The majority of African economies are too complex to be fully exploited through current formal education systems that promote silos. While it is important to have expertise in crop production, livestock production, nutrition, road construction and natural resources management, what matters is how all these forms of knowledge can be integrated into a cohesive system. It takes a certain skill set to get knowledge systems that have traditionally functioned separately to speak the same language. That challenge is preventing developing economies from fully exploiting their natural resources.
The power of integrated thinking
Integrated thinking is basically about seeing the connection between different things and resources whose interaction can generate a wiser ecosystem. For that to happen it is important to imagine how existing knowledge systems can take advantage of their healthy interdependence and creatively dance together. Rather than talking in terms of agriculture in isolation, the narrative must change to agribusiness. Since agribusiness is about managing and sustaining change, it calls for new sets of skills to supplement what farmers and other actors have become used to. Each community will start noticing the need for people good at screening opportunities and business models in favour of local development. Progress will no longer be about working hard but working smart. African communities, especially farmers, have worked hard for generations. If working hard was the only route to success they would have long become millionaires. Success is becoming more about correctly connecting the right resources and opportunities.
The myth of ‘best’ practices
Some of the so-called agricultural ‘best’ practices have been extracted from contract farming and conservation agriculture models. However, most ‘best’ practices have been impossible to put into practice in different contexts. Part of the challenge has been lack of local capacity to integrate ‘best’ practices from elsewhere into contextual resources and models. Adopters that can establish a corresponding level of effort and skills needed for screening and valuating what is coming from outside have been missing in most rural and farming communities. In fragmented farming communities, farmers need essential capabilities to screen equipment, technologies and business models coming into their contexts from elsewhere. This cannot be left to marketers bringing the technologies, equipment and models because their main motivation is selling. How things work in practice is not their main interest.
A related challenge is lack of clarity on roles, responsibilities and breadth of skills required to exploit existing natural resources. It is also not very clear how local communities acquire complex knowledge required to unlock value from their natural resources. Everyone can own and operate a garden, rear livestock and produce food but very few can get into complex value addition processes that require different levels of knowledge. Ideally, each community should have individuals with experience in diverse core socio-economic areas. Due to this lack of clarity, most technologies going into rural Africa are not being evaluated so that their efficacy can be matched with available knowledge. Every farmer just buys his scotch-cart, diesel engine or Brahman Bull and start using locally. When things go wrong, the farmer is at a loss or the technology is taken back to urban centres where it was bought. In most cases those selling have no knowledge of how to fix emerging problems. That is why it is becoming very important to build a variety of capabilities needed by each community to be able to source, evaluate and integrate different types of equipment, technologies and business models.
Toward a holistic perspective
Each rural community should have a holistic view of what is needed to exploit available resources fully as well as identify the needed skills in line with strategic needs. At the moment, most community development initiatives are introduced from outside before thorough identification of local people or institutions with enough clout to understand and assume responsibility for evaluating what is good for the community in the long-term. From a holistic and sustainability perspective, there should be local people or institutions with the competence to defend proper use of common pool resources such as pastures, forests, wildlife and water. Such people and institutions should also have integrative expertise to be able to define attributes of what they see as a desirable community model from a socio-economic angle. Integration efforts in this case can vary widely, depending on the degree of integration. Technologies from outside need significant pressure-testing at a local level in order to determine longevity. Across the whole African continent, there are few cases where foreign technologies or socio-economic models were rejected at the outset because they were not relevant.
Integrative thinking capacity will enable communities to tuck-in resources and opportunities from outside into their larger socio-economic ecosystem. They won’t just accept a dam project when they already have many under-utilized dams but direct resources to local priorities. Such decisions require in-depth knowledge of the community’s socio-economic drivers. In communities that will have been able to do several tuck-ins, opportunities should be on the radar well before a new investment shows up. In-depth knowledge will also be important in maintaining valuable resources and developing relationships with potential partners. Each community should have people able to implement an integration process that is more consistent with local people’s needs, desires, dreams and aspirations.
The impact of rural to urban migration on knowledge integration
Unfortunately, because in most African communities, the best talent migrates to urban centres, there is often inadequate talent at local authority level to be able to develop viable combinations of integrated thinking models. In the absence of reliable and verifiable advice at local level, 50 farmers from the same community can go and compete selling sweet potatoes and other similar products in one urban market. They may not realize the extent to which competing among themselves harms their collective income levels. Also unknown to most farmers is how external factors such as the fragmentation of the agricultural industry, the complexity of value chains and major market shifts, have an enormous impact on how each rural community can identify the requires skill sets for exploiting available resources.
An integrated thinking approach will broaden experiences and deepen understanding of the whole agricultural industry. Ultimately, that will address the perennial African problem where farmers always blame the middlemen for everything. Farming communities should be able to quickly review and understand the turbulence that often grips the agricultural sector as an industry. That way, agricultural industry expertise becomes more important than functional expertise.
African farmers and value chain actors have been complaining about the same issues for over 30 years. Rather than continue complaining about the complexity of the agriculture sector, they should strive to acquire relevant knowledge and attitudes to inform their competitive strategies. Besides clearly articulating their strategies, they must determine how they want to manage their agribusinesses in ways that enable productive and efficient use of resources. They should be sufficiently motivated to do everything necessary to become more productive and perform at the peak of their potential. Maximum use of available natural resources should enable every African farmer and value chain actor to model mastery and elevate local communities.
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