African agriculture requires serious disruptive thinkers

If African agriculture is to be truly transformative, there is need for disruptive thinkers who can  revisit boundaries between smallholder and large scale farmers. These boundaries have extended from physical (size of land) to the mind-set, creating unsustainable mental blockages.  Most smallholder farmers have bought the myth that they cannot think big and challenge conventional mental chains. Yet when you compare commodities from smallholder farmers with those from large scale farmers in the market, those from smallholder farmers tend to be superior in quality and appearance.

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A culture of disruptive thinking that seems to dominate innovation around communication technology is not rapidly finding its way into African agriculture where most methods remain traditional. Rather than looking at agriculture as a holistic ecosystem, actors are busy compartmentalizing producers in line with land holdings instead of the size of their brains. Disruptive thinking should see more innovative models based on changing consumer patterns. Contract farming models have hogged the agricultural landscape for too long without much creativity. Some of the disruptive thinking should come via agricultural financing models.

Helping farmers to connect with their purpose

One of the reasons African farmers are tossed from one model to another is because they have not fully connected with their purposes. Farming for subsistence is not a solid purpose because we have seen some food crops become cash crops depending on circumstances. Purpose will give farmers the power to eliminate distracting options from many directions. Assuming finding purpose is like finding fire, igniting fire in African agriculture will help farmers find purpose. Their purposes peak out in the stories they tell each other in the market and field days.  Finding a purpose is a gradual process rather than a bolt of lightning. The majority of farmers have absorbed enough knowledge about how to produce certain crops and keep certain livestock. A missing link has remained the purpose of doing all these noble things. With a clear purpose, they would not be caught completely off-guard by drought, market collapse and other calamities.

Due to the absence of purposeful knowledge, many farmers sleep-walk through opportunities. Feeling powerful is necessary for farmers to view their challenges as opportunities. On the other hand, dependency on hand outs leads to hesitation, anxiety and discouragement. Without power and self-confidence, the ability to get things done is minimized. Instead of continuing to give farmers hand outs and treating them like irresponsible children, it is important to let them control their outcomes since they have received many kinds of agricultural training. It is important to establish mutually designed accountabilities and let farmers to live up to their abilities as competent food producers. 

Rejecting assumptions that have outlived their usefulness

Besides the mistaken notion that a farmer’s ambition levels corresponds to the size of his or her land, some of challenges for young Africans keen to get into agribusiness relate to capacity building for accessing funding. Many challenge funds being launched for African youths have borrowed the Big Brother African model where one pitches an idea in front of a panel of judges who then decide whether it makes business sense or not. Unfortunately, most of the judges know very little about the dynamics of African agriculture and business. The whole thing is reduced into a meaningless competition that does not help youths to make their visions of exploiting natural resources a reality.

The majority of SMEs who are driving African economies did not start their businesses through pitching their ideas in front of some judges. A serious and sustainable agribusiness idea cannot be judged within a few minutes and the judge is able to know everything about it, including its potential. Most successful SMEs in agribusiness started by making their ideas near enough to be attainable and distant enough to be meaningful.  If an idea can be completely painted and understood with all numbers visible, it means the vision is too small.  In dynamic African contexts where information and opportunities are very fluid, you can’t claim to see all viability angles at once.  Numbers, plans and metrics are not enough.  You need other elements such as intuition and empathy.

African agribusiness is also about focusing on the pain points, including facts and breathing into aspirations as well as leveraging engagement. This can only be done by disruptive thinkers who can see agribusiness as an intuitive process where actors should have enough awareness to block distractions and focus on what matters. Trying to summarize the whole business development journey into a pitch undermines the evolution of diverse businesses.  Like every important undertaking, agribusiness is characterised by high energy moments, behaviours that come naturally and unique ways that add the most value. That is why some businesses have been conceived by accident.

The power of data and gut feelings

Embracing disruptive thinking means combining data and gut feelings to drive the new agricultural renaissance that is confronting African countries.  Farmers and all value chain actors need content that can help them deepen and sustain their positive ideas and attitudes.  Local institutions have to ditch rudimentary approaches to gathering information.  Focusing too much on tools is leading to large chunks of knowledge to be missed.  A toolbox is not enough partly because most toolboxes are not embedded into the work practices of farmers and supporting organisations. With most value chains and niches rapidly becoming over –crowded and hyper-competitive, farmers and other value chain actors will have to engage their customers at both emotional and logical levels.

 

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

 

How informal agricultural traders capture and preserve customer loyalty

They may not advertise their products in the formal media, but informal agricultural traders have results-driven ways of capturing customer loyalty. Most of their skills have been honed over generations into unwritten intuitive laws that almost every trader is aware of. They understand customers more than customers know about themselves.  According to traders in Harare and Bulawayo markets of Zimbabwe, there are many categories of customers. “There are customers who come to learn about commodities and those who do not hesitate to flaunt their knowledge and power by voicing their concerns.  Some can even tell you that the way you are packing your fruits is not ideal for female customers,” said one trader.

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Informal agriculture markets as knowledge centres

If marketing is about human interaction, informal agriculture markets provide superior experiences.  While ‘the customer is king’ suggests the customer knows everything, the majority of customers who frequent the informal agriculture market are lured by its functions as a learning space. Traders ensure these markets have sufficient convenience and personalisation than can be found in other modern markets. Younger middle class consumers who have not been exposed to the tricks of cooking traditional vegetables visit the market for the purposes of acquiring new skills.

Each market has gatekeepers whose roles include continuously tweaking and perfecting knowledge in line with consumer habits. Besides availing knowledge regarding the complexity of transactions in informal agriculture markets, traders facilitate different levels of human interaction.  Although technology has a supportive role in informal agriculture markets, most customers are influenced by personal experiences. Mobile phones come in to cement relationships that will have been created through face to face interaction.  As an institution, each informal market has a collective way of managing and enhancing customer experience in ways that stick with each customer. The more they interact with customers, the more their customer-satisfaction capabilities improve.  They don’t have to go to school for such skills that are entirely practical.

Insights into income levels and personality

Traders have also become very good at segmenting customers by their needs and income levels.  For instance, they can acquire stocks in line middle class pay dates.  While automation is transforming traditional marketing in supermarkets, it is difficult to imagine a time when technology will meet all customer requirements in agriculture markets without human interaction. Machines will never become aware of the competitive advantages of superior customer experiences. It takes a certain level of humanity to facilitate meaningful transactions.

As an example, where eMKambo uses its call centre to facilitate marketing of agricultural commodities, voice recognition has become very important. A farmer can call and if she does not here Tenjiwe’s voice in the person answering the call, she demands to speak to Tenjiwe. Such farmers have built a particular relationship with Tenjiwe through speaking to her over the phone on several occasions. Trying to substitute Tenjiwe with a machine will de-humanize the marketing process, leading to loss of confidence in eMKambo services and the market.

Handing down knowledge to the young generation

The majority of traders train their children in the art of customer care and retention. Such knowledge is not found in any text book or classroom.  It may seem a pervasive form of training but it builds the most useful capabilities needed by the younger generation. The ability to Google or play computer games will not prepare children for a purposeful future in economies dominated by agriculture. The most important problem-solving skills can be acquired in dynamic informal markets where one has to connect with diverse customers, leading to lasting customer loyalty.

As consumers become more sophisticated, traders are also updating their customer care knowledge with full awareness that it is no longer one-size-fits-all.  It is more about taking time to understand customers in order to satisfy their needs.  That is why traders are honing a unique way of anticipating customer expectations in order to come up with the right level of human interaction.  They are also becoming aware of niche commodities for specific customers such as those suffering from High Blood Pressure or other ailments that demand specific types of food.  Traders are convinced that human interaction will always remain important in validating commodities and explaining benefits.  No machine can fulfil such critical roles.  To gain a competitive advantage in agriculture markets, farmers and other value chain actors will have to balance the evolving value of digital technology and the power of human interaction.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

How much should farmers and consumers know about something?

The formal education system in many developing countries is organised in such a way that the depth and breadth of knowledge imparted determines grades and qualification levels. Unfortunately, it is difficult to translate this arrangement into real life where societies do not function according to grades and degree qualifications. For instance, farmers and rural communities do not approach knowledge in terms of geography, history, mathematics, religious studies commerce, science and other subjects.

This partly explains why graduates from formal education systems are failing to make a difference in African communities. It is not even clear what level of geography, mathematics, science and commerce should be introduced to a group of farmers in a rural farming community. Many awareness programmes through the media and participatory methods, do not clarify levels of awareness and participation among those involved. The onus is on whoever is bringing a new programme to decide where to start. By the time a starting point has been figured out, the programme has come to an end. The cycle of inadequate participation and awareness continues.

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How much should farmers know about soil analysis?

One of the reasons crop yields in African countries have drastically gone down over the past decade is that soils have become sick and tired. The majority of farmers do not understand their soils at a granular, scientific level. They may know about Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus (NPK) but getting them to understand soil pH and the role of trace elements such as Boron, Zinc and Manangese is beyond their cognitive capacity. There are also no vernacular words or descriptions for these trace elements.

On the other hand, do they really need to know all that?  Can’t they be competent food producers without knowing all those minute details? In a rural community, whose role is it to advise development partners that some of the knowledge they bring is beyond the capacity or priorities of the local people? There are many African communities where farmers have been taught about Artificial Insemination. While democratising science is a very noble thing, how much of usable Artificial Insemination knowledge can communities acquire without diluting the underlying science?

Importance of trust and institutionalizing knowledge

Setting up institutions for making sense and scaffolding knowledge will provide answers to most of the above questions and issues. It is critical to separate knowledge that can be held at an individual level from that which should be institutionalized into practices and organisations where it can be continuously updated. Institutions help in building trusted institutions that can produce trusted knowledge. If farmers know that there is a trusted institution that can handle soil analyses and animal science issues, they will concentrate on what they are good at and leave that role to the institution.  That serves time and money. It takes more than four years for someone to become a full-blown veterinary scientist.  How many farmers will be able and willing to go through the whole veterinary knowledge acquisition journey? Specialized knowledge should be left to specialists.

Trust increases the value of knowledge

Trust does not just reduce the cost of doing business. It also increases the value of knowledge. The main reason you can drink fruit juice and eat bread without asking who produced those food items is because you trust the good intentions of the producers even if you don’t know them by name or origin. Without trust consumers would insist on identifying and knowing the actual person who produced that food, how they produced it and the ingredients they used. Trust enables you to believe in what is being put forward as food. Every consumer has to trust someone they don’t know.  Otherwise each person would only eat what they produce with their own hands.   If people were to insist on participating in the production of everything they use or consume, we wouldn’t have many people owning cars and flying in aeroplanes. You don’t have to know why a motor car drinks both oil and water for you to use one.  You trust that whoever produced that car did so in good faith and you will be able to use it for many years without knowing how the pistons work inside the engine. You don’t have to know the pilot or aircraft engineer to fly in a plane.  You trust that the pilot and engineers are gifted enough to take care of your interests. Knowledge comes with responsibility.

The importance of institutions

Institutions in the form of rules, regulations and organizations are important in embedding knowledge and trust. The fact that there are standards associations and other compliance bodies gives people the much needed confidence to use or buy goods and services. Rather than focusing on large measurable impact in short timeframes that push people to tell familiar and obvious stories about impact resulting from the adoption of new technology, development organisations should take time to understand knowledge needs and build appropriate institutions.  Due to lack of strong, evidence-informed institutions, many developing countries remain stuck in low productivity and widespread poverty.

Without institutions, the capability of governments to implement activities is severely limited because knowledge cannot be adequately harnessed and deployed. Many young African graduates who study abroad and come back home are frustrated when they don’t find supportive institutions that can anchor their knowledge acquired abroad. What is the point of studying robotics in the West when back home there is no institution to support robotics as a practice?  In the absence of institutions, sustainable development will remain wishful thinking.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

How to move from ordinary to best agricultural practices

‘Best practice’ is not even a mouthful but what it means in practice remains unclear to many people who use the phrase. In African agriculture, it takes a lot for a farmer or trader to become a best practitioner.  Most value chain actors face challenges in identifying sufficient quality evidence that can be translated into best practice.  In the absence of consensus, they either rely on what is effective locally or depend on external extension agents, most of who lack contextual knowledge. While look and learn visits have become prominent ways through which farmers are expected to acquire best practices, there is lack of empirical evidence. Contextual differences make it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of conservation agriculture, contract farming and other practices.

 Season-informed best practices

In the majority of African farming communities, seasons have a much larger influence on the evolution of best practices. It takes a minimum of three farming seasons of producing a particular crop for a new farmer to attain best practice status.  This three year experience pulls farmers closer to best practice, with a farmer using particular crops to move through summer, autumn, winter and spring. Crop behaviour is different during each of these seasons.  The hot season, commonly called Spring stretches from late August to December in Southern Africa and has its own features which impact crops and livestock in different ways.   Summer is characterised by fungal diseases due to excessive moisture and too much rainfall triggers extreme crop growth patterns.  On the other hand, winter is characterised by low temperatures which limit crop growth.  While there are fewer diseases, all crops do not grow fast in winter.  During Spring, crops are exposed to excessive heat and low moisture levels.  Pests like aphids, leaf minor and white fly are common in this period.

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Growth patterns, quality and yields are different in each season, irrespective of inputs. That is why curiosity is very important among farmers. Farmers who are not curious may not notice the difference between spring and summer. Curiosity will enables thorough understanding of crop and livestock behaviour in response to different seasons.

The next learning curve

Having gone through three cycles of each season, a competent farmer begins to focus on monitoring the changing characteristics of the seasons. One summer season is too wet with floods being experienced while the next can have less rain and less moisture.  One winter is too cold and frosty while the other has wild frost, with yet another experiencing no frost at all.  One spring is too dry with heat waves. After less than an hour of irrigation the soil becomes completely dry as moisture evaporates.  Another spring can have normal heat.  Sometimes winter over-stretches into Spring. Late onset of Spring or summer is another characteristic worth monitoring. A three to five year cycle of monitoring seasons is very important depending on area.

 The market can only go so far

As demonstrated above, every season has its lessons.  If a farmer decides to grow tomatoes only when the price is good, s/he may not have acquired enough knowledge to understand diseases and pests that occur at different stages of the growing period.  The market can only tell you what to produce and when.  It can also give you a price guide.  However, it may not tell you everything you needed to achieve best practices.  Best practice does not come from text books or lectures. You have to practically engage and get your hands dirty.

A major handicap is that farmers do not document what they see during each season in order to improve.  With documentation it should become possible to translate the knowledge into a ‘Farming Bible’ which the future generation can read and learn from.  Due to lack of a documentation culture, most of the existing knowledge is too general to be useful in attaining best practice standards.  Farmers who do not record what they see on their farms are vulnerable to wrong advice.  Documentation ensures they are able to correct wrong information through comparison as well as mixing and matching what they know with what is coming from outside.

The mindset is more important than the toolbox

It is through the right mindset that farming communities can leverage the strengths of complementary agricultural programmes. For instance, they can see the connection between livestock and crop programmes that are implemented separately by separate programmes in a one community. That means, as frontline value chain actors, farmers are best placed to identify and explain linkages between different agricultural programmes.  Getting a mentor is not enough if a new farmer or trader does not have the right mindset and beliefs because these can limit the application of new skills.  In addition, the wrong advice can become a mental obstacle to be overcome first before acquiring skills that lead to best practice.  Ultimately farmers and traders should focus on getting more buyers interested in their commodities than building larger toolboxes.   Without such capacity and knowledge it is difficult to sustainably implement proven agricultural practices.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

The power of curiosity and situational intelligence in African communities

In every African community you can find people who are naturally curious and those who lack interest in learning.  Those who are curious can describe many aspects of their local environment such as natural resources and man-made features like water sources, dip tanks, schools, markets and business centres as well as the history of their community.  Such curiosity makes them potential champions in monitoring climate change and economic drivers. Because they are interested in others, curious people can harness creativity and empathy in a world driven by all kinds of networks.

The current impetus for wholesale commercialization of African agriculture and economic development is happening at the expense of curiosity, empathy and situational intelligence. Technical knowledge is necessary but not enough without these important soft human aspects.  Rather than trying to sell commodities in a hurry and go back home, farmers should spend more time explaining the value of their commodities to consumers and other actors.

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Marrying curiosity with digital literacy

While cultivating digital skills is receiving most of the attention in African countries, the basic skill required to navigate the digital era is curiosity. Unfortunately this skill is not being adequately nurtured and supported in African schools where standardized curriculum is destroying curiosity. In addition, standardized communities such as those found in urban areas have little empathy for those who are different. That is why in most affluent suburbs, neighbours may live side by side for decades without knowing or talking to each other.

On the other hand, rural communities tend to have a lot of curiosity. Households in many neighbourhoods know each other in much more details. Digital literacy can make more sense in African countries if it builds on the collective curiosity and humility of rural communities.  Curiosity about ideas can improve creativity and curiosity about people can improve empathy.  Development workers cannot be empathetic for farmers unless they are first curious about them.  Youths cannot be creative unless they are first curious to learn new ideas.

Decolonising agriculture and technology through harnessing curiosity

Instead of reproducing uneven relationships between former colonisers and the colonised, core aspects of African technology design should strive to decolonise relationships by harnessing the curiosity of the formerly colonised communities. They are not just communities but people who deserve to express their knowledge. African formal educational institutions should stop teaching, examining and interpreting technologies based on the pedagogies, languages and literacies of colonising countries.  There is need to create actions that can respond to, and resist, uneven relations in technology design.

Emotional and situational intelligence in African rural communities

Emotional intelligence has remained a dominant knowledge trait in traditional African societies. There has always been various ways of teaching the young generation to become emotionally responsive and mindful towards improving performance in agriculture or any other trade.  Up to this day, a critical part of emotional intelligence remains situational intelligence. In some communities, from a tender age, young people are taught the importance of situational intelligence in making people feel well taken care of. They also become aware that situational intelligence is about adapting yourself and your attitude.  Unfortunately, in the modern era,  young people are not prepared to do that because situational intelligence is not learned in school. Yet it is so critical in the current network economy. Farmers and traders need the intelligence to adapt themselves to consumers they engage with. They should learn to be patient and refrain from making decisions on the spot. That means they must be empathetic with people.

Every African market has its own culture that has to be understood before engaging in meaningful business of any kind. In some markets you need to start by convincing ordinary actors from the bottom and slowly move to the leadership. Once consensus is reached from the base, the necessary collective buy-in is almost guaranteed. If you fail to follow this process, you may never create sustainable relationships with the market no matter how much investment you want to bring. This knowledge is very important for financial institutions trying to work with SMEs for the first time.  It is not just about availing loans but understanding salient issues at a granular level. Every market has its own slow resilience which has seen it survive turbulent times.

In some informal markets, actors need to build consensus among themselves before accepting anything from outside, no matter how sensible. There is a certain nuanced hierarchy which has to be understood and allowed to make sense of what is being proposed. You are not just moving into a vacuum as a financial institutions but getting into already existing networks and relationships.  Huge doses of curiosity and empathy are certainly required in engaging such a community. Sometimes it is critical to treat traders, borrowers and consumers like they are part of your family by showing real empathy towards them.  Business as usual can be retrogressive. As African countries are on the path to becoming network-dominated societies, digitisation efforts have to fully consider existing empathy, curiosity and emotional intelligence towards innovatively building resilient communities.

 

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Many African farmers can perform like Gold Medalists

If agriculture was an Olympics competition, many African farmers would certainly be gold medalists. Zephaniah Phiri, the late world class water harvester of Zvishavane in Zimbabwe would have collected dozens of gold medals. There are many such farmers from Cape to Cairo and Senegal to Somalia. While modernization is trying to present standards of excellence as being uniform across the globe, measures of excellence are determined by norms and values of a particular society.  From a socio-economic perspective, each community has knitted its own measures of excellence.

Excellence is more than yield

Unfortunately, African policy makers have not done much to develop national measures of excellence along agricultural value chains. Current measures of excellence focus on productivity at the expense of other factors.  This is seen in how value chain actors over-emphasize yield per hectare or amount of meat per amount feed, number of eggs per feed and other related parameters. It seems excellence is more to do with yield than anything else.

While this is not entirely bad, it is important to consider market-informed measures of excellence along the value chain. To what extent do African food producers understand taste, market preferences and costs that determine pricing, timing, consistency, production varieties and others?  This is a major knowledge gap inhibiting some farmers from becoming excellent commercial players. Unless we cultivate such information and knowledge the performance of farmers and other value chain actors will remain below average.

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To what extent is the market good at setting standards and specifications? 

In most farming arrangements, markets and contract companies are often responsible for establishing measures of excellence and standards. They determine what constitutes grades A, B, C, etc.  With African informal agriculture markets becoming an absorber of more than 70% of agricultural commodities, a lot still needs to be done in setting up and formalizing measures of excellence. That will ensure farmers are not always surprised by market dynamics resulting in low returns. Although it is known that markets are not always perfect, at the moment market forces seem to determine standards. With appropriate knowledge, an excellent farmer should dominate the whole value chain. The farmer should be able to produce for household food security and remain with surplus for value chain industries as well as for the fresh markets.  Focusing on household food security is not enough.

There is a strong relationship between specialization and excellence

Many farmers try to do everything along the value chain – producing, trading, processing, transporting, consuming, etc.  It is difficult to achieve excellence when you want to be everything. It is like a marathon runner trying to be a soccer player. Along every agricultural value chain, there is a trade-off which influences return on investment. You can have a good yield but being bad marketer can make you an average or below average performer.  You may want to be a processor but lacking the right expertise can work against you. Producers should get as much information as possible about the value chain as to be able to aggregate and consolidate their production.  Who are you producing for (own consumption, fresh market, processors or food chain store)?

Excellence is also about concentrating on relevant knowledge. Spreading too widely can get in the way of achieving best results. It is also about innovation. Instead of being pro-active and take matters into their own hands, most farmers wait to be told what to produce, when and how?  Sometimes it is important to take commodities to the market just for the purpose of learning first.  This will prevent a situation where farmers become perpetual price-takers instead of moderate risk-takers. A bad experience with cabbages in one season is not enough for one to quit. Specialization has to be promoted according to natural farming regions to avoid cases where farmers try to do everything.  For instance, it is no use promoting small grains when the market is dying.  It is very difficult to compete on the basis of inadequate knowledge.

Excellence in a competitive environment

Just like those competing in the Olympics, as a farmer you can’t be excellent on your own.  At production level, excellence is about properly using available resources which tend to have competing uses and opportunity costs.  As a smallholder farmer you may be operating at the lowest opportunity cost. Where you produce one crop, for example tomato instead of onion, you may have lost 30% of potential income.  That is why it is important to know the potential of every farming area including details like soil testing, budgeting and volume of commodities per area.

Different levels of excellence

Since it is impossible to have all farmers being excellent in the same things, the market can facilitate characterization of farmers. That can inform different levels of excellence followed by smart assessments to figure the type of knowledge required at each level.  Different models can then be built around areas of excellence.  When farmers are not specializing, it is very difficult to develop viable models. By trying to do everything, farmers shoot themselves in the economic foot. You can be all over the place in terms of your own food security but the market requires specialization. Haphazard production locks farmers in unsustainable production patterns.

 

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Limitations of using documents and reports to share knowledge in Africa

Many well-intentioned organisations and people are being frustrated by the shortcomings of using case studies, most significant change stories and conference presentations in spreading success from one African community to another. Most reports produced by several consultants are not making a difference due to multiple reasons (known and unknown). On the other hand, more than 90% of knowledge in African communities has not been codified into documents. This knowledge can never be adequately shared through codified information but through contextual conversational processes.

To worsen matters, several institutions in Africa continue to confuse information with knowledge.  Information officers are simply being rebranded knowledge officers. Characterising and storing information for easier searching through portals and websites is not knowledge management but information management. Most of the information in many organisations and government departments is not knowledge. Documents such as memos, minutes from meetings and technical reports fulfil transactional roles. They can only tell you what has been done but not what has been learned. Yet knowledge is about learning not informing. Where codified knowledge exists in documents, it is scattered in many organisations, projects and programmes. No resources are directed at pulling all these fragmented bits together into a body of useful knowledge.  Resources continue to be wasted on tons of documents confused with value-added knowledge.

From documents to multiple interpretations

While African communities have learnt from each other for generations, the conventional way of trying to spread knowledge through case studies is not yielding sustainable results. There is an assumption that technical people can get into a community, work with local people, document their successes and share success stories with other communities, leading to adoption of best practices. This notion misses a thorough understanding of how communities learn from each other.

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Almost all rural African communities rely on collective sense-making through very patient conversations, observations and learning by doing. Multiple interpretations that cannot be fully captured through documents are shared in ways that clarify differences between actions and outcomes.  Knowledge exchange happens through rich data pulled from a variety of media to construct fresh meaning.  Where documentation takes advantage of a few senses, community knowledge exchange processes exploit all human senses.

In the majority of African communities, you cannot just hope to get valuable knowledge through interviews and writing up responses. While successful farmers can give you explicit information, they will not be able to explain tacit knowledge gathered through actual implementation of activities. This practical wisdom is tied to context.  There is a risk of missing the most important implementation nuances when you try to document. A field visit where visiting farmers see crops and livestock already doing well is not useful for the visitors if they are not immersed in the real process of producing such commodities.

With regard to incentives, conventional documentation processes give more credit to the documenters instead of implementers of knowledge such as farmers, traders and rural artisans.  Consultants are rewarded for asking questions and producing reports while farmers and other informants are often not rewarded at all.  Trying to use technical documents such as consultants’ reports to convey the tacit knowledge of farmers, traders and local communities leads to a very flawed outcome. Irrespective of whatever method they use to gather information, consultants and experts will never gather and convey enough contextual issues that make a community successful. Instead of pouring all the money into consultants and researchers, development organisations and government departments should set aside resources for communities to share knowledge with each other through various back and forth adaptive processes.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6