How can we measure the cost of lost knowledge in the agriculture sector?

One of the enduring challenges in African agriculture is defining effective metrics to measure the value of knowledge. In most agricultural value chains, knowledge is not considered a cost component. Farmers and other value chain actors consider inputs, labour and equipment to be the only elements in calculating profit. Excluding knowledge, which is apparently becoming a key component, results in under-costing of the production process. This gap is often seen when commodities are already in the market competing for customers.


A useful entry point in measuring the cost of lost knowledge is the market where economic loss is shown in the poor quality of agricultural commodities vying for customers. In the market, losses are incurred because less or inappropriate knowledge was applied.  This can be in the form of poor market information, standards and varieties grown.  The cost of production can be $30 but the farmer who expects to get $40 in the market ends up getting $20 due to poor quality of his/her commodity compared to others in the market.  That translates to $10 loss for the farmer.  On the other hand, where appropriate knowledge increases the cost of production to $35 and enables the farmer to earn $40 in the market that will translate to $5 profit.

From principles and figures to knowledge seeking

A common trend in most farming as a business training programmes is immersing farmers in  principles and figures rather than knowledge seeking.  If a five day workshop is converted into monetary terms, the Return on Investment (ROI) will be much less in the absence of knowledge on how markets work based on relationships and trust building. In workshops you pay for accommodation, food, transport and facilitation.  On the other hand, in a knowledge ecosystem like the informal market everybody contributes their knowledge. Millions of knowledge nodes are exchanged daily between farmers, traders, transporters and consumers without charging for knowledge.  This invisible knowledge translates to improved productivity, incomes, commodity standards, quality of commodities and quality of life.

Investing more in knowledge than static skills

The introduction of ICTs is providing a crucial platform for knowledge sharing.  Most production ingredients tend to be given and static.  For example fertilizer application, water requirements, etc.,.  But knowledge is often fluid and has to be constantly sought and updated.  This is where ICTs become very important. In a knowledge economy, farmers and value chain actors need to invest in knowledge than static skills which characterised the dying economy. The good thing about knowledge is that it is not all about literacy.  Farming as a business focuses on calculations and multiplications yet such an approach leaves a huge gap on how people can participate not only from an academic angle.  By not taking into account how people receive and share knowledge, farming as a business courses are becoming a blunt instrument.

 Taking a leaf from Africa tradition

In most African communities, knowledge is scattered everywhere.  There is need for actors who can consolidate the flow of this knowledge in ways that mimic how traditional economies were kept going through oral tradition and knowledge sharing. Each African community or clan had elders and institutions serving as custodians of knowledge.  At a certain age, one could get knowledge from specific people. From the conventional economic perspective, we no longer have such robust knowledge sharing pathways. The impact of knowledge absence is felt in the young generation because they do not have models for knowledge sharing.  Traditionally we had a smooth knowledge sharing pathway through practice. For instance, young boys would be trained to tame cattle through farming practices. That is how leadership qualities were also identified.  We are now using money to jump-start youths to become entrepreneurs without having gone through rigorous life skills-based apprenticeship.  In universities and colleges, most courses operate as silos.  Farming as a business should be more about the process of knowledge sharing as opposed to a five day workshop.

Incidents where Knowledge is Lost

The market provides a good formula for assessing the cost of lost knowledge where the quality of commodities determines economic gain or loss.  As a result, consequences of inadequate knowledge become visible in the market when commodities start competing. The market can also reveals incidents where knowledge is lost. This is where the knowledge that was once available to farmers, a farming community or farming organisation fails to reach people who needed to act upon it.  For instance, local communities may have a lot of practical knowledge about coping with drought but policy makers may disregard such knowledge leading to poor policy formulation.

Some of the lost knowledge incidents can include poorly organised workshops where farmers are not given an opportunity to ask questions or reflect on their own experiences.  A lost knowledge incident is only visible when a mistake is repeated or a capability lost.  While most of these incidents may be undetected, it is possible to measure them through surveys and careful analysis of lesson learned systems.  Farmers can tell you many examples where projects failed because lessons were ignored or missed.  The cost of lost knowledge in the agriculture sector should decrease as knowledge sharing systems improve.  / /

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