A lot can be learnt from remarkable ways through which African socio-cultural systems generated and shared knowledge. There were reliable conduits for sharing knowledge from one age group to another, one gender to another and one society to another. Besides respected knowledge brokers, each community had sense making tools linking different communities of practice. Some of these methods and tools included rituals, idioms, metaphors, stories and various forms of apprenticeship. Knowledge from chiefs and spirit mediums would pass through sense makers and knowledge brokers who would sift and direct it according to demands and needs of various people in the community.
This is exactly what our modern knowledge systems lack. We have not cultivated proper ways of sharing the rich information/knowledge from schools, colleges and university curricular into diverse African communities. There is an expectation that this knowledge can be shared by students after graduating. However, a lot of what can be useful in communities is either forgotten or misapplied. More than 70% of ordinary Africans who function through their own languages, values and norms have no way of meshing what they know with the formal education system. In most cases, their cultural values are still considered barriers to academic knowledge which is being confused with modernization.
Unless we develop verifiable ways through which knowledge is questioned, shared, rejected and value- added, it remains stuck within various communities of practice. Such knowledge will have less developmental impact than anticipated. Academics continue to be locked in their systems, speaking to each other while farmers and rural communities continue holding onto what they know works. As if that is not enough, the language used for crafting policies in most African countries is not suitable for use by the majority but for lawyers and judiciary systems who can interpret it.
Hype around social media and mobile technology adoption
As long as internet remains associated with specific handsets, modems and certain environments which are not available in rural areas, it is of limited use to farmers, rural communities and informal markets. It remains locked in elite environments and urban offices. That means such technology is not effective in enhancing value chain performance. The fact that mobile applications have to be used by people with android phones implies more than 80% of African farmers who cannot afford android phones cannot use mobile applications as knowledge conduits. Instead of focusing on providing the right knowledge, those promoting mobile apps have indirectly become android phone salespersons.
Mobile technology use must be driven by a common purpose rather than access to technology. The main objective of farmers keen to produce potatoes should be sharing knowledge about potato production and marketing rather than owning android phones. If one out of 60 farmers has an android phone, it means the majority of farmers do not participate in android-phone driven knowledge sharing systems. That is why many farmers would rather call and speak to the right people even though calling may be expensive. It becomes more about talking to the right person than just minimizing the cost of communication. One would rather pay more to get the right feedback than pay less for useless details. In addition, most farmers know less than 30% of their phone functions because no one has taken the trouble to embark on technological awareness.
The dilemma of appropriate agricultural technology
There are many hidden reasons why agricultural technologies that have been promoted in African countries remain stuck with early adopters and do not easily become mainstream practice. Many lessons also remain very difficult to internalize. The growth of the SME sector in Africa has seen technology development targeting niche markets. This is seen by the small size of peanut butter processing machines and oil expressing machines which cannot produce tons of commodities. While advantages include full utilization of small quantities of commodities produced by scattered farmers, there is no growth path from two buckets of peanut butter to tons that can be produced per day for a bigger market. A growth pathway from small, medium and large has not been developed.
Also absent are knowledge-driven pathways from ox-drawn ploughs to the next level of commercialization. In Zimbabwe, farmers who moved from communal areas into A2 farms which are bigger should have been supported with the right technologies instead of continuing with ox-drawn ploughs. There should be some technologies between the ox-drawn plough and the tractor. It is also not possible to have a one-size-fits-all irrigation system. Due to the absence of appropriate and affordable technology, farmers continue using the same technology. In a changing climate, communities have their own coping strategies like adaptable crop varieties but seed companies continue pushing their own ‘drought tolerant’ varieties through the media.
In the industrial sector, it would appear African economies such as Zimbabwe have fallen from large companies like Cairns to small back yard processors with no scaffolding of knowledge and processes. Such economies need serious re-alignment based on bottom up approaches. That will create relevant models for moving knowledge currently locked in diverse communities of business practice to where it is needed. In most cases, building and optimizing a piece of technology for a small market and trying to modify it incrementally does not work. Very few technologies and products can truly scale up with little change in features or distribution channels.
Connecting early adopters to the mainstream
The importance of understanding ways of connecting early adopters with mainstream users is visible in the financial inclusion sphere. The gap between Mikando or Village Savings and Lending Associations (VSLs) and Banks is barely understood. There is no transitional pathways from Mikando to MFIs. It is as if banks should teach Mikando and Village Savings about financial inclusion yet it should be banks learning from systems that have existed for generations. It is not clear what technology can work with VSLs yet technology came when VSLs had already established themselves. Plastic money and POS machines require a well-structured system along the value chain. Otherwise they remain with early adopters in urban centres and growth points.
Why should knowledge about auditing remain a preserve of the corporate sector?
Another critical knowledge question is: How do African policy makers introduce auditing in the expanding SMEs sector when there is no supportive legislation? Auditing has remained stuck in the corporate sector, parastatals and the development. Lack of auditing in the SMEs sector means closing of opportunities. Community organisations are not able to respond to calls for proposals because they do not have audit trails or board of trustees. They also lack experience in implementing development programmes yet their own most important experiences on the ground have not been documented. They end up doing their own thing within their own communities of practice. Their knowledge remains difficult to unlock, even when using the most sophisticated baseline survey methodologies.
Knowledge adoption through agriculture markets
While more than 70% of agricultural commodities in Africa now pass through informal markets, little is known about how these markets deal with standards and other specifications. Important knowledge remains locked in traders and a few farmers who have built relationships and trust. That is why it is becoming very difficult for processing companies to penetrate those closed communities of practice and clusters which have taken years to concretize. As a result, we continue with diverse knowledge systems which cannot speak to each other. Farmers, traders and consumers on one side. Processing companies producing tomato puree on the other side and food chain stores with a few farmers on the third side. This scenario shows different economies with incomplete value chains which should ideally converge for sustainable economic development.
Addressing the disconnect between politics and economics
The importance of knowledge brokers is visible in how African countries fail to link politics with economics and society. We do not have compelling models for connecting politics to economics to society towards employment creation and socio-economic progress. Politics has its own communities of practice with economists in their own communities of practice. Same with other scientists. Bridging such barriers requires smart knowledge brokers who can see comparative advantages of each community of practice. Current oceans of information and actors in African socio-economic development need appropriate sense making if authentic development is to happen. Much of the knowledge in African countries still travel through rituals built on empathy and memory. While digital technologies define memory in the form of computer space in which content can be held, for human beings, memory is about remembering. We cannot continue promoting technology in ways that undermine human capacity for collaboration, team-building and interpersonal relationships.
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