How informal food markets express African-oriented knowledge realities

When you visit an African city and want to see practices that portray African identity and knowledge don’t believe what you see in hotels, colleges, formal schools or government departments. Your most important eye-opening destination is the informal mass market preferred by the majority. Besides farming communities and forests, informal markets are some of the most important sites and situations where indigenous knowledge systems reveal African-oriented values and realities. Most of these aspects are embedded in identity expressed through practices and real life problem solving not just traditional dance.

Indigenous knowledge has existed in Africa’s rural areas and practices for generations. Over time, such knowledge has found its own pathways into other neighboring communities through local trade and socio-economic practices, among other ecosystems. Communities had realized that they would not grow if they remained closed from the outside world. As they started opening up they began exchanging knowledge and enriching their identity and values.

Food systems as knowledge avenues

Food systems shared through informal agriculture markets have been a critical avenue in knowledge exchange between communities. Through local languages used in African markets, communities which did not use to produce and consume yams have become avid consumers of this food. Related knowledge has not been documented into recipe books but simply shared through verbal explanations of how yams are grown, cooked and consumed. Such knowledge has not been locked into strict manuals but has remained fluid to provide room for other options like processing yams and consuming with other locally available foods, depending on context.

Compared to formal institutions like universities and private companies where knowledge is considered private property, informal mass markets are public institutions where knowledge is a public good. Those who benefit from the knowledge are expected to contribute new knowledge to the institution and there are consequences for privatizing public knowledge. This is typical of African society where knowledge is shared openly as part of daily life. Informal mass markets also have unique ways of targeting knowledge according to age, gender and other roles and responsibilities. While men are seen lifting heavy loads like bags of potatoes and cucumber, women are seen creating food baskets comprising carrots, butternuts, peas, pepper and other ingredients. Women’s dress codes like aprons and hats also speak to their roles.

Knowledge travels within commodities and people

In the informal market you can also easily tell the identity of crops or food. For instance, while imported fruits can come in certain labelled packaging, local food is often identified by its raw state sometimes coming into the with soil particles from production areas, for instance, potatoes from Nyanga district.  Measurements used in the market also communicate contexts and identity. Indigenous measurements include wooden boxes, buckets, tins, baskets and cups, among others.

African informal markets bring together different ages and gender. By looking at participants you can easily estimate the ratios of men, women and youth. That tells you the proportions of local people, for instance Zimbabweans generating their own solutions and creating their own employment in Mbare market. If the market comprises more than 90% local people, it means purely indigenous knowledge is being used to generate home-grown solutions. On the other hand, in UN agencies where local staff can comprise 65% it means 35% of the knowledge is not indigenous and may not produce local solutions.

The market as an open learning institution

As an open learning institution you do not have to pay tuition fee or entrance fee to start learning in the informal market. The consensus in these markets is that knowledge is about sharing. On the other hand, imported knowledge acquired through formal institutions is about memorization before going to the next stage. If you miss the next step the knowledge and users become redundant. Knowledge is locked in a chain unlike indigenous knowledge systems which respond to different pathways, contexts, users and demographics.

In informal markets, there is a specific way you speak to a granny or in-laws. Yet in academic circles, relationships are based on first name basis where old professors can be called by their first names – John, Peter, Hazel and many others. In the market you don’t hear a married women called by her first name. She is either addressed as Mai Tawanda (Mother of Tawanda) or using her totem like Chihera. Men are mostly addressed through their totems – Moyo, Humba, Mhofu and so on. This is a powerful way of recognizing identities.  Greetings are not just good morning but “how is your family at home?”

The learning is not closed like where one needs qualifications in order to participate (5 Ordinary levels plus English and Mathematics or Science) in knowledge sharing platforms. It is about passion – you observe, learn, participate and grow in the ecosystem and graduate from one value chain to the other. Your failure is through experience not examinations. For instance, one day you experience losses due to over-stocking or under-stocking. Within three to five years you have mastered the business – you know where to get what, how to negotiate, build trust and relationships that build these markets holistically so that they continue functioning based on relationships built over years.

Language as media of communication

Whereas imported languages like English, French and Portuguese have been imposed as media of exchange in formal institutions like African government departments, private companies and universities, more than five indigenous languages can be spoken in one informal market. All these languages communicate an African identity.  Unless you are good at picking different accents, when you see a black person speaking in English or French in a development organization, you cannot tell if that person is from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Namibia, Malawi or Zimbabwe. This is how imported knowledge and associated languages have interfered with African identities.

Building knowledge systems backwards

Due to the resilience of African informal markets, indigenous knowledge is now growing backwards from urban markets like Mbare back to rural markets at growth points and road side markets.  That way knowledge is becoming more context-specific.  For instance in Zimbabwe, traders from Binga, Masvingo and other districts are going back to embed knowledge acquired from Mbare and that means food systems from other areas are being anchored on local markets.  That is why you can find butternut and pine apples in Gokwe where they are not grown, thanks to the local market which has become a scaffold for what is coming from outside.

On the other hand, academic knowledge cannot go back to assist communities. The more you go up, the more detached from local reality. If you come from Mutambara and go to study robotics, there are no pathways for you to come back and use that knowledge to uplift your local community in the event of a cyclone striking.  You can only donate some goods but cannot apply your acquired knowledge.

The way African countries define literacy is still based on imported knowledge which does not take into account emerging knowledge that people use daily. Imported knowledge is based on case studies but no one has ever succeeded in generating solutions through case studies. African countries should seriously consider re-defining and broadening the definition of literacy to include indigenous knowledge aspects like culture, identity and values.  It doesn’t matter how much imported knowledge you have absorbed, if you are ignorant of your culture, identity and values you are illiterate.

This is not to minimize the significance specialized knowledge

eMKambo is not suggesting that African countries can solve all their challenges using indigenous knowledge systems. There are many knowledge themes where Africa is still lagging behind and certainly need imported knowledge. For instance, knowledge for treating certain human diseases can be legitimately imported through medical experts and specialized medical equipment. In addition, since Africa has not participated in generating imported knowledge, experts who repair air crafts and dialysis machines are still coming from outside because certain levels of knowledge require going back to the source.

However, where Africans participate fully like in agriculture all the way from production to marketing, they should be able to generate solutions without resorting to imported knowledge. For instance, through informal markets, Africans can be able to rationalize few supplies, adjust market demands and reducing market outreach. There is no need to import knowledge for let development organizations direct such decisions.  / /

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Yes, African food traders have better techniques than PhD graduates in Economics

Academics like economists rely on authors and literature based on research conducted within a given time frame. Such literature has no room for adjustments as new events and knowledge emerge.  For instance, Keynesians economics was based on theories of John Maynard Keynes whose research revolved around the laws of supply and demand, among other principles of economics. Since the research was done decades ago and in specific contexts, such knowledge lacked fluidness that would have kept it fresh. To that end, studying economics has become more about memorizing old economic principles yet in real life people should be equipped with real time knowledge to respond to events as they happen.

How informal markets are different

Unlike academic corridors in which economists thrive, African informal markets are open spaces where knowledge is shared as events unfold. These markets are always solving problems as they emerge and build more solutions continuously. For example, when a food commodity is in short supply traders do not just increase the price. Instead, they break bulk so that many consumers at least get a smaller share.  Another response is shortening the market out-reach such that commodities that would normally travel 400 km from the main market like Mbare in Harare to Bulawayo reduce their outreach without increasing prices.  Consumers also respond by going for substitutes, supplements and complementary commodities. In glut situations the market broadens the outreach to far-flung areas.  All these are different kinds of solutions not found in the economics text books. More importantly, in informal markets knowledge is collectively mobilized to generate solutions in ways that a whole faculty of commerce at any university cannot do through reading economics textbooks. Sadly, when economists rely on text books written by individual authors, more than 40 percent of the content in those books comprises the author’s personal opinions or thinking as opposed to collective wisdom of the mass market.

The power of experiential learning

Academics like economists also lack experiential learning without which they cannot be able to figure out how mass markets decide it is time to increase commodity prices. On the other hand, traders are acutely aware that they do not live in isolation like academics in their ivory towers. To that end, traders and informal markets know the users and uses of their knowledge. They treasure an ecosystem of knowledge sharers made up of consumers who pass on knowledge to traders who also pass it on to farmers and the cycle continues. This sharing of knowledge within an ecosystem purifies knowledge into a fluid package unlike textbooks where knowledge is closed and frozen such that there is no room to add fresh content.

Economists who read the same textbooks end up thinking and behaving like one person. While a class of 40 economists thinks the same, an ecosystem of traders in informal markets taps into diverse thoughts and experiences. To a large extent, projections by traders in the market are based on experience not figures. They know how different commodities and consumers behave at different periods of the year and that informs their projections for the next 3 – 6 months.  Experiences and knowledge from the market has taught traders to do moderate projections (not too long or too short) that fit within production cycles of particular crops (2 – 3 months). 

Policy makers’ projections are rarely based on thorough evidence

Contrary to traders in African food markets, budgetary projections by African policy makers who rely on imported knowledge are barely informed by events in the market.  When the finance minister prepares a 12 month budget, what historical information informs that budget?  What consumption patterns and economic dynamics like expenditure patterns during the year inform the budget?  Absence of thorough evidence contributes to over-spending. 

Ideally, the budget for the ministry of agriculture should speak to seasons and production cycles. For instance, the ministry cannot pretend that farmers demand the same amount of extension support consistently throughout the year. It is possible that the amount and intensity of extension support in winter is lower than in summer given that African agriculture is largely rain-fed. The budget should reflect all these different cycles or activities like planting, harvesting and marketing.

Most government policies do not have specific users and uses. It is important to ask who will use the agricultural policy. Who will be excluded or advantaged?  Who will benefit from an export policy or financial inclusion policy? Where are the pain points for different actors?  Why should we even be talking about rural finance as if rural areas have a distinct economy separate from an urban economy?  Who loses from government’s free inputs program?  Obviously, agro-dealers bear the market-distorting impact of free inputs.

Diversity as a source of knowledge

Diversity of demographics in mass markets also presents a lot of favorable dynamism in terms of knowledge. Found in mass markets are the youth, women, the old, the literate with wisdom, the illiterate with plenty of experience and wisdom as well as many others who bring commodity-specific and task-specific expertise.  Conversely, if you are in university, reading the same books, the thinking is the same and you cannot develop new knowledge.  Economists speak the same language, lawyers the same and engineers the same. While their knowledge is considered “pure”, it is redundant and closed in ivory towers.

As shown by informal markets, the power of many numbers explains why they traders have better techniques. Where many people come together for a shared initiative, they generate better solutions than a few graduates no matter the number of books they have read. Informal markets have a solid pathway from famers – traders – vendors – consumers through a strong information exchange ecosystem. They borrow from indigenous knowledge systems which had pathways through which knowledge was generated and pathways inherited. 

Dependence on imported knowledge is the main reason why have African policy makers have remained detached from reality to the extent of expecting an individual minister Mthuli Ncube to come up with sound economic solutions from Cambridge University where he studied.  It is very clear that African academic policy makers are failing to contextualize and simplify imported knowledge. More importantly, academics should ask themselves: Who is going to be the consumer of our knowledge products? If knowledge generation is not informed by the consumer or the market, there will be a serious mismatch. The industry is not employing many PhD graduates due to this mismatch. As African countries strive to revive and strengthen industrialization, to what extent are universities informed about the needs of different industrial sectors, some of which have completely collapsed?

How responsive are institutions of higher learning?

 If they really want to be relevant, academics should create space and time to hear what is really needed.  For instance, following land reform in Zimbabwe, how are universities generating a new type of agricultural economist who can connect with new land use patterns?  The food basket has also increased from 10 to 80 commodities and indigenous wild fruits have entered commercial markets. Some crops that did not use to come to the market are now dominant market fixtures. How are universities as knowledge institutions responding to these new ecosystems?

It is lamentable that formally educated Africans cannot understand or contribute to the indigenous economy because at the heart of formal education is a colonial extractive agenda. For instance, in the agriculture sector, the mudhumeni type of extension was introduced as a conduit to impart imported knowledge to farmers. While there were more extension officers than agronomists as specialists, the former white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe and other parts of East and Southern Africa valued  agronomists who specialized on specific crops.  To the extent almost every African farming community has diverse crops, livestock, wild fruits, exotic fruits, natural forests, a single extension officer in is not able to mediate knowledge needs and fill all the gaps.

By holding onto imported knowledge, African institutions of higher learning are not generating relevant knowledge for the Bottom of the Pyramid. In fact they are betraying millions of parents who are spending their hard earned income getting their children to absorb irrelevant imported knowledge. If you generate your own knowledge you should be able to find alternatives and solutions. Conversely, imported knowledge ends somewhere and forces you to go back and consult the original suppliers. For instance, if a combine harvester breaks down, Africans always go back where it came from because they cannot manufacture spare parts.

Who has determined that a university course should be three years?

One of the reasons why academic curricular has become too detached from local contexts is that it relies so much on stale literature which is not fresh knowledge.  African policy makers should not buy the false belief that economics is an international subject which can be used as one size fits all. Economics is certainly different from country to country and region to region. Who has determined that a university course should be three years? Africans have agreed to measure knowledge according to absorptive capacity yet learning in African economies is a process with natural graduation pathways seen through products  and emerging areas of excellence along the way.  You would see that someone is now an expert in thatching roofs, weaving baskets and taming livestock through products.  We cannot assume that a class of 200 economists should all be economists within three years.  We have used academic measures by resorting to tests and assignments.   Our African economies works through experiences of the user not tests. The learning is seen in how the user uses knowledge.

Those who spend three years in university cannot even interpret their knowledge, let alone apply it. Academics reduce knowledge to classroom learning when it should largely be more research-focused. In fact, it should be 30% classroom and 70% refining in the field and not just be about tests. Academics should spend more time in the field and reduce reading and depending on bibliography where if you write a short bibliography you do not pass because you are said to have not read many books.

Context-specific dissertations

Dissertations should not just focus on one topic as if that is the essence of the whole course.  Research should be longitudinal and experiential such that students should start documenting and turning their research into actual solutions from the first year at university so that upon graduation the student is already a specialist. Graduation pathways should be guided by the context such that someone can decide to drop off at some stage and go to work while others continue.  Those studying agricultural engineering should be working with artisans at Siyaso refining knowledge and what is working or not.

The whole notion of attachment is currently too cosmetic and meaningless. It is more like an event covering 6 – 12 months. If African institutions of higher learning cared about generating solutions, they would see that devoting 6 – 12 months of a four year course to practical engagement is a drop in the ocean of real contextual knowledge.  Other faculties should learn from the medical field which is more solutions-focused in that trainee nurses and doctors are always seen in hospital practicing what they are learning. Most medical schools and schools of nursing are also located at hospitals.

In the same vein, why should the faculty of agricultural economics or engineering be at the university campus when it should be where solutions are needed?   Also missing is a seamless transition between agricultural colleges and universities. Ideally, colleges should be extensions of universities and communities the way schools have form 1 to 6. For instance, in Zimbabwe Chibero agricultural college  should be linked to University of Zimbabwe or any other university in such a way that some university courses are actually studied at Chibero college. Students who want to drop off and focus on farming as an enterprise should do so while others continue from Chibero to university without any barriers like current silos where universities think they generate superior knowledge when they are less relevant than colleges.

African countries have unfortunately imported a superiority complex associated with imported knowledge into institutions of higher learning.  We have not adapted natural learning which is more indigenous and very important process which you can’t read from a book.  We have not built ecosystems of learning from our agricultural markets and SMEs where you get all aspects of knowledge and entrepreneurship.  As if that is not enough, Africans are using too much imaginary learning and not equipping children to learn from their context. Why should children in rural Binga and Chireya learn about the Central Business District (CBD) and how are they expected to use that knowledge? Africa still have abundant natural resources, human capital, IKS as well as strong relationships that constitute most of our solutions but policy makers still think external finance that comes with conditions is our salvation.  / /

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Convergence between imported knowledge and indigenous knowledge

African countries have not invested in understanding areas of convergence or overlap between Western knowledge and indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). In addition to continuous dependence on imported knowledge, most African countries suffer from a serious inferiority complex against their knowledge resources.  For instance, they continue to lament about lack of foreign currency, equipment and efficient transport systems as if that is the entire definition of an economy.

Ideally, African countries should take time to reflect and compare what they have in abundance with what they lack. They will be surprised to discover that have abundant resources like land, water, sunshine, forests and, more importantly, labor which is lacking in most developed economies. By embracing  imported knowledge, these countries have not developed their rural areas and economies to be able to anchor and utilize talent. Consequently, the best brains are always attracted from rural areas to cities. Highly educated and entrepreneurial Africans fail to fit into rural economies where the only knowledge-intensive pursuits are teaching, nursing and agro-dealership.

There is need to unpack principles of trading between African and Western knowledge.  For instance, how can African countries translate agricultural commodities from physical states to monetary states? How are these countries trading western knowledge with IKS in African cities?  A lot of fluid knowledge is being traded in cities especially interface between African and Western knowledge. It is critical to gather all this resource into a comparative advantage and sell it to the West. The starting point is knowing existing knowledge and its contribution to socio-economic development. 

Interface between Western knowledge and IKS

Agriculture is a good example of a sector where Western knowledge and IKS have merged creatively. As agricultural commodities move along value chains there is a notable translation of IKS around value. Farmers produce using local knowledge and local resources but get some bit of western knowledge in the form of chemicals and fertilizer. However they only apply western knowledge where they really think it add value. Most farmers are now selective in using fertilizer especially in cases where manure is not available. They know their soils and micro climate and where their IKS informs them about the likelihood of minimum rainfall, they do not just apply fertilizer. 

Farmers also have an intimate connection with local environmental features which inform them without writing anything down. Their entire planning is based on IKS especially in relation to weather. Once commodities are produced that is where they fuse IKS with western knowledge.  For instance, most African countries have not developed appropriate technology for processing or adding value to commodities. This is where knowledge gaps exist.

Western knowledge is not mainly for the benefit of African countries

Western knowledge is mainly designed to exploit opportunities and its main priority is not to feed Africa but preserve African products and make them meet standards of western consumers and markets.  Imported technology is brought in to increase the shelf life of African food systems for western markets.

One of the contributing factors is that African countries are failing to exploit their comparative advantages in the area of valuing food systems so that they can export IKS as a full package. If they had developed good technologies for drying vegetables and processing small grains as well as indigenous fruits, Africans would be very far. 

A starting point can be communities valuating their natural resources as part of people’s daily lives and ecosystems. If Honde Valley communities say after producing bananas and other fruits for years they now want to venture into value addition and processing, we should design curricular to answer these needs. The same applies if communities in Dande who survive on masawu want to start producing value-added products, university curricular should focus on those needs.

Besides universities, the industry can also be involved in identifying needs at SMEs like Siyaso – what is the next level of knowledge do you want in terms of technology, finance and equipment?  This should be followed by appropriate financial packages.  We can avoid cases where students just study Banking and Finance. The curricular should be informed by the financial needs of SMEs and the new economy.  Some areas like accountancy and auditing have become redundant for the new economy such as accounting and auditing packages need a complete overhaul. How can we design accounting and auditing principles that apply the burgeoning SMEs sector? After graduating, students should go back and work with communities as knowledge leaders able to lead in imparting packaged knowledge embedded with IKS and imported knowledge.  / /

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