Blinkers associated with basing projections on hectares of land

While economists have been schooled into projecting agricultural income starting from the size of the land, such an approach is now found wanting in the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that land is important but valuating natural resources for investment purposes should go beyond hectares of land to the quality of soil and water, among other key elements that are often ignored. The fact that Masvingo, Mazowe, Gokwe and Muzarabani have different climatic conditions and soil types means their mize yields will also be contextual. That is why you cannot have the same hectares as projections of yields.

Human capacity as a more important part of the assessment criteria

There is an emerging realization that human capacity is a critical consideration over and above natural resources. Two farmers in the same area, given the same inputs and planting at the same time will produce different yields due to intrinsic human factors and talents. So if you do not assess human capacity in terms of knowledge within farmers at different levels you will miss fundamental factors that influence agricultural performance. Unless there is solid criteria on which farmers can be assessed, it will remain difficult to find a pathway for upgrading farmers from one level to the other.

When the right assessment criteria are used, within farming areas farmers can be found more than five different categories of farmers with diverse capacities and needs. That is why mapping knowledge pathways is increasingly becoming more important.  For instance, how much knowledge do two new neighboring farmers have?  How much knowledge are they sharing or they are just living side by side as two silos? It may take years for new farmers to build relationships that stimulate knowledge sharing. Where relationships are weak, knowledge sharing pathways are also weak. 

The power of appropriate farmer classification

During Zimbabwe’s land reform, land allocation processes were not based on resources or knowledge within farmers. That is why farmers from different backgrounds and with different resource endowment levels can be found in the same neighborhood. An Ambassador can been seen sharing a boundary with a peasant farmer. This could have its own social advantages but there is no knowledge sharing ecosystem due to different classes. Such anomalies are rendering the agriculture sector more fragile because commercial farmers cannot plan with A1 farmers who have different needs. Villagers in the same communal area can easily work together because they share the same characteristics and social fabric. 

Before land reform, it was easy to coordinate production among large scale commercial farmers because they had a well-developed knowledge sharing culture around clubs where they met to discuss business while playing golf. This is where monopolistic strategies were stitched. On the other hand, new farmers may have come onto the land through politics, government positions, nepotism, company executive positions linked to government or they are war veterans.  All these diverse backgrounds have turned new farming areas into a melting pot of cultures that are taking long to fuse positively.

Sense of belonging among communal farmers

Communal farmers are more bonded because having been together for decades, they have developed strong relationships enabling them to share resources.  Their classes are not different – they meet subsistence and surplus requirements. There is also a certain level to which rural communities value their sense of belonging. For instance they do not import labor but local people can easily provide labor in exchange for food or getting their land ploughed for cropping.

The notion of kuronzera/ukulagisa is a perfect example of situations where some communal families use their grazing ability to own cattle and enjoy related benefits like milk by herding cattle on behalf of the owners while they also use to grow crops.  Nhimbe is another way of sharing resources and knowledge. You just brew some mahewu or beer and neighbors bring spans of oxen to plough and plant for you. Another powerful resource which was used for different purposes including exchanging crops, seed and livestock breeds was the extended family system.  Although it still exists it has been weakened by partisan politics and imported religion.

How the benefits of proper classification extend to the market

African informal mass markets like Mbare also survive hardships because they are public institutions where knowledge travels freely through networks and relationships.  Actors like traders creatively bring their knowledge together in order to be more competitive, for example to fight imports as a group. Conversely the private sector is too competitive to the extent of not sharing knowledge or information critical for the survival of the entire industry. Farmer unions, chambers of commerce and churches also tend to cherry pick members from robust social ecosystems and put them in silos like political parties and denominations through a membership drive. This blocks knowledge sharing by dividing communities and families.  There should be a mechanism for new farmers to be brought together in ways that build strong relationships. This is more on the social side but can form the glue for economic empowerment and rebuilding social capital currently being under-utilized. 

Paying lip service to proper classification explains why farmers are not protected from dubious service providers such as those who provide borehole drilling services or veterinary products. Ideally this is where farmer unions should come in and develop capacity to design terms of reference as well as contracts for different service providers including those claiming to do artificial insemination or soil as well as water testing. It is not enough to ask for quotations from service providers but there should be  contracts with clear terms of reference and payment terms.  This will ensure recourse in the case of service providers failing to deliver.

However there is a limit to what farmers can do

eMKambo is not suggesting that farmer classification will address all challenges faced by farmers. Given the complexities and technical knowledges involved, issues related to water siting and borehole drilling should be done by government agencies like the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA). These should map key natural resources like underground water, showing all information and maps about water availability or yield in different farms or production zones. This could be another income generating route for ZINWA.  The same way critical resources like roads and dams are planned should be extended to underground water and minerals.  We cannot have every Jack and Jill doing what they want.

Due to limited resources, farmers end up at the mercy of dubious service providers. With new technology we should be able to easily estimate underground water availability the same way mining companies can know that underground minerals will last for more than 40 years and start building houses and other infrastructure before actual mining begins. The same applies to soils. Communal farmers have been tilling the same soil for more than 100 years. It should be the role of government to map soils and conduct testing so that farmers do not continue expecting better yields from exhausted soils. We cannot expect every farmer to take his own soil samples when the land belongs to the government.

Unfortunately African policy makers have been blinded by imported knowledge, thinking that fertilizers like Ammonium Nitrate and Compound D can be solutions to our soils. To what extent are these fertilizers really adding value?  What if some soils now need totally new types of fertilizers? The livestock sector also need fresh experts who can examine the kinds of grasses and pastures since original pastures have disappeared, giving way to grasses that are no longer suitable for livestock production. 

How much can be left in private hands?

African policy makers should realize that there are sectors or areas that should not be left to the private sector. If governments ensure institutions like the Standard Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) get involved in certifying food standards, why not do the same for underground water, soils, minerals, pastures and other resources?  Borehole drillers should be certified. Currently anyone able to buy drilling machines can easily masquerade as a borehole driller or water diviner and take advantage of unsuspecting farmers.

Agriculture is not being taken as a serious profession or trade yet people have to be certified to practice as medical doctors or lawyers, among other fields. African traditional healers have remained on the periphery due to absence of proper certification. Absence of policy support creates a room for poor service delivery and proliferation of bogus practitioners. In many African systems, patenting of knowledge has been done through relationships built over decades and expressed through informal markets. How ca we support these pathways to become strong foundations for socio-economic growth?  / /

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The merits of a sectoral approach to developing African economies

Challenges facing each African economy are so many and so diverse that trying to address them all at once is like chasing too many hares and at the end failing to catch one. That is why taking a sectoral approach makes sense. For instance, there is no longer any doubt that agriculture is at the centre of most African economies except a few countries where mining and tourism competes with agriculture in terms of contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For various reasons, agriculture tends to have a multiplier effect on other economic sectors

What is the entry point?

Absence of clear entry points in reviving agricultural sectors is a major challenge for many countries.  It is like trying to lift a large pole that has fallen. Do you start from the middle or the other end? This is worsened by the fact that policy makers are not deeply reflecting about their economies in order to draw lessons from the recent past. To that end, they find it difficult to balance the previous phase with the current phase. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the 1990s were characterized by high agricultural production from a few commercial farmers with millions of smallholder farmers being economic spectators.  Food security and export incomes were high but this was not enough to address economic and social injustices in which only a few people owned the means of production as well as markets.

The above scenario justified the land reform as a way of balancing economic and social justice. Land reform produced a lot of farmer categories like communal, A1, A2 and many others. After addressing economic injustices by redistributing land, an enduring question has remained: how can we use agriculture to trigger sustainable economic growth? What can we do to harvest the fruits of land reform?  Redistributing land should not be the end of the story. It is not about endless land audits and redistribution exercises. There is already too much land lying idle without evening talking about land to be repossessed from those under-utilizing it. 

It could even be better to leave some of the land fallow for future generations so that they decide how to use it at the appropriate time?  Future policy makers may decide to turn some of the land into plantations of indigenous fruits like masawu, matohwe, mazumwi and others, depending on new tastes and preferences.  Besides contributing to ecological imbalances, industrial agriculture is regrettably nudging policy makers to be in a continuous land acquisition and redistribution mode.  Yet the main focus should be about utilizing available land including water and other related resources. What kind of support is being given to farmers that are already doing well? Answering this question leads to solutions.

Agriculture still has better comparative advantages

Compared to other sectors like mining, agriculture has several advantages. Where in mining, individual actors are called panners or Makorokoza and thus criminalized, in agriculture smallholder farmers are part of value chains. Agriculture has multiple pathways through which ordinary people can become economic actors. You can start growing and selling commodities from your home. You don’t need a certificate of incorporation to begin selling your agricultural commodities as opposed to the gold sector where you only have to sell the minerals to registered buyers. Individuals who decide to participate in wildlife tourism without proper registration can easily be labelled poachers.

More importantly, agriculture has less barriers to citizen participation – that is where employment creation opportunities are abundant. African countries also have more control over agricultural commodities compared to processes through which minerals are priced, demanded and sold. The flexibility in the use of agricultural resources allows Africans to rotate crops and swiftly change land uses yet minerals are not that flexible.  When you are looking for diamonds you cannot begin expecting to see gold in the same mining claim. The flexibility associated with agricultural production has enormous potential to trigger economic revival and growth.

Start from what is alive and kicking

Each agro-based African country should start by fully assessing its economy and strengthening what is working.  For instance, in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, informal agriculture markets and smallholder farmers represent what is alive and can be revived at lower costs. These actors continue using available resources to produce food with no need for foreign currency. On the other hand, big processing companies are operating at below their capacity due to dependence on antiquated machinery and inadequate raw materials. In the same vein, production by large scale farmers that depend on irrigation is being hampered by persistent load shedding.

Another vibrant sphere is small scale value addition, for example peanut butter processing, mahewu industry, small scale oil expressing and juice making, among others.  These are producing diverse local food products anchored on dynamic demand. Conversely policy makers are listening to some urban middle class consumers who are complaining about the shortage of soft drinks that need foreign currency when ordinary people have moved on and are producing local beverages, cooking oil and other products that apparently have a growing market and do not need foreign currency. 

There is no reason why policy makers and financial institutions continue shying away from supporting the evolution of a big mahewu industry as opposed to supporting imported beverages that are losing market share to local beverages.  What is also alive and gaining traction is indigenous poultry which is quietly becoming an entire industry with powerful value chains. On the other hand, policy makers and development agencies are still obsessed with exotic poultry breeds. Building a strong indigenous poultry industry will it taking over from the broiler industry that is exerting pressure on maize and other resources required to manufacture broiler feed, some of which have a foreign currency component.

Not to be outdone is a resilient home-grown industry producing different categories of appropriate agricultural equipment in areas like Siyaso and other local industries that are fabricating metal and steel to produce what is needed and affordable – scotch-carts, wheel barrows, peanut butter processing machines, hammer mills and many others required by the new agriculture landscape and actors.

What informs national decisions and budgetary allocations?

While one assumes what is alive and kicking should be prioritized in national budgetary allocations, that is not the case. From national agricultural budgets, it is not clear how much goes to agriculture markets.  If we are to move activities and actors from where they are to the next level, there is need for a focused vision that answers questions like: when we upgrade existing agricultural markets, which levels are we going to?  It can’t be shopping malls and supermarkets that are smaller economic actors compared to informal markets. From a value chain perspective, what is the destination for promoting small grains? It should aim beyond consumption. 

As currently conceived, Zimbabwe’s command agriculture needs a clear vision beyond satisfying consumption needs.  For instance, the national maize consumption is said to be 1.8 million per annum.  But that estimation does not take into account several maize by-products like the burgeoning maputi industry or the green mealies industry.  If the maputi industry is taking 25% of the maize and green mealies 15% of the 1.8 million metric tons, it means only 55% of the 1.8 million metric tons is available for mealie meal.  This is where a maize-based planning is always found wanting because it focuses on sadza yet there are many other things happening.

Likewise, what formulae is used to determine national quantities of wheat consumed annually? To what extent do all African households need bread as part of their daily meals?  Everyone wants bread but not everyone can afford it.  Policy makers are not considering effective demand and willingness as well as ability. They just assume because everyone needs bread, more wheat should be produced or imported.  What id households have substituted bread with rice and other commodities of which a pot can feed a family of six satisfactorily more than a loaf of bread. Besides, bread needs other expensive additives like margarine, eggs and others while rice can be consumed simply with tomato soup.

Who benefits from soya bean command?  As long as there are few players in the oil processing industry, African policy makers need to be careful about continuing to spoon-feed monopolies.  It is better to promote small scale oil processing in farming areas and growth points. Besides broadening the competitive environment, this also encourages rural industrialization. There is a danger of pouring resources into reviving large scale processing companies that have reached their ceiling. Injecting resources into former big processing companies when production is low will tempt the companies to misuse the funds. When industries ask for foreign currency in order to continue functioning that is not a solution. The Grain Millers Association should not be given foreign currency to go around the globe importing grains when such resources are badly needed at production level.

The same effort directed at mechanization at production level should be extended along value chains.  What mechanization is happening and can be supported at the processing level? What are the requirements?  What is working? What products are being processed in the informal economy?  That is an indication of demand.  Indigenous fruits are available in abundance where they grow naturally.  How can we commercialize them to grow our economy? These are God-given answers to our challenges yet we are ignoring them, preferring formal food systems that provide inadequate solutions.

Re-imagining a new role for African trade promotion agencies

Zimbabwe’s ZIMTRADE is globe-trotting looking for export markets but it is not supporting clear pathways for turning smallholder farmers into exporters. The destination for the majority of smallholder farmers remains Mbare and other informal markets that are now congested. Does ZIMTRADE expect farmers to move commodities directly from Mbare to Angola, Namibia, India, Turkey and other external markets? At their level, informal markets are already facilitating cross-border regional trade where commodities move from Zimbabwe to Zambia, Malawi to Zimbabwe and Mozambique to Malawi and Zambia, among many other neighboring countries.

Institutions like ZIMTRADE should closely study these patterns and pathways and use them to develop fully-fledged regional trading processes unlike conducting studies about what is needed in different countries when such information can easily be provided by those countries through their embassies. In fact, the same information is supplied to all competing African countries and may not be a source of competitive advantage on its own. Strengthening the domestic trade footprint is more important than spending resources gathering information about what is needed in which country when such information becomes stale before any action is taken at the ground. It is through a robust sector by sector approach that sustainable pathways for reviving African economies can be achieved, including streamlining roles.  / /

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Why consumers in developing countries are not crazy about tinned food

The growth and resilience of mass food markets in developing countries has proved beyond doubt that people naturally want to produce their own food and select their own ingredients or menus. Whoever came up with the idea of tinned food was wrong to assume people need the same amount of salt or soup. Even at household level some people do not want too much fat, salt or sugar due to personal and health reasons. Some consumers prefer semi-raw food like carrots consumed fresh in the market. Others want over-dried fish and so on. Where else can consumers have their endless choices and preferences fulfilled besides Africa’s mass markets where funny shaped fruits have a much superior taste than all?

Commodities that set quality parameters in African fresh markets

Consumers that buy commodities from Africa’s fresh markets are as sophisticated as shoppers in the formal market. Farmers and traders hoping to compete and win in the mass market should pay attention to the following commodities whose quality specifications influence customer satisfaction with all commodities.

Tomatoes – The first customer pulley is the tomato variety. The right one gives the farmer medium-sized fruits preferred by the market ahead of all other sizes. Major customers like vendors look at the amount tomatoes that can be heaped into a small pile or fit in a crate/box. Medium-sized tomatoes can be easily arranged in ways that hook customers. Formal markets also tend to be drawn to medium-sized tomatoes that are easily to measure into kilograms. Where only three large fruits form a kilogram, seven to eight medium-sized fruits make a kg, luring customers to part with their cash. In Zimbabwe and other East and Southern African countries, a variety called Tengeru from Tanzania has scored higher in meeting these parameters. Successful farmers say applying calcium fertilizer correctly and timely enhances the tomato fruit’s firmness, contributing to good skin appearance and longer shelf life.

Potatoes – Skin appearance is number one magnet factor for customers, followed by fruit shape where preference is roundish and not shapeless. The third parameter is size, followed by absence of any visible skin diseases or deformities. According to leading farmers, plant population and feeding influences fruit size. Wider plant spaces produces extra-large and large tubers or fruits. Variety selection is also critical and that’s where a variety called Valor stands out due to its roundish shape. Another great variety is called Panamera which is longish-shaped and a bit bigger than the variety called MondialPanamera is able to give the farmer more large and medium-sized tubers than small sizes. In terms of ranking by yield in Zimbabwe, Panamera is the leader, followed by Valor and then Mondial.  These are all imported varieties.  However, there are also other small boys like BP1 and Amatheist.

Cabbage – Head size is the key attraction for customers followed by appearance (head finish and leafy coverage around the head). Color is the other factor (darker green towards glittery appeal). This is where varieties like Star 3311, Star 3316, Kilimo and Takura compete fiercely. According to renowned cabbage farmers, wide spacing, adequate feeding and watering accounts for these favorable aspects.

Onion – The customer looks at the finish of the onion head which should be crispy brown skin and roundish. Medium-sized heads are most preferred of which eight to ten can easily form a kilogram. Medium sizes also dry very well, contributing to a longer shelf life. Good varieties for these features include Alodia which is more affordable to most farmers than other hybrid varieties.

Leafy vegetables – After freshness, the length of the leaves is a key attraction, followed by color (should be deep green).  This is where a Viscose variety known as Evergreen takes the trophy. The shape of the leafy is also another consideration with the same parameters applying to Rape vegetable where the leading variety is Rampant followed by English Giant, then Hobson. 

Squash butternut – Customers first figure out maturity by looking at the stem where the fruit is de-linked from its plant (mother). Green lines on that stem must disappear, with the butternut turning to yellowish-brownish color, signifying full maturity and speaking to better taste. Farmers who try to surprise the market by bring premature butternut often get low prices except if there are serious shortages.  As in many other commodities, size also matters – most preferred are small to medium not extra-large that seem over-fed to a point of being difficult to pack and price. Absence of deformities is also key.

To get these qualities right, farmers say applying manure and fertilizer is critical. Although it prefers both commercial fertilizer and manure, butternut is one of few horticulture crops that do well with manure. That is why much production is happening among smallholder farmers who practice mixed farming where livestock are a key source of manure. Butternut needs the right quantities of water (adequate water) and when starved of water it can easily report in the market through its appearance. Adequate spraying for fruit flies minimizes losses while in the land.  Waltham variety has remained the leader.

Cucumber – Skin appearance is fundamental (should be greenish feel and look). After appearance, size and shape (straight with no deformities) follows, then freshness. Cucumbers with a bitter taste will have been given Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer but denied water before absorbing the fertilizer. Besides Monalisa and Stonewall, other famous varieties are Ashley and Pointset.

Okra – Fruit size is a key factor (small to medium is most preferred). Second is freshness – it must not shrivel (Kusvava). Color is also key – should be a very attractive shade of green. Customers usually determine freshness and quality in the market by physically breaking the fruit. When fresh, it breaks into two halves.  Okra also prefers humus (manure) which is why it comes from communal areas. It is a fragile and highly perishable commodity which has to be carefully harvested, packed and transported.  Be gentle when carrying or transporting. The good thing is, like most commodities, it can maintain taste and freshness at room temperature. To minimize chances of producing more large sizes, the farmer must narrow in-row spacing while too wide spaces lead to extra big sizes. Spineless variety is the leader. 

Carrots – length is number one influence, followed by appearance (smooth with no side roots peeping). A third factor is freshness which can be determined by tasting through eating raw in the market. Carrots has to be denied water for sugars to build up with enough sunshine.  Consumers say too much water depletes sugars, with the amount of sugars being the main reason why the same crop and variety can taste differently. Carrots also requires a lot of water, feeding and does well in sandy soils.  The most popular variety is Koroda, followed by Nantzes, then Hekla which is a hybrid and very expensive.

Green beans – The customer looks at straightness and length, then color (must be dark green), freshness (seen through breaking the fruit) and then absence of spots.  Key varieties are Volta and Makatini.

Peas – When shelled, the customer looks at pod uniformity. Then brownish color of pods showing firmness of pods. Also critical is absence of observable diseases, then size of inside peas and firmness.  / /

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The high cost of paying lip service to market research

African smallholder farmers are not the only ones famous for producing commodities before conducting market research. Corporates are not immune to such a disease. Instead of investing in market research, most African corporate companies prefer monopolizing the air waves, bill boards along urban roads and mainstream print media with advertisements. The consequences of such actions recently caught up with one of Zimbabwe’s big corporates which declared huge annual losses from a business portfolio comprising digital communication, banking and other business units. 

Rather than bringing into perspective customers’ historical experiences with agricultural corporates and financial institutions in Zimbabwe, the corporate mentioned above continues to develop products from the top using imported knowledge. Like some financial institutions, the thinking has been that an effective way of correcting or addressing customers’ negative historical experiences is through advertising and launching new products. Yet you can’t remove or heal people’s bad experiences with financial institutions through advertising or introducing new products. Neither can customers’ negative experiences be erased by creating more banks, introducing mobile money as a guise  of bringing banks closer to the people, advertisements, introducing zero deposits to new bank clients or even reducing transaction costs.

New approaches to rebuilding confidence

There is definite for corporates to come up with a totally new model of rebuilding confidence. For instance, the banking division of the corporate referred to above incurred losses due to operational costs. It embraced the agent banking model before conducting thorough market research, leading to operational costs. Youths and staff members who were engaged to promote the bank through reaching out to everyone and opening bank accounts in the streets were paid on the basis of the number of accounts opened not what the bank would get after accounts were opened. The majority of potential new clients opened bank accounts just for convenience and emergency not because they wanted to save money.

What is now clear is that there is a sound business model no longer exists between clients and banks in Zimbabwe. Customers are resorting to as a last option while some are forced by institutional arrangements where salaries have to come through banks. As if that is not bad enough, banks are not investing much in rebuilding the confidence of customers towards generating revenue and re-investing it through loan products. Ideally, more than 90% of bank revenue should be earned through loans but banks are not developing alternative loan products.

Failure to build business models around business ecosystems

The financial inclusion model being touted across Africa does not have a very strong component of revenue generation. One of the reasons is that financial institutions have failed to identify ecosystems around which sound business models can be built. For instance, what business model can be built with traders in informal markets like Mbare in Harare or Soweto market in Lusaka?  Banks have become more carried away with opening bank accounts through road shows and advertising. Their assumption has been that handing over more bank accounts to more people is equivalent to addressing historical and current challenges faced by clients. Yet as long as financial services are good, customers can travel long distances to open bank accounts using their own resources. Simplifying opening of bank account is not a solution.

Chasing too many hares and riding on development organizations

What also contributed to losses for the corporate mentioned above is not allowing new products to complete business cycles: early stage – growth – maturity – decline. Ideally this takes five to 10 years but the corporate disrupted these growth patterns by constantly bombarding the markets with advertisements of other new products. Some of the products have relied too much on other actors like development programmes to provide life support. For instance an agricultural mobile platform intended for farmers was largely driven by business models of development organizations. Phasing out of such programmes saw the platform failing to stand on its own feet and thus collapsing irrespective of mass advertisements.

Lack of investment in authentic market research has resulted in the corporate referred to above failing to develop products based on customer needs and new clusters. Its products have remained too general and lacking niche markets which are very critical in sustaining business models.  The corporate has ignored the 20/80 rule where a business should ensure to have 20% local customers and 80% on – off customers. 

Most of the said corporate’s products do not have strong roots from where products can be developed for the new tree trunk, when using the tree analogy. For instance a product meant for providing mobile transport services in the city of Harare and the digital platform intended for farmers do not have a core cohesive foundation where the products can be controlled. They are all over the place and more opportunistic based on assumptions. The assumption is that the main challenge in Harare is lack of transport yet the real challenge is congestion.

Who says farmers need technical information?

The digital mobile platform intended for farmers was introduced on the assumption that farmers want more technical information yet farmers already get the information from government extension services  department which has years of experience in providing technical advice to farmers. Some seed companies and NGOs are also already providing technical advice to farmers in their contracts. Since farmers have more options to switch from one service to the other, the agricultural digital platform has become unviable and redundant as it does not offer unique services but a cost to farmers.

There is also no clear value proposition in sharing weather information with farmers through the mobile digital platform, a service already provided by the Meteorological Services Department. Assuming such information is provided to farmers, what action will they take if they are told that tomorrow temperatures will be 40 degrees Celsius hot?  Such information does not add much value because ordinary people and farmers cannot make meaningful decisions about the weather which is an external factor. 

Given that most products of the corporate mentioned above are not inter-related, they cannot reap advantages in mixing resources towards strengthening business models or shaping the growth path of the whole institution.  The corporate has not been able to direct resources to a growing part of the business or prune or refine old business models the way trees are pruned to increase fruit yield, leading to losses.

Lack of valuable content

More importantly, the mentioned corporate’s products lack content that brings value. A bank remains a bank, a bank account remains a bank account. What does an account bring to the customer?  What benefits accrue to someone who banks his/her money to his business or life?  The mobile money is an account but it doesn’t have a business model. It is basically a last option when one cannot hand over money to the bus conductor going to his rural home for handing over to his mother who can easily walk a few kilometres to the bus stop or business centre. The mobile money notion was developed without a business model around it.  People do not rush to use mobile money merely because it is a platform tied to wide network coverage by a mobile network operator. They do so if it offers a valuable service.

Informal markets like Mbare have proved that they don’t need mobile money but a simple model where a farmer brings something of value and the trader brings along the demand side so that trading happens without the need for a middle actor like a mobile money agent.  The corporate also introduced a platform for tractor tillage services on the assumption that tillage services are a major challenge for farmers in Zimbabwe yet that is not backed by facts on the ground. Had the corporate conducted market research and asked farmers to rank their challenges it would have discovered that farmers rank the high cost of inputs higher than tillage. Inputs may be available but the main challenge is affordability. The second ranked challenge would be absence of viable markets. Tillage would be ranked the last challenge because production is no longer a good starting point for farmers and African agriculture but markets. If the market is available and viable it can provide most of the services including tillage services. Traders can pay for tillage services just as they have traditionally financed farmers to produce specific crops.  Providing tillage services in isolation is not a viable business model at all.
It is unfortunate that several African businesses are now more into counting of numbers. For instance, of the 92% mobile penetration by big mobile network providers no one knows how much is being utilized. There is a difference between penetration and utilization. Utilization is the source of income and growth not penetration. A viable business depends on 90% local trading. Informal markets survive shocks because more than 90% of their trading business is through local currency.  / /

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Linear agricultural policy approaches that should not spill over into 2020

A couple of questions can motivate African policy makers to think critically and reflect about possible starting points for transforming African agriculture from 2020 and beyond. There is no longer any doubt that most imported policy recommendations have failed to fully develop African economies. To that end, as 2020 beckons African agricultural economists and policy makers should ask themselves hard but very authentic questions if they are to really contribute positively to meaningful development.

More value addition in production zones

In spite of development agencies working in rural Africa for decades, agricultural commodities have continued to flow from rural to urban centres for value addition. The year 2020 should see a reversal of this unfortunate trend. If development agencies were really focusing on development, by now Zimbabwean farmers would be value-adding sunflower at local business centres and growth points like Gokwe, Magunje, Muzarabani, Chitekete and many others closer to farming areas.  Engineers should have designed appropriate medium scale machinery that use diesel, hydro or solar power.

Each household that produces sunflower would be getting its allocation of cooking oil and animal cake with excess cooking oil finding its way into urban markets where it would out-compete expensive cooking oil from corporates. That is the kind of transformation African economies want as opposed to following the colonial route where raw materials used to travel to cities only to come back into rural areas as unaffordable finished products.  Stock feed from sunflower cake can stimulate other value chains like piggery and cattle production. These are also pathways for introducing appropriate technology as well as other business opportunities around solar energy and relevant customized infrastructure.

Producing and selling raw commodities directly to the market has only guaranteed average profits for farmers for decades.  For instance, there is no reason why potato crisps cannot be produced in production zones such as Nyanga in Zimbabwe. It is not sustainable to continue persuading farmers to produce for contractors and the fresh market because they will eventually stop due to skewed business terms.  Why are farmers being persuaded to aggregate groundnuts and deliver to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) only for peanut butter processing companies to pick those nuts from GMB and produce peanut butter which is then sold back to groundnut producers?  Peanut butter can easily be produced at local business centres like Munengiwa Enterprises in Gokwe South.  This is how African countries can reduce urban unemployment as young people go back to rural areas to utilize cheap land, water and other resources. That will be the genesis of true economic transformation backed by rural industrialization.

Why should salted Maputi be produced in cities when it can easily be produced in rural business centres like what is happening at Chinehasha business centre in Chiweshe community of Zimbabwe? In what mimics toll-value addition, a local business person is processing maize grain into Maputi for local farmers who simply bring their maize grain for roasting into Maputi for a small fee and they take back their processed Maputi for school children’s tuck. More groundnuts are added into the maputi unlike in cities where a few grains of groundnut are added to Maputi (Kungonyunyurudza).  

Why should high quality sugar cane come all the way from Honde Valley and Murewa to Mbare in Harare for raw consumption with no attempts to produce sugar at source?  Why are engineers failing to come up with small sugar mills?  Research could only look at the differences in sugar content between garden sugar cane which grows very well in the rainy season and industrial sugar cane produced through irrigation in Africa’s Lowveld.  Why should mango, tomatoes and other commodities travel 192km from Mutoko to Harare when Mutoko centre is becoming a town?  If you see green mealies travelling 604km from Chiredzi to Harare and farmers travelling 550km with commodities from Fig tree to Harare it’s a naked signal of poor market development in the country. There is no way such farmers will make money.

Business models hidden in plain sight

There are many examples of businesses that are keeping communities alive in many parts of Africa but are not receiving policy attention and support. Instead, policy makers seem interested in high profile interventions tied to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) yet commendable innovations are taking place at the grassroots. Why should goats and cattle travel more than 600km all the way from Binga for slaughter in Harare (Koala)?  There should be abattoirs in production zones and local levels.  Local farmers and communities are not enjoying offals, Mazondo and Musoro of their cattle because everything is taken to big cities.

Wheat from Jotsholo in Matebeleland North province is being delivered at GMB Aspindale in Harare (more than 800km away) only for bakeries from Marondera to come and pick wheat flour from Aspindale for baking bread which then finds its way back to Matebeleland North.  Only lazy thinking can fail to notice something really wrong with this arrangement. In addition, corporate bakeries tend to have too many overheads which prevent wheat farmers from being paid a fair price. Local bakeries do not have over-heads in the form of positions like CEO, Finance Manager, HR Manager, Distribution Manager and an army of managers below who all constitute an unsustainable over-head for a struggling economy.

Transformative potential of mass food markets

By ignoring the role of mass food markets, African countries are under-valuing their economies. That attitude must change in 2020. It is through mass markets that policy makers can see agricultural commodities transitioning from being luxuries to necessities. For instance, Africa’s fast food industry will not survive without potatoes.  The poultry industry will also go down if potato production and supply is negatively affected because chicken and chips has become a famous staple for the young generation. In addition, there is no potato crisps industry without potatoes.   The hospitality industry will be plunged into mourning if potatoes are not available.

More importantly, boiled potato and butternuts are becoming substitutes for porridge for young children. The high cost of wheat flour is raising the demand for tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Government can intervene by promoting breeding and multiplication of cheaper potato seed so that rural areas that are currently depending on mass markets which distribute potatoes from production zones can also start producing potatoes in their back yards and gardens the way sweet potatoes have been agronomized. There is no reason why NGOs that are supporting agriculture should continue ignoring potatoes that have meaningful economic, nutritional and social benefits.

Transforming African economies from the bottom

As demonstrated above, there is enormous potential for African countries to begin their transformation by supporting what is already working. While high profile project attract more buzz and media attention, they rarely translate into authentic and sustainable transformation including the promised employment creation. On the other hand, when fully supported, local communities can come up with appropriate solutions in their production zones.  Unfortunately, African policy makers have embraced predominantly western ideas about development. Their world view assumes community and traditional agricultural practices are less developed and therefore have to be integrated from the top into the so-called global economy irrespective of local contexts.

Yet the cost of inputs cannot be the same for Binga which is a dry area and Honde Valley which depends on fruits. As if that is not enough, national dialogue tends to attract representatives with no experience on what is happening on the ground. In 2020, African governments have to desist from moving information through protocols and statutory instruments which do not consider community voices. Africa will not be developed through a linear development model that rests on the perspectives and capabilities of elites at the expense of ordinary people’s sensibilities.  / /

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Comparative analysis of imported knowledge and indigenous knowledge

Due to continuous dependence on imported western knowledge, most African countries have not invested in understanding their own local knowledges. For instance, while these countries continue to lament that they do not have foreign currency and advanced technologies, they are not taking time to reflect and compare what they have in abundance with what they lack. Once they do that they will discover how land, water, sunshine, forests and many other resources are more valuable than foreign currency.

 Imported Knowledge Indigenous Knowledge
Associated with academic education that alienate people from their local communities. The more one gets formally educated, the more s/he loses identity and roots. Embedded in local context, culture and identity – all these are baked into reliable routines.
Formal companies and corporates are a key feature of imported knowledge. SMEs and informal markets are dominant examples of indigenous entrepreneurs.
Cities are part of western knowledge as shown by infrastructure like roads, electricity and airports, among other Western structures in which imported knowledge is embedded.  Imported knowledge in cities draws on resources like culture, labor and natural resources from rural areas where unfortunately little value addition is happening using local knowledge compared to cities where western knowledge is largely used to add value to those resources.
Western knowledge is valueless without indigenous knowledge systems used to produce and safe-guard natural resources. You can bring the best technologies into cities but without commodity supplies from rural areas technologies are valueless.   Food system are generated from indigenous economies and brought into western knowledge for value addition.  The most important resources are culture, values and traditions. Valuing all these resources brings comparative advantages for African economies.
Western knowledge measures agricultural commodities through weighing – scales, kilograms, hectares, litres, etc. Commodities are also valued mostly in monetary terms to a point of saying a cow is worth so many US dollars. IKS uses buckets, baskets as well as human senses like taste, smell, touch, hear and sight that are more inclined to IKS. Instead of using monetary terms only, IKS has a lot of value related to social beliefs, economic beliefs and even tradition (if we sell a family bull, how will we replace it?). How do farmers value their commodities in order to come up with a price?
Cities talk in terms of unemployment. What do we mean when we say someone is unemployed? How can a city with 96% unemployment continue functioning? How is the city surviving with such high levels of unemployment? In rural areas such levels of unemployment or incapacity may be related to drought or floods. Rural communities are linked to natural resources and do not talk in terms of employment and unemployment at both individual and community. They speak more in terms of asset ownership in relation to agriculture as well as the needs of individuals and communities.
Imported knowledge talks in terms of free trade areas and selling of commodities but knowledge is not considered part of the economic and commodity focus. But there is no clarity on how knowledge traded as part of global trade just like using commercial trade of goods and services. African countries do not have specific avenues for tracking trading of knowledge between countries and commodities.   IKS has strong pathways for knowledge and information exchange combining natural resources, culture, religion, values and other critical factors.  
African countries have borrowed definitions of the economy and economic growth from imported knowledge. Much of economic growth uses indicators like employment creation, income levels and population growth as well as ICT penetration. But we don’t have knowledge as an indicator or component of economic growth.  IKS thrives on social indicators. Whereas the measurement of Western economies is based on economics, African growth paths are defined by social parameters. Social aspects, which we have not defined at the expense of social indicators include culture, tradition and the whole society. All this has its own growth paths from rural to urban areas.
Western platforms are meant to facilitate payment for commodities. The whole notion of platforms was meant for trading commodities without using cash but we have abused it by using it for trading money not commodities.  African countries now have a challenge around the adoption of technology. Mobile money is not an innovation because we have failed to put technology to good use or domesticate it to support our traditional transaction modes. 
Uses a dollar a day to measure poverty datum line. IKS uses social indicators like depression among men whose wives go to the diaspora or the small house effect on economic depression. These social indicators are directly linked to the indigenous economy. The roots of an indigenous economy and home-grown economy are social not economic factors.
Imported knowledge has become a public good and that is what African universities are investing in instead of venturing into the new and unknown African knowledge. The business cycle for pure knowledge has reached a ceiling and could be seen in the form of sales going down. A major advantage with Africa is that much of the knowledge is yet to be unearthed and has a lot of value. For Africa it’s more about coping this knowledge than creating new knowledge using new inventions.  Wisdom is the basis of the economy.
Defines growth as turning land into buildings like sky scrapers for investors or markets. IKS leaves prime land for producing food systems.  Growth should make IKS pure so that the world can come and learn from Africa on how to build an economic power house based on IKS.
Promotes monocultures in production, consumption and lifestyles. Restoring African culture is a good starting point. For instance, what makes a rural African country or district  unique? IKS also recognizes indigenous institutions like traditional leadership structures.   
Promotes continuous importation of raw materials and human resources from Africa IKS would rather invest in valuating our resources and knowledge and then we become champions of exports by selling our products not labor and add value to our commodities.
Believes in central policy making and resource management. IKS is conscious to the fact that devolution should not just be about political power. It is about identity and culture. Resources need to be managed at all levels including policy.  Devolution is about opening pathways to receive voices from all angles as well as innovations and initiatives that just need to be supported.
Imported scientifically proven knowledge may not change within the next five to 10 years. It represents a comfort zone for academics who are more interested in proven and reliable routines.  IKS recognizes that if we remain stuck with proven knowledge of the past, we will not improve. We have to go beyond and venture into the unknown while building on what works well.  

The power of mastering the knowledge value chain

Few initiatives are as important as paying attention to the interface between formal and informal knowledge as well as Western and African knowledge. Processes are critical and so is external knowledge while relationships are important in gaining knowledge.  There is no longer any doubt that African countries need a collaborative knowledge base driven by more than 80% of the local people. That is why a clear understanding of the knowledge value chain is critical. It is important to appreciate what you have and try to improve on your weaknesses. While academics find it easy to theorize from a distance, development is about addressing equity and superiority issues between the state and ordinary people, young people and poor people. Formal and informal economies have different knowledge systems and processes. There are also different processes between the public and private sector.  / /

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Yes, Indigenous Knowledge Systems have a distinct flavor

Some intellectuals have been suggesting that knowledge is the same everywhere, so it is wrong to speak in terms of indigenous knowledge as if is distinct from all other knowledges. Such views are far from the reality on the ground. There is definitely a difference between knowledge found in academic circles and ordinary people’s knowledge used by communities to innovate and cope with daily challenges. Although overlaps are common, it is very possible to separate indigenous knowledge from all other knowledge’s .

Pros and cons of imported knowledge

There is no doubt that imported knowledge has made some positive differences in many developing countries especially in the areas of automotive engineering, aviation and medicine. But there have also been notable failures.  For instance, imported knowledge in the form of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is on the verge of redundancy because it is failing to contextualize African content. It is a remarkable myth that the entire African memory can be digitized.  In spite of the hype surrounding mobile money, African countries have largely failed to marry brick and mortar financial systems with mobile money. Consequently, mobile money now causes massive unemployment to professionals that have absorbed imported knowledge while creating transitory employment for mobile money agents. 

In any case, business models anchored on exploiting poor masses are not sustainable. Why should low income communities in countries like Zimbabwe incur the highest mobile money costs and a whole finance minister defines that as progress?  We do not have economic models that fully embed the African ecosystem.  The main dilemma in all African countries is that policy makers have reached a point where they think money is the most important commodity that should substitute all levels of thinking. It is as if there is no business when there is no money irrespective of the abundance of resources like good soils, climate and water. It is all about the search for foreign currency.

Indigenous knowledge is more of a contextual characterization

eMKambo is not suggesting that developing countries have a monopoly on what is considered indigenous. In every country, whatever has thrived over years and has built pathways of binding and sharing knowledge has become indigenous. An outsider will need years to understand that knowledge. Africans who go to live in the United Kingdom find indigenous knowledge systems in that country.

Where you encounter indigenous knowledge systems, you cannot avoid learning in order to be a useful participant in existing knowledge systems. Africans are struggling to learn imported science because it is not indigenous to us while people who grew up with science easily understand it. On the other hand, when a European visits an African village like Gokwe and sees people cooking sadza, s/he has to learn how those people prepare their food.  The notion of literacy came through the Western world while much of our African practices and knowledge systems remain undocumented.  That is why most African communities continue to thrive on raw knowledge.

From indigenous knowledge to patents

Western knowledge might be indigenous in countries of its origin but it has unfortunately been entirely moved from being indigenous to privatized patented knowledge. For instance, people who write books end up with exclusive copyrights to the book. Those who invent machines also privatize their knowledge for profit. Fortunately in much of Africa, knowledge is still public information/knowledge.  For example, African traditional courts do not use previous cases to make judgements the way judiciary systems imported from the West depend on legal documents and use precedents after reading cases of previous judgments.  In Africa, traditional leaders use wisdom acquired over years, not by one person, but by the whole traditional judiciary system (Dare). They understand values, norms, extenuating circumstances, among many other aspects surrounding court cases.  That is why they sometimes relate some cases to Ngozi or the avenging spirit.

The entire traditional leadership system has acquired collective intuitions of what informs people’s different behaviors including inclinations towards different kinds of crimes. Some crimes can be traced beyond an individual to the entire clan that has to appease past wrongs for the benefit of the future. On the other hand, imported judiciary systems reduce complicated social issues to an individual who should go to jail for crimes that may be beyond him/her. Yet on the positive side, a skilled person may be understood to have acquired his/her skills from his/her grand fathers who may have been craftsmen or hunters. If they carefully borrowed from African traditional systems, conventional anti-corruption commissions in Africa would reach more meaningful conclusions that build cohesive societies.

Indigenous knowledge as intangible heritage

Most of what has been explained above comprise soft elements and behaviors that become a collection of facts and knowledge. For example, as the rainy season approaches, some African communities are able to predict the season using their own local signals. They do not use using modern gadgets like those used by the meteorological services but they arrive at correct conclusions using their own interpretations independent of science. While formal learning is about absorptive capacity, indigenous knowledge systems are part and parcel of experiential learning embedded in practical wisdom. Indigenous knowledge systems are also part of ecosystems and pathways of how people live, relate, interact, what to do and what to avoid and, not just about how they communicate.  Also critical is how relationships are built and strengthened as well as how communities find solutions to emerging problems before looking outside. Not every solution can come through external investors.  What about local investors?

Concentration at source

More importantly, indigenous knowledge systems tend to be concentrated more at the source and get weaker as you move away from the origin or source.  For example, Binga district in Zimbabwe has a lot knowledge on Tonga culture and language but such knowledge weakens as you move away from the district because it gets diluted with imported knowledge. At national level indigenous knowledge systems are weaker in cities but stronger in rural areas that remain strongholds of African culture. 

That is why building home-grown African economies should start with identifying where indigenous knowledge systems are coming from and track them all the way to the source. For instance, tracking banana production knowledge to Honde Valley enables tapping into opportunities for using local knowledge. Rather than continue with imported notions of development, African countries should embrace a home-grown economic development agenda, starting from where knowledge is strongest unlike trying to extract agrarian solutions from cities that have been diluted by imported knowledge.

Just as technology providers want you to come to the source at some point, for instance when a Combine Harvester breaks down, the strengths of indigenous knowledge systems is at the source.  While western knowledge patents are at individual level, indigenous knowledge systems are patented at community level. Community members know what to give out and what not to give. Even at household level, some knowledge remains classified. Indigenous knowledge systems become more classified at the source.

The role of African embassies in promoting indigenous knowledge and food systems 

Currently African embassies in Western countries seem to focus more on politics and foreign policies but are silent on promoting African identity embedded in food systems and indigenous knowledge systems.  Ideally exports should be in the form of our own indigenous commodities. We may think we are getting valuable foreign currency from exporting peas but this may be happening at the expense of other more lucrative commodities. Africans should not continue using their resources to produce products that satisfy foreign food systems and tastes. Yet if foreign consumers acquire tastes for African products, African countries will become less vulnerable to international prices. When there is a glut Africans will just lower production. But where African countries produce food for foreign consumers there is no control over prices because foreign can just decide to get the same commodities from different African countries with the same climate.  This is how African countries are made to compete against each other for external tastes.  / /

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Should we really be talking in terms of rural finance?

Should we really be talking in terms of rural finance?

Among dozens of terminologies that have found their way into Africa over the past few decades is rural finance. The term suggests that there is probably also something called urban finance.  How can we, on one hand, characterize some financial services as rural while purporting to be promoting financial inclusion? Developed economies do not have a demarcation between rural and urban finance. In fact, the same services and lifestyles found in cities are also prevalent in rural Europe, for instance.

Rural finance has some deep colonial roots

Mentioned above are some of the issues through which imported knowledge in business and financial institutions is misinforming decision-making processes in Africa. In many African countries, attempts to distinguish rural from urban finance were derived from differences between rural and urban economies, as determined by colonial agendas. From an agricultural perspective, urban areas were associated with value addition and processing while rural areas were largely associated with primary production done in farming systems like communal, large scale and resettlement areas.  Rural was also about black farmers producing largely for subsistence while large scale farms that bordered rural areas were not considered rural people. However, the fact that some large scale commercial farms paid levies to rural councils showed they recognized their belonging in rural areas.

What features were used to define a rural economy? 

Following land reform in Zimbabwe, it has become difficult to characterize Zimbabwean agriculture as strictly rural. Farmers who have moved from communal to A1 and A2 farms cannot be considered rural. Comparisons in terms of infrastructure, services and value addition do not show much distinction between rural and urban areas.  So what do we mean by rural?  How do we define a rural farmer?  Can we just use a boundary like a fence to demarcate rural from urban?  For instance commercial and A2 farms in Mazowe district of Zimbabwe are merely demarcated from Chiweshe communal area by fencing and rivers but they are in the same climate and share the same soil characteristics among other similarities.

Some people living in urban areas have invested in their communal areas where they came from so much that their areas have become remarkably more urbanized that some areas close to big cities – they have modern homesteads, solar power and internet connection. Can such people living in the lap of modernization far from the city be still considered rural? On the other hand, many A1 and A2 farmers have stayed under-resourced because new farmers getting into a new area may not be able to share resources with their neighbors with whom they do not share indigenous relationships.

It is better to think in terms of ecosystems finance than rural finance

One of the biggest dilemmas is that African financial institutions do not conduct thorough investment analyses to figure out if there is really need for financial packages they develop from their head offices in the city. Rather than thinking and functioning in terms of rural finance, it is better for financial institutions to embrace an ecosystems and value chain approach especially given that most communities share the same resources like water, soils and passion. If they carefully ask themselves questions like what type of finance model do we want to develop and for whom, they should be able to design different finance models for A1, A2 and resettlement rather than using an umbrella term like rural finance. 

While finance that is targeted at irrigation schemes is framed as rural finance, most irrigation schemes were not designed for commercial purposes but as a fallback position to complement rain-fed agriculture.  When financial institutions decide to finance irrigation schemes, to what extent are the loans going to be repaid by surplus production without compromising local food which is supposed to be a buffer?

More importantly, irrigation schemes depend on shared resources by plot holders. Only a few farmers can realistically do commercial farming while the rest are subsistence producers. What financial models can you develop in situations where resources are shared? Why have many agricultural-oriented financial institutions reduced their presence in the form of branch networks in production zones like Gokwe for cotton and Honde Valley for horticulture? These financial institutions are not sharing their critical lessons but they are letting small players like Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) getting into those areas.

Making sense of indigenous financing models

The fact that farmers and rural communities thrive without banks and other formal financial institutions is enough evidence that they trust their own indigenous financial models. Policy makers and development agencies have to invest in understanding and developing these models. If money was everything, millions of farmers and communities would be seen queuing for loans. Financial inclusion should not just be about cannibalizing indigenous financial models like Voluntary Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs) famously known as Mukando. Why should we burden these local indigenous finance models whose remarkable resilience is connected with social fabrics like beer brewing (Ndari)?

Traditionally farmers in rural areas were attracted to the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) model mainly because of the interest they earned that was a powerful incentive towards the wealth-creation route. Today, rarely can you find a farmer selling a beast and depositing money in the bank. Most farmers do not want to take loans from banks due to the unpredictability of markets. For instance, they cannot take loans for tomato production when there is no specific off-taker and prices on the open market can change any time.  On the other hand, most contractors have not invested in building good relationships with producers and farmers so they cannot develop sustainable models.  Farmers who have participated in different contracts are still nursing their wounds and have sad stories to tell.

We should not rule out the element of self-exclusion where farmers exclude themselves from models that sound good but turn out to be rapacious and predatory in nature, mainly at the point of marketing. That is why participatory ways of developing financial inclusion indicators are needed.

How about financing value addition processes?

A majority of banks tend to have similar finance models and some even have MFIs. Are these the right models for building a home-grown agricultural-driven economy? Instead of just thinking in terms of rural finance, financial institutions in Africa should focus on value addition. For instance, most agricultural commodities from rural areas and farms are getting into urban markets in a raw state. It is better for banks to finance rural industrialization under which value addition and agricultural semi-processing enterprises are set up at growth points and in production zones. Urban centres can then focus on final processing into finished products for domestic consumption and export.  / /

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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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