers ultimately earn better incomes. Helping farmers to produce without a market condemns them to frustration and more poverty.

Once producers have a relationship with the market, it becomes easy for financiers to promote their services via the market.  In fact, financial institutions can innovatively support both farmers and the market.  Local markets can also be a good model for financiers.  Knowing how much a particular community produces per month or year can be a huge motivating factor for more production through competition among communities as they strive to grab a particular market. Investment in transport should be guided by the market.  At the moment people are just buying trucks with the assumption that there are so many commodities to carry and deliver without an idea of the volume of commodities in a particular area.

All these issues illustrate the importance of clearly understanding agriculture as an ecosystem.  A rapid response system is critical because demand is usually triggered somewhere.  For instance, more than 5000 households may want to eat potatoes from Mbare tomorrow but this demand may not be known at the moment.  This means more than 30 tons of potatoes are needed tomorrow.  More than 70% of these assessments are done by vendors.  Ten farmers can supply potatoes for 1000 households but the farmers may not be aware of this information due to lack of coordination.   Markets have a tendency to communicate with each other and this should be enhanced.  If we don’t organize people’s markets, regional integration will be difficult to achieve in Africa.  Markets should communicate with other markets, with farmers and with other actors. 

Mbare wholesale market (Harare) analysis – May 2015

The month of May 2015 saw the wholesale market in Mbare, Harare generating an estimated revenue of above US$ 1.8 Million from the sale of 15 products. Holding all factors constant a total of 72 agricultural produce traders were recorded as having sourced products from various farming areas around Zimbabwe and a few imports from neighboring South Africa. This therefore implies that each trader took home a whooping $ 25,956.98 though this figure is inclusive of the transaction costs incurred.  Without monitoring the market and gathering intelligence, eMKambo would not have become aware of this information.

Table 1: E R by Produce type, tonnage and percentage share of total ER

Product Quantity UNITS SOURCE Tonnage   UNIT  PRICE   PRICE/TONNE  E R
POTATOES 78,203 Pockets (15 kg Av Weight) BEATRICE 1173.05  $ 12.00  $ 800.00 $ 938,440.00
WATER MELONS 36,700 SINGLES (5 KG AV WEIGHT) BIKITA 183.5  $ 8.00  $ 1,600.00 $ 293,600.00
BANANAS 23,772 Crates (18 kg Av Weight) BIKITA 427.9  $ 12.00  $ 666.67 $ 285,266.67
CABBAGE 107,400 Heads (2.5 kg Av Weight) BINDURA 268.5  $ 1.00  $ 400.00 $ 107,400.00
ONIONS 9,600 Pockets (10 kg Av Weight) A/ZIM 96  $ 10.00  $ 1,000.00 $ 96,000.00
CUCUMBER 7,950 Pockets (10 kg Av Weight) BEATRICE 79.5  $  6.00  $ 600.00 $ 47,700.00
BUTTER NUTS 10,066 Pockets (15 kg Av Weight) NYANGA 150.995  $ 3.00  $ 200.00 $ 30,199.00
APPLES 1,606 Boxes (18 kg Av Weight) NYANGA 28.9  $ 13.00  $ 722.22 $ 20,872.22
CARROTS 2,000 Pockets (10 kg Av Weight) KWEKWE 20  $ 8.00  $ 800.00 $ 16,000.00
GREEN PEPPER 1000 BOX (10 KG AV WEIGHT) MAZOWE 10  $ 10.00  $ 1,000.00 $ 10,000.00
LETTUCE 8,125 Head (1.6 kg Av Weight) MAZOWE 13  $ 1.00  $ 625.00 $ 8,125.00
RED PEPPER 500 BOX (10 KG AV WEIGHT) BINDURA 5  $ 10.00  $ 1,000.00  $ 5,000.00
PEAS 800 BOX (10 KG AV WEIGHT) MUREHWA 8  $ 6.00  $ 600.00 $ 4,800.00
MANGO 1000 Boxes (5 kg Av Weight) NYAMAPANDA 5  $ 4.00  $ 800.00 $ 4,000.00
GREEN BEANS 250 Box (10 kg Av Weight) BEATRICE 2.5  $ 6.00  $ 600.00 $ 1,500.00
TOTAL $1,868,902.89

Table 2: Potato price trend


Chart 1: E R Share by produce type


Chart 2: E R share by province


Table 3: E R by district

MAZOWE  $      409,041.67 22%
BINDURA  $      335,672.33 18%
MAKONI  $      208,600.00 11.16%
NYANGA  $      207,266.67 11.09%
HARARE  $      206,866.67 11.07%
MAKONDE  $        85,283.33 5%
BIKITA  $        53,600.00 3%
HURUNGWE  $        45,733.33 2.45%
SEKE  $        37,250.00 1.99%
ZVIMBA  $        36,800.00 1.97%
SHURUGWI  $        28,800.00 1.54%
BEIT BRIDGE  $        27,655.56 1.48%
MARONDERA  $        27,000.00 1.44%
MT DARWIN  $        26,400.00 1.41%
SHAMVA  $        23,200.00 1.24%
GOROMONZI  $        21,000.00 1.12%
WEDZA  $        19,733.33 1.06%
MUTOKO  $        19,200.00 1.03%
SOUTH AFRICA  $        12,000.00 0.64%
KADOMA  $          9,200.00 0.49%
MWENEZI  $          8,000.00 0.43%
MUDZI  $          6,000.00 0.32%
GUTU  $          5,600.00 0.30%
GOKWE  $          4,400.00 0.24%
KWEKWE  $          4,000.00 0.21%
MUREHWA  $              600.00 0.03%
 TOTAL  $  1,868,902.89 100%

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Nine silent trends that are shaping Zimbabwean agriculture

While tobacco production has attracted more than 100 000 growers over the past few years, the following trends have been silently underway during the same period:

  1. Competition has been intensifying between major suppliers of horticulture seed (East West, Charter Seeds, Prime Seeds (now part of Seed Co), National Tested Seeds, Pedi stock and Seed & Water). This competition has resulted in wide choice for informed farmers but confusion for un-informed farmers in terms of what variety to grow and why. The local seed companies have also tightened their relationships with big international companies who remain a major source of parent seed.

  3. More hybrids are trying to replace Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs) in horticulture. There are now hybrids in onion, tomato, cabbage and peppers. In potatoes, hybrids are in the form of improved varieties like Mondial which are replacing BP1, Amatheist and Jaspar, among others.  When growing BP1 a very good farmer can only afford 40 tons per hectare no matter how much fertilizer or any other inputs are applied. On the other hand, farmers growing who plant Mondial are cloaking 65 -80 tons per hectare.


Hybrid cabbage and potato in the market

  1. The past five years have also witnessed changes in production practices resulting from improved irrigation, better fertilizers and chemicals, among other developments. Planting spaces have changed. Previously farmers would space tomatoes at 2 metres inter row but now it is down to 1.2 metres inter row.  In-row spacing has also gone down from 60 cm to 30 cm. Green house technology and drip irrigation technology has also become ubiquitous.  Irrigation pumps and pipes are now found almost everywhere.  The rain gun has also transformed irrigation, replacing traditional sprinklers.  Small engines that run on petrol and diesel are now available in many hard wares with numerous companies now advertising their capacity to drill boreholes.  All this means farmers can now draw water from any source any time. This has increased capacity of producers while reducing management/supervision time.

  3. Horticulture has almost overtaken tobacco in terms of knowledge intensiveness. Tobacco is becoming relatively easy to produce than horticulture because it has a standard approach which is not the case with horticulture crops. Much tobacco production knowledge has been codified and institutionalised into a few rules that farmers can easily master. On the other hand, horticulture production in Chegutu is very different from Macheke because of different locations.  Conversely, tobacco is generally grown in same soils, weather conditions and same time of the year while tomatoes can be grown all weather – rainy season; winter & autumn.  Practices are also different by area. It takes two to three cycles of producing a particular horticulture crop for a farmer to master horticulture production.  One has to go through summer; winter & autumn production cycles to master the requirements of a particular commodity like potato or squash butternut. Production in winter tends to be different from summer.  In summer a farmer grapples with diseases and weed control because weeds will be germinating continuously.  In winter the farmer has to contend with cold and frost.

  5. Although hybrids seem to be gaining ground, there is still a market for Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs) whose favourable attributes include taste and size. While hybrid tomatoes can be good for sandwiches, OPVs like Rodate tomatoes will always be part of the market. According to a cross section of consumers, Rodate tomato still produces the best soup.  Some hybrid pepper varieties are too big for consumers in the people’s market who prefer small to medium sizes. Consumers don’t want a big pepper size which has to be cut and stored before re-using.    There are also areas where hybrids do not grow well.  Some very big cabbage varieties are shunned by super markets and customers.  While hybrids tend to be topical, low yielding varieties still have their own areas and niches.

  7. The people’s market now reflects a true natural ecosystem where big players co-exist with small players. Just as there is no country where everyone drives a Mercedes Benz, there is always space for the Mazda 323s, Uno and even motor cycles. The market behaves in the same manner. Some consumers are resisting hybrids.  While Mondial potato variety produces extra – large and large potatoes, the people’s market has shown a preference for small potatoes and charts which can be easily heaped into a pile when selling & can be easily measured for cooking.  Financial institutions which are funding agriculture production without looking at market dynamics are suffering from non – performing loans as farmers fail to sell commodities leading to failure to pay back loans.

  9. The chicken (meat and eggs) industry continues to be characterised by three distinct production systems, namely vertically integrated breeding companies; commercial producers; and subsistence producers. All the systems rely on the production of cereal crops, especially maize, soya beans and sunflower. The first two systems are driven by both input and output markets which is why their competitiveness is determined by ability to utilise genotypes that are efficient in converting feed into product. They thus depend on the use of imported improved genetics comprising hybrids that cannot be reproduced locally. Subsistence producers continue to use extensive production system based on indigenous “unimproved” genotypes that rely on foraging and scavenging. Subsistence producers who are mostly smallholder farmers hold a large variation of indigenous chicken genotypes whose production characteristics are largely unknown. Increase in the demand for indigenous chickens is driving efforts to characterise and fully understand indigenous poultry. In spite of their elegance as a reliable food and economic resource, the production of indigenous chickens is not yet structured to enhance their commercialization. There is inadequate knowledge about feeding systems, general health, appropriate housing, and attributes of different strains, determination of their economic value and development of markets.


  1. The quantity of horticulture commodities continues to exceed demand because there has not been enough effort on clearly understanding the market. Going forward, the domestic market may be left to smallholder farmers in low potential areas who also tend to have a lot of challenges including transport problems. Commercial guys in high potential areas should surely think about export markets and value addition.  If a big farmer in enterprise valley is going to produce two hectares of viscous leafy vegetables, shouldn’t we leave leafy vegetables for smallholder guys producing in Chihota and other low potential areas?  Farmers are desperate for strategic export market direction.

  3. International development agencies and NGOs have taken over the role of government departments and farmer unions. An example is the Livelihoods & Food Security Programme (LFSP). The government extension services department (AREX) and farmer unions who should be leading such an initiative have been reduced to passengers and informants. In the history of the world no country has ever moved out of poverty using top-down, big beast solutions like the LFSP. It doesn’t just exacerbate uncoordinated production against a poorly understood market but also dilutes agricultural knowledge and messages in ways that keep communities trapped in poverty.




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