African countries have been taking advice from foreign technical experts for generations. If technical expertise was a solution, the majority of countries and poor communities would have moved out of poverty by now. The fact that poverty levels have remained the same and in some cases worsened indicates a need for developing countries to pause and reflect on the differences between technical skills and knowledge. While technical expertise tends to promote over-dependence on a small circle of ‘experts’ whose personal biases can undermine the quality of their advice, knowledge is more about tapping into the benefits of diversity.
of a technical skills-driven agriculture system
Where technical skills are used to
enhance agricultural production and productivity, classroom approaches of imparting
skills reveal several limitations including:
is usually a push or supply-driven method whose assumption is that the
extension officer or economist or instructor or teacher has all the knowledge,
information and capacity to deliver.
are limited to available technologies and tools. For instance, fertilizer
application is connected with the use of machinery like planters that are largely
part of imported knowledge with no room for innovation. What you are taught is
what you do. It is a generic curricular-based
skills delivery system which does not take into account different environments,
natural resources, labor, climatic conditions, soil types (some soils may not
respond well to fertilizer). How do
farmers adjust their skills if suddenly they start receiving too much rainfall
or less rainfall when instructions on fertilization use are generic? Some of the skills are applied before crops
are planted, for instance fertilizer has to be applied before rain starts
falling and there is often a mismatch between amount of fertilizer already
applied in the soil and amount of rainfall received.
technical skills focus discourages innovation. For instance farming as a
business has formulae for costing, marketing principles and other pieces of
information. To a greater extent, the skills don’t provide room for in-born
traits or intrinsic skills in which knowledge travels. Natural traits and
skills are major sources of passion anchored in indigenous knowledge systems. A
technical skills focus emphasizes academic literacy as part and parcel of
absorptive capacity. This means no matter how naturally gifted someone is, s/he
may face challenges if not literate.
skills do not often give room for building Communities of Practice (CoPs) through
which information and knowledge is mostly shared. CoPs are good at knowledge generation,
processing and communicating with actors using language, skills and
relationships that are found within the ecosystem, not cast in stone. Some of
the knowledge is built and shared based on the fact that actors come from the
same home area. Others use knowledge built over years around particular value
skills do not spread along entire value chains
In most African countries that
continue to import knowledge from the West, skills are limited to production
and do not go all the way to consumption.
Such skills cannot be used to change consumption patterns. Where emphasis is on technical skills to
enhance production and productivity, a mismatch between demand and supply is a
major setback, characterized by volumes (farmers won’t know how much is needed
in terms of varieties as well as tastes and preferences). Ideally knowledge and information from the
market should drive production, for instance appropriate production skills and
technology should be determined by the market. Production should be informed by
the market not by technical skills. In the mass market, knowledge and
information generation, processing and communication is fluid as it quickly
adjusts to emerging needs.
on technical skills tends to derail change and innovation
That is why changing mindsets of
smallholder farmers is a challenge. There is too much dependence on those
presumed to be knowledgeable, leading to most skills remaining in silos. Contract
companies may decide to focus on specific skills not replicable to other
commodities. For instance, they may encourage farmers to focus too much on
tobacco production at the expense of skills related to other commodities. That is why farmers continue to produce
commodities that no longer have a market. For instance, some farmers may hold
onto cotton production when the market for cotton has disappeared. The farmers
have only mastered cotton production skills so much that they cannot be
convinced to replace cotton with sweet potatoes.
As if that is not enough, most of
the skills foisted on farmers do not have an upgrading system. A single curriculum
has been used for years and farmers are not graduating to new sets of
skills. For example, field days continue
to be used in areas that have been doing well with one crop for years. There is nothing new for farmers to learn
using field days in a community where maize production has been done very well
for decades. Mechanisms for
tailor-making skills by gender, age and location are also missing. It is not easy to make technical skills gender-specific,
age-specific and location-specific.
Everyone is trained on farming as a business using the same approach and
principles irrespective of gender, age and location. Youths have their own ways of generating and
sharing information to build their own CoPs. How can we tap into social media
in promoting consumption of nutritious food among youth? How can we use social clubs or VSLAs to
promote nutritious consumption among breast feeding mothers in dry regions of
the country? This is how common
knowledge is shared.
Instead of competing for external extractive investors and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), African countries should start building home-grown economies anchored on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) which continue to keep rural communities resilient. IKS have traditionally been adept at strengthening relationships, trust, social fabrics as well as people’s passion and commitment to grow their communities. That serious commitment to preserve their identities through Communities of Practice (CoPs) saw individuals and communities generating and sharing knowledge as a key part of development
Borrowing from tradition, in many rural African communities, knowledge has remained a public good to be always developed and enriched for the benefit of the entire community. That is how communities have developed coping strategies against challenges like drought. Knowledge sharing and concerted efforts to see their communities surviving is a major reason why we still have people living in known drought-prone regions. Otherwise we would not be having communities in deserts with everyone having migrated to high rainfall areas. There would be no people in Binga, Thsolotsho and similar dry areas across Africa. IKS are the opposite of formal education systems which encourage people to run away from challenges and go to the diaspora.
Haunga pisi imba nokuti yaita tsikidzi
IKS had a way of empowering communities to adapt to changes within their community. Such an attitude was embedded in beliefs and values expressed through proverbs, idioms and metaphors like Haunga pisi imba nokuti yaita tsikidzi which literary means you cannot run away or destroy your homestead merely because you are facing challenges. Each African community and language has several communicating such values. For instance, many indigenous language idioms communicate the value of people working together as a community – Rume rimwe harikombe churu. Chara chimwe hachitsvanye inda.
The power of sharing resources
IKS continue to espouse the fact that you cannot have it all as an individual or community. That spirit of sharing made African communities more resilient and has spilled over into the modern era. Today, in some communities an integration of different socio-economic actors like business people, traditional leaders, politicians, herbalist, agro-dealers and very good farmers (hurudza) comes from IKS. Where they co-exist, all these actors contribute their collective expertise and knowledge toward addressing challenges as they emerge. For example, chiefs are in charge of agriculture and natural resources, councilors tackle political issues while herbalists take care of both animal and human health. This creates a holistic basket of socio-economic-political issues that are addressed collectively. Such a holistic approach is anchored on IKS through the spirit of sharing, norms, values, trust and relationships.
Contradictions brought by the new economy
As African countries embraced the new formal economy built around urban settings, most of the public good knowledge under IKS started to be privatized. There is a very thin relationship between urban residents, making it difficult to generate coping mechanisms that characterize rural areas. While urban communities may face the same challenges like poor sanitation, coping is considered an individual’s private affair. Contrary to rural areas where social classes are invisible, in cities, social classes are organized around economic factors like income levels, location, wealth status and level of education. These factors influence the building of CoPs comprising those from the same social class. Money determines your location and people in your location become your relatives. That is why informal markets and SMEs have built their close communities based on their own social classes.
From competition to collusion
In cities, relationships are usually built around a number of individual firms. The collapse of formal industries in countries like Zimbabwe has reduced relationships among previous firms and the existence of few individual firms has translated to less competition but more collusion. The more these few actors collude, the more they gain power. This is what has happened to Zimbabwe’s financial sector where a few players with viable businesses collude to take advantage of policy gaps, leaving policy makers with no options. If policy makers decide to introduce regulations, those colluding scream to be left alone.
Financial businesses have collapsed due to failure by executives to build alternative viable business models instead of continuing to rely on administration costs like bank charges as a source of income. As if that is not enough, traditional financial institutions have lost business to mobile money corporates. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has also lost its power over coins and notes to corporates in charge of digital money. There is now a monopoly in the financial sector and the more power is given to a single player, the more that player becomes a monopoly, frequently threatening to withdraw services.
Monopolies tend to weaken policy makers and policy initiatives. They can do what they want. For instance, they can single handedly increase the cost of their services knowing that there is no close substitute for transactions like paying for food, fuel, transport and other transactions. This is different from rural communities where IKS has empowered communities to harness alternatives. Rather than being stuck with expensive transaction charges, rural communities switch to barter trade. For instance, grain milling services can be paid using maize which can also be exchanged with chickens.
Limitations of trying to resuscitate an economy using borrowed money
Challenges presented by monopolies extend to the predicament of African governments trying to revive their economies using borrowed money. When an economy collapses it is better for policy makers to gather evidence and conduct investigations into why it has failed. This prevents throwing money at problems. Several African governments are running to the IMF when it is not a solution. The real solution could come from understanding existing economic actors and resources. How are rural communities taping into IKS to survive? Dialogue to answer such a fundamental question is not happening at national policy levels. Policy makers are depending on a small coterie of economists, so-called captains of industry and academics, most of whom are out of touch with reality.
When a country is desperate, it creates a fertile ground for opportunists masquerading as solution bearers. Desperation around employment opportunities, food, essential services like health, education and clothing increases. For instance, almost every African country now has a thriving second-hand clothes industry but no one stops to ask where those clothes are coming from and what kind of people were wearing them. Were the previous wearers of those clothes killed by hurricanes or what? It is also in such an environment that corruption thrives because people have no options except resorting to corrupt tendencies.
Need to explore home-grown solutions
There is proof that African countries like Zimbabwe continue to lack home-grown solutions to most challenges. Tertiary education is failing to generate home-grown solutions, jumping to talk about complicated issues like Education 5.0 when basic issues like availing clean water, building feeder roads so that farmers bring commodities to the market and building decent markets remain unsolved. What does Education 5.0 mean to a grandmother trying to process small grains so that she can send her grandchildren to school?
On the other hand, instead of addressing root causes, African policy makers think increasing salaries is a solution. They are ignoring common sense which has proved that increasing money supply in a country facing food shortages increases inflation. Too much money starts chasing few commodities and money ceases to be a medium of exchange and becomes a commodity. The fewer the economic actors closer to policy makers, the less useful information is available to policy makers.
Merits of going back to the drawing board
It is better for African government to go back to the drawing board and look closely at existing economic drivers, then introduce systems of collecting evidence that shows how rural communities are surviving. Data and evidence should be gathered from communities, districts, economic drivers and informal markets where more than 90% of SMEs and their businesses are transacting. Government cannot realistically expect one or two remaining oil processing companies to provide reliable statistics about the entire economy. Instead of relying on four or five big grain millers, policy makers should get statistics from thousands of small millers or Zvigayo providing milling services to both rural and urban populations. Thousands of SMEs that are quietly processing potatoes into chips can be reliable sources of evidence than a few big companies operating at below their capacity. Hundreds of peanut butter processors that are replacing big processors cannot be ignored by a government that really wants to understand what is going on. Building a home-grown economy starts from all these small actors and processors now anchoring the consumer base – reflecting economic growth direction and pattern.
While formalizing SMEs is one way of normalizing the economy, it does not help to continue using terms like ‘informal’ to describe new economic actors. Something ‘informal’ is still considered illegal by financial institutions and policy makers. Several colonial terms have to be corrected and these include referring to indigenous miners as Makorokoza, indigenous hunters as poachers while outsiders are called professional hunters. Also unhelpful is referring to new indigenous farmers as invaders while former farmers from outside were given decent labels like settlers.
A case for revising industrial land ownership structures
Policy effort should go towards understanding the role of rural communities and SMEs as well as the kind of support they need. Instead of going around spending money looking for reluctant investors, African governments need to think seriously about building home-grown economies from what is already working. Such efforts should include revising industrial land ownership structures. Currently, private properties acquired during the colonial era remain under-utilized while the productive SME sector has no decent working space.
In Zimbabwe, more than 50% of industries have collapsed but their ruins are seating on prime land while the vibrant SMEs are crowded in Mbare, Siyaso as well as high density areas like Gazaland. Some of the urban prime land is being turned into industrial parks that are not relevant to the SME economy. Developing home-grown economies demands revising these issues and weaning policies from colonial dominance as opposed to looking for outsiders. Instead of being subjected to tough conditions of survival by external financiers, African governments should go back to their roots most of which are still intact. Why should African policy makers continue measuring their food basket using margarine and bread, expressed dollars and cents and call it a national food basket? What are the components of an authentic rural food basket on which the majority depends and is worthy to be considered a national food basket?
IKS enables young people to build coping strategies as they grow up. If life gets tough in the city, those with a farming background can easily go back farming and come back after harvesting. That is why seasonal labor migration is such a big deal in much of Africa and is a key part of resilience. IKS define the culture and growth pathways of a community, especially if it has not been infiltrated by external knowledge and values. It also informs coping strategies – how communities survive without external support. It also becomes a living reference book from which a community defines what is good and what is wrong. Gender roles are better recognized and respected under IKS. For instance, in-built values like Mombe yeUmai, Inkomo kaMama have remained a powerful empowerment mechanism for African women unlike imported gender norms being foisted on African communities.
Unlike formal markets that tend to promote a narrow selection of commodities easy for commercialization, African mass markets are a true expression of a country’s food diversity. To the extent they are more associated with social class, middle class in particular, formal markets like supermarkets do not often stock indigenous food which are key staples for the majority. Conversely, since the majority are not able to buy commodities from supermarkets, they depend on mass markets including road side markets and street markets. This means food fortification initiatives that focus on commodities sold through formal markets do not reach the majority. For instance, it still remains difficult to fortify wild fruits and indigenous chickens or vegetables that are an important part of African food systems.
Keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value
As in any other active community, information and knowledge within informal markets is kept within the ecosystem. Knowledge sharing pathways within actors in the ecosystem and with actors outside the market are constantly developed and sharpened. All actors in the mass markets have become aware that keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value. The fact that the market functions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year minimizes chances of knowledge and information getting stale since it is constantly freshened up. Again, in these dynamic markets, knowledge and information is not boxed into publications the way formal markets depend on physical books and manuals.
The knowledge in mass markets is consistently shared through fluid nodes and there is a tacit recognition that knowledge and information cannot be counted using number of words or paragraphs due to its fluid nature. In terms of adjustments to customer needs and prices changes, everything operates as a flow. Nobody seats down to gazette prices. All processes such as price setting and movement of commodities stay fluid. This is enabling mass markets and SMEs to grow faster than the formal economy is some African countries. Emerging economy are embracing the importance of limiting bureaucracy.
Equality, trust and relationships
In the mass markets everyone is equal, trust and relationships are created through mutual understanding. Factors underpinning relationship building are based on the common ground, objectives and interests. For instance, traders who specialize in tomatoes have strong relationships with their peers and the same applies with transporters, youth, women, caterers and push cart guys. The entire basket of relationships is kept fresh and holistic. All these kinds of relationships are missing in formal markets where relationships and trust are forced through policies and operating procedures. The boss is the boss and has to be respected even if s/he is not knowledgeable while conditions of service stipulate one’s salary including payment dates.
The same distinctions characterize rural and urban areas. In rural communities relationships are anchored on values, norms, cultures and customs flawlessly. That is how local and indigenous knowledge is passed on to the next generation. In addition, communities have built their own literature such that although market actors may come from different backgrounds and histories, the market remains a single institution where all experiences are fused together.
Open knowledge society
Being open markets where knowledge, skills and backgrounds inter-mingle, mass markets do not rely on written down entry and exit requirements. If you decide to retire you simply do so. There is no system that can be manipulated like what happens in formal institutions. There are no retirement plans so information and knowledge remains fluid. The fact that the market interacts with all facets including the rural folk, means the knowledge is kept relevant, fluid and flawless unlike keeping it in books and manuals where it can be frozen in ways that can see it being over-taken by events.
Traditional norms flow into the mass market from diverse areas. The market also interacts with formal institutions like hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. However, it interacts less with academics and policy makers which is why academics are often going in their own direction looking for literature review as they cannot connect with fresh evidence without looking to the past. The mass market also interacts less with development organizations whose interventions continue missing the mark. Instead of engaging with the market to understand how farmers are coping with drought and climate change, some development agencies prefer literature reviews.
On the other hand, contrary to relying on literature review, the mass market is good at empowering socio-economic actors to use their judgement and intelligence in creating tight feedback loops that expose them to consequences of their actions. Every African mass market is a knowledge-enabled, connected and collaborative institution, functioning like an adaptive nervous system rather than a rigid skeleton of roles and structures like the formal market system. Value chain actors in the mass market are able to manage complexity by allowing everybody to take ownership of issues and contribute to solutions.