The value of cultivating uniqueness in African food systems

The value of cultivating uniqueness in African food systems

Why does African agriculture continue to lack uniqueness? For how long is it going to be all about using the same template to produce the same crops? This would not be happening if the agriculture was not controlled by seed companies who use farmers and farmers’ fields as platforms for selling seed. Across Africa, seed companies always introduce new seed varieties although farmers are still trying to deal with dozens of varieties in circulation from competing companies.

Sources of uniqueness

It is gratifying to note that farming communities have recently started questioning industrial agriculture by embracing agro-ecology which include use of abundant anthills and tree leaves (Murakwani) to produce crops without fertilizer, for example. Many farmers are also beginning to realize that uniformity in production often advocated at policy levels kills innovation at local level by compelling every farmer to produce the same crop using the same methods and inputs.

More importantly, if not well coordinated and informed by the market, uniform production is causing gluts that destroy Return on Investment (ROI). To avoid such setbacks national plans for producing uniform crops in large quantities as part of ensuring food security should be done in consultation with other value chains including local value chains that are key for local food and nutrition security. Every large scale intervention has both negative and positive impacts. 

Diversity as a source of uniqueness

The main attraction for agro-ecology is emphasis on diversity which also contributes to balanced nutrition and resilience at local level unlike forcing everybody to produce the same thing, leading to cut-throat competition for the same customer. Diversity in sources of knowledge is also critical and this is achieved through creating platforms where farmers, traders, transporters, buyers and other actors meet to share experiences from different production zones. A community of people who have been farming together for over 40 years have nothing new to learn from each other no matter the number of field days convened locally.

Need for investment advice

Uniqueness would have increased if foundations for agribusiness knowledge and growth pathways had be laid in the past decades. Lack of business knowledge and investment advice is visible in how at one time some farmers make a lot of money but the other time they lose everything to the point of depending on government inputs.  In the absence of investment advice, farmers only focus on beating the previous yield record. When that does not happen they lose hope. African farmers need advice on how to grow their businesses in line with increases in their farming knowledge.

Growth paths in farming are different from other businesses like retail. Farming is often sporadic, making it difficult to develop growth pathways that will see farmers able to manage their stocks when the market is unfavourable at harvesting time.  While farmers specializing in non-perishables can wait until the situation improves, those in perishables like horticulture cannot do the same.  That is why there are very few case studies of businesses that have grown from horticulture to become conglomerates.  Otherwise communities that have been in horticulture for years like Mtoko and Honde Valley in Zimbabwe would have become first class rural areas or towns.  A major challenge is that growth pathways for horticulture are affected by factors beyond the farmer’s control.

What can be done to reduce the risk burden on the farmer?

More than 80% of the agricultural risk is with the farmer because s/he is the one with limited alternatives. Buyers can decide to stop buying but farmers have no choice once they have planted and crops are ripening fast.  Once tomatoes are ready for the market, you cannot delay or reverse the process. One way of reducing risk is micro information and real time sharing as well as a broader sharing platform (who else is producing cabbages at the same time?). This requires a reliable supply chain system that is able to consolidate micro information for the entire supply chain. Factors beyond farmer’s control should be covered by government subsidies to take care of farmer needs in the event of total market failure.  

What is also missing in African countries is an investment guide for rural communities. These communities have been in farming for decades and some receive remittances but there is no one helping them to think outside the box in building their resilience strategies. Once farmers and farming communities are able to initiate their own investment, they can easily attract and direct external investment.  Lack of investment mind set at local level explains why buyers and processors based in cities always benefit more from agricultural commodities than communities that are sources of the commodities.  / /

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