How agriculture markets can pinpoint knowledge gaps

Until feedback starts flowing from the market, farmers may not know what they need to know. Knowledge about production is now fairly easy to find. Who doesn’t know how to produce maize or chickens? Obtaining this knowledge can be as easy as asking your neighbour. However, what remains unknown is who else is producing in another community at the same time. Farmers may also not know the impact of too much water in their tomatoes until the commodity reaches the market and starts competing.


Rainfall-based knowledge is now common sense among smallholder farmers.  For instance, a number of farmers can use a rain gauge to figure out the amount of rainfall in their areas. However, some of the most important missing knowledge relates to understanding the amount of underground water. While communities can count the number of boreholes and other water sources in their area, they can’t tell the status of their underground water in terms of amount and quality. If you ask farmers: how deep is your water table in this area and how much water do you have underground, most likely you won’t get an answer. They can probably tell you the number of months they can get water from their boreholes or weirs but specific knowledge about underground water is unavailable.

While it is important for communities to be able to compare rainfall with groundwater fluctuations and dams in their hydrogeological basins, such knowledge has remained in the heads of hydrologists.  This is in spite of the fact that the bulk of agricultural commodities produced during eight months of the year rely on underground and surface water in most rural African communities. Working from informal agriculture markets has enabled eMKambo to witness how farmers translate surface and underground water into food flowing to the market and into households.  For example, during the month of May 2015, a total of 42 diverse agriculture commodities were supplied to Mbare Agriculture market of Harare, generating an estimated revenue of more than two million United States dollars ($ 2,094,602.40) as shown in the table below:

Table 1: Produce Classes supplied to the market



Except for field crops such as groundnuts ( which generated $210,540.00),  roundnuts ($97,180.00 ), sugar beans ( $55,440.00), cowpeas ( $1,350.00 ),   Sugar cane ($5,258.00),  sweet reeds ($11,585.00) and tubers such as sweet potatoes ($89,345.00),  most of the commodities in the market were produced from underground and surface water.

Some of the knowledge gaps

Given the immense contribution of underground and surface water to food on the market, knowledge on monitoring of local underground water sources is more important than just monitoring rainfall using rain gauges. Some of the missing knowledge includes answering questions like:

  1. How much water is used in producing a crate of tomatoes?
  2. How much water is used to produce a crate of eggs?
  3. How much water is used to produce a sasseka of squash butternuts?

In an increasingly changing climate, such fine-grained knowledge is becoming very important. Financial institutions keen to fund agriculture should also be interested in this information. A credit rating system which focuses on the individual farmer and ignoring access to fundamental resources like water and the market completely misses the mark. What we already know may not be very useful. African communities should know everything about their local water resources. A community can be sitting on huge underground water bodies but still wait for the rain to produce food for the market and local consumption.

Rather than continue recycling courses and producing graduates whose knowledge is irrelevant to African economies, African universities have to urgently revisit their knowledge generation models towards motivating young people to learn for themselves. By interacting with informal agriculture markets, African intellectuals can be inspired to expand frontiers of knowledge in ways that are relevant to local contexts. An academic degree is not knowledge unless you use it to solve basic challenges facing local communities. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear someone saying, “I have a PhD in Participatory Hydrology or a Master of Science in Collective Agriculture Market Intelligence?

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