Making sense of differences between evidence and experience

While there is an increase in emphasis on evidence-based policy, evidence-based medicine and evidence-based this and that, people’s collective experiences may be more powerful than evidence alone. If African agriculture and rural development relied solely on evidence without people’s tangible experiences, most development initiatives would not achieve much. Evidence in the form of facts and figures is critical for decision-making and resource allocation. But also important are people’s experiences expressed through opinions, feelings and diverse forms of body language including seating posture and facial expressions.


Seesaw between evidence and experience

In most cases, once farmers master and experience the power of some skills or fall in love with some inputs, it becomes difficult to persuade them to unlearn and accept new skills and inputs. For instance, cotton farmers in Zimbabwe have for years become used to a pesticide called Fernvaralete such that they think any other chemical does not deal with pests better than this chemical. Some farmers have also fallen in love with a maize variety called SC513 so much that when the responsible seed company tried to take it out on the pretext that the variety had run its course, farmers continued to demand it.

Under these circumstances, how do we ensure excessive focus on evidence documentation does not diminish the value of people’s experience?  In most cases, documentation only captures a percentage of what is happening on the ground. These scenarios demonstrate that it is through experience that farmers notice things happening around them and creatively adapt to change. There are many cases where farmers practice intelligent disobedience by listening to their experiences and intuitions. 

Knowledge as the voice of experience

Years of promoting evidence-based agriculture has awakened eMKambo to some ‘truths’ that may remain hidden farming communities and informal agriculture marketsFor most farmers and traders, knowledge is the voice of experience which is the great teacher. They trust knowledge which they know is based on lessons from real experience.  Experience compels traders to break market rules and reset consumer expectations. That is how informal markets become faster and more reliable supply chains which do not depend on a single source of insights and knowledge. On the other hand, when farmers do not take matters into their own hands, they allow traders and other value chain actors to set the agenda using access to multiple sources of knowledge. That is why new and innovative methods of collecting and synthesizing evidence from multiple sources of experience is becoming very important for all value chain actors.

While there is a proliferation of ICTs, organizations lack skills in customizing existing information into usable content and key messages that can inspire immediate action. Also lacking is capacity to facilitate productive dialogue among value chain actors whose diverse experiences are rich pools of knowledge. In most cases, agriculture triggers non-farming activities that create jobs. This means efforts to harvest knowledge have to go beyond focusing on trading alone where relationships are between producers, traders and consumers but consider adjacent value chains like mining, food processing and others.  If markets are more about trading agricultural commodities, which commodity has more strength with other sectors? Most informal agricultural markets across Africa are surrounded by a lot of other non-farming activities. They are hubs where diverse opportunities are triggered and nested. Relationships between different communities create unique employment opportunities.

Potential role of universities in building an evidence-informed economy

African agricultural markets tend to be more about knowledge, skills and experience as opposed to academic literacy which is about the ability to read and write. In informal markets, many forms of literacies are called to action – personal traits and passion, among others. If universities are able to harvest timely feedback and experiences from local communities, they will succeed in stabilizing growth and expanding opportunities. A university situated in a particular province should be the first port of call for investors looking for evidence and data to invest in that particular province. This can only happen when universities are able to craft fluid curricular, anchored on systems that enable longitudinal data to flow into communities and back unlike getting stuck in theoretical concepts and artificial laboratories.

Once they are able to identify and streamline their roles, African universities can become integral parts of a knowledge economy, able to link local with global knowledge.  They can even turn this initiative into a business which attracts investors interested to acquire knowledge and business models about particular provinces. Some of the critical elements of a provincial university’s fundamental roles will be synchronizing multiple production calendars, connecting logistics, fixing local transportation systems and tracking commodity volumes flowing in and out of the province. By tracking local people’s knowledge-seeking behavior and turning data into customer engagement, a university can immensely contribute to building a coherent experience economy. Ultimately these universities can explore quantified experience design through collecting qualitative evidence from millions of farmers, traders and other value chain actors as they generate millions of decisions every day.  They can use ICTs to scale these rich experiences in ways that reveal opportunities and impact.  / /

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