Agriculture in the Knowledge Economy

Agriculture in the Knowledge Economy

Although most developing countries are investing in formal education, the biggest challenge remains translating that investment into a key driver of the knowledge economy.  The major component of a knowledge economy is a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities than on natural resources. Given how developing countries still lag behind on the knowledge exploitation front, unlocking people’s intellectual capacity should go beyond formal education. If African countries continue confusing formal education with knowledge, they will not fully benefit from all forms of learning that happen outside formal education systems.

While the knowledge economy is being associated with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and closing the digital divide, little attention has gone into understanding people as the major generators and holders of knowledge. In as much as developing countries are worried about the digital divide, a fundamental issue is the cognitive divide because inequalities are often reproduced in the cognitive dimension (how people think and make decisions). Changing farmers’ mind sets implies understanding their thinking patterns and their notions of knowledge.  This is important if farmers can be enabled to participate in the knowledge economy.  Climate change is already showing the limit beyond which African smallholder farmers can continue depending on natural resources.

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Towards a Personal Knowledge Index

Realizing the importance of knowledge in the knowledge economy,  eMKambo has designed a Personal Knowledge Index (PKI) which can help farmers to determine where they are in terms of knowledge and its exploitation in the agriculture sector.  The PKI is a matrix or scorecard with parameters against which an individual farmer can rate himself or herself. Focusing on an individual is important because how an individual farmer seeks knowledge, makes sense of it and shares it has a bearing on participation in the knowledge economy. The PKI is a valuation matrix that looks at the person, making it possible to answer a question like: Who is a farmer?  Currently, such a question is rarely answered in an informative way.  Is a farmer anyone with a piece of land or someone with knowledge about farming or someone with a passion for farming? Like any other career, farming can be a calling.  If a farmer is to stay on the land all the time, which additional attributes contribute to his/her success?   Approaching the issue from a knowledge perspective, the PKI looks at the following set of factors:

Education – This aspect looks at the formal/academic education level of a farmer to figure out the relevance of formal education in agriculture and other value chain stages such as processing, preservation and marketing. Some of the questions to be answered here include: How does your ability or inability to document your activities influence your agriculture production?  How relevant is formal education, for example a marketing degree, to agriculture?  How relevant is the same qualification in agriculture markets?

Skills – How have you acquired your skills?  Is it through hands –on, on the job, courses attended, etc..?

Knowledge and experience – Here the emphasis is on skills transfer outside formal learning where learning takes place through practice and from others.   It goes with some inventions as well as both good and bad practices.  How have you been able to cope with drought and other challenges like the outbreak of diseases for either crops or livestock?  This question speaks to mitigation strategies. How you resolve farming challenges is an important risk factor. Have you ever applied for a loan?  If not, why?  If yes, what were the results?  What collateral did you use?  What were the repayments?  What else followed?  This is also an important risk factor which goes with your own investment – how much you have invested and how much do you plan to invest?  What is the opportunity cost of selling your vehicle to buy an irrigation unit including a pump and pipes?

Networks – How networked are you?  What are your agriculture-related networks?  What about other networks?  How do you think these networks are relevant to your line of business?  The network revolution is already reshaping farmers’ basic common sense expectations of the world around them. Networks show that farmers are a social species linked to one another by a far-reaching network. These networks constitute direct and indirect links.

Diversity in the agricultural enterprise – How diverse is your agricultural activities? There are pros and cons of diversity just as a single line of business has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Although often influenced by natural resources, some of these are personal decision traits.

Succession plan – Is your succession plan within the family or along business lines.  There are pros and cons of each choice.  You can’t just leave a farming business in the hands of people you don’t know. On the other hand, leaving your business in the hands of unwilling or unable relatives can be the end of your dream.




Personal Knowledge Index Scoring

The scoring process takes into account Capital and Land as the two most important factors of production with personal entrepreneurship being the third factor completing the loop in a knowledge economy. To avoid coming up with a flat score, scoring looks at both the pros and cons of each parameter.   If someone is average in resources (land) but strong on experience, s/he gets a different score from someone with abundant resources but weak on experience. A farmer can score 100% on labour  if he is available on the farm to provide labour.  The one who is away can score 30% of labour but 70% on capital. Someone with knowledge and experience but no formal education gets a score which recognizes his/her expertise.  Someone using a marketing degree to trade commodities on the informal market also gets an appropriate score on that parameter.   This methodology comes up with three categories of farmers.  No one will be a worst case because even if s/he can lack capital, at least s/he can be available as labour.

Assessing a farmer against the above factors generates a score card which can tell whether a farmer is in category A, B or C with respect to capacity to participate in the agriculture-driven knowledge economy.  If all this information is properly packaged, it can constitute a powerful form of collateral in the knowledge economy particularly when combined with valuation of all other assets such as land, capital and labour. This information makes much more sense when linked to commodities.  For instance, it can assist in answering a question like:  How does knowledge and skills result in you breaking away from being a mono-cropping farmer?

While valuating land can be easily tied with on-farm labour, valuating an individual through the PKI tries to figure out the entrepreneurial traits or flair of a farmer/producer.  There is often a very thin line between the owner and the business.  Integrating a person’s behaviour and the business’s behaviour should give us greater commonality. However, more commonality increases risk unless it is for the better.  On the other hand, the far away your attributes are from your business the higher the risk. Commodities can be assessed separately from the farmer. Here we look at factors like adaptation to climate change, yields, complexity, cost of production, return on investment, profit margins (is it just about high margins or small margins big volumes?).

Why this is important

This kind of knowledge assessment framework should inform interventions in agricultural and rural development. If you are going to work with farmers, do not assume every farmer needs training in farming as a business.  Also, try not to depend too much on self-assessment because it is difficult for one to assess himself or herself.  You need a third eye that can make recommendations for career development.  All this information provides a strong basis for decision making.  Having assessed and come up with a scoring matrix, you can determine a farmer’s ability to manage high value, low volume crops like broccoli, etc..,.  One can decide to start on low hanging fruits type of businesses. If you are a self-starter with little capital but good land and water, what kind of advice do you expect regarding crops to produce and livestock to keep? From a crops perspective, you can start with easier crops like green mealies, cabbages and onions. On the livestock side you can begin with poultry and goats before shifting to complex animals as you gain more knowledge.

There is a lot of undocumented knowledge different from learning.  Communities should be enabled to document their local knowledge so that it can contribute to the knowledge economy. Most importantly, there are pros and cons in everything.  While the pros for youth are that they still have time to grow, learn and implement farming projects, lack of experience can be a disadvantage against their success.  On the other hand, while old people have knowledge and experience, investing in them may be risky because their adaptive capacity may be low, making it difficult to change their mind sets.  The PKI can draw pros from youth and pros from old people and link these together into comparative advantages for a particular community.   Planning for production should go beyond individual farmers but every farmer in a community. Exchanging notes about production and standards ends up with knowledge as a public good.  If you secretize knowledge, it might not give you the best results because it will not have been filtered and value-added through communities of practice.

Role of youth in knowledge and skills transfer

A fundamental question in the knowledge economy is: To what extent do the old generation in most communities have an opportunity to transfer skills to the younger generation?  If youths are not available, elders will have no one to transfer their skills and knowledge to.  In most African countries, skills like pounding crops, drying vegetables and meat, animal skin processing, hand-crafting and home milk processing are becoming extinct  because grandmothers and grandfathers have no one to transfer their valuable knowledge to since most youth have migrated to urban areas.  Those remaining in rural areas do not think elders have skills or knowledge worth learning.  In addition, there seems to be competition between local practical skills and formal education systems which currently do not have space for local and contextual knowledge in the syllabi. Many farmers have a lot of knowledge but cannot share it through written documents. This would be different if they had writing skills. Youth have an important role in capturing all this knowledge and making it relevant to the knowledge economy. / /

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