eMKambo recently heard a story of how a veterinary doctor surprised livestock farmers when he told them he did not have the expertise to artificially inseminate their cattle. The farmers had travelled from distant areas to come and witness the first scientific experiment in the history of their rural farming community.
There is no shortage of similar stories in many developing countries. Agricultural experts who do not practice after training tend to lose the most important knowledge gained through years of academic training. If sophisticated people can forget knowledge they will have acquired painstakingly, what about illiterate people with little exposure. One of the dirty secrets of farmer training is that farmers forget more than 80 percent of what they are taught within 24 hours of the training experience. Unfortunately, many training organizations and initiatives spend billions of dollars every year on training knowing full well that most of that knowledge will quickly disappear.
A case for building local memory
One way of addressing this challenge is establishing and strengthening community structures and processes that can scaffold information and knowledge so that even if people move out of communities and organizations some of the knowledge remains. In the absence of such structures through which knowledge can be socialized, communities will continue to lose a lot of knowledge while more resources will continued to be poured into training initiatives that do not make a difference.
Farmers and other value chain actors that are immersed into farming as a business and other training processes tend to be not sure about which bits of information will be useful in the long-run. Even if they can try to keep records, when faced with an immediate challenge, it is difficult to call up relevant information from their records and memory. Organizations that regularly bombard farmers with different advertising messages worsen the situation. For instance, while providing farmers with information about more than 30 different maize varieties is considered a good idea in terms of broadening choices, farmers end up confused and make subjective choices. On the other hand, while there is a tendency to think that farmers can learn through events like field days and agricultural shows, knowledge sharing is a process embedded in how farming communities work and not an event. As a result, most field days and agricultural shows are characterized by stage-managing reality.
Return on Investment in training
Without clear formulae for determining return on investing in training, there is a danger of continuously misallocating scarce resources on training programmes that do not change lives. Instead of surfacing unarticulated needs, some of the tools traditionally used to conduct training needs assessments confirm biases of those funding the training. Focusing on long-term information and knowledge retention as well as well behavior change means there is need to pay more attention to what happens after training than during training. Unfortunately, there are often no resources devoted to activities after a three to four year programme by development partners of government interventions. That means information and knowledge acquired during a particular programme also disappears with the phasing out of the programme.
Is keeping records a panacea?
There is an increasing tendency to blame farmers for not keeping records, yet record keeping requires different levels of literacy beyond the capacity to read and write. In addition, forcing smallholder farmers with a few goats and cattle to keep records is expecting too much from busy people trying to eke a living using meagre resources. They might keep records for a short period but soon get absorbed into the demands of daily living. It makes sense to have individual farmer records centrally collected, consolidated and frequently updated by an institution like the local extension department which can assume the role of a knowledge centre. Scattered records among individual farmers become valuable when consolidated for a particular purpose like luring investors into the community so that they match size of investment with potential for growth. Otherwise, keeping records without a clear purpose is a meaningless exercise.
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