To what extent does the market inform production decisions?

In the course of working with African mass markets, eMKambo continues to notice several nuances that inform the production of different agricultural commodities, among other patterns. A recent study focused on figuring out the extent to which the market informs production decisions among African smallholder farmers.

There are strong indications that most production decisions are supply-driven not demand-driven. For instance, most farmers interviewed said what they grow and how they grow is determined by government extension officers. The second group said their decisions are informed by NGOs who bring ideas and technologies into their communities. That is why most of the commodities supported this way end with the phasing out of NGO projects. The third group is informed by commercial companies through contracts. For instance, if there were no contracting companies, most farmers producing tobacco in Hurungwe district of Zimbabwe would not be growing the crop.  The fourth group comprises horticulture farmers whose decisions are informed largely by the mass market. 

Towards needs-based interventions

Gathering the above information assists in making sure agricultural interventions are needs-based. It is important to know what influences daily decisions of millions of farmers.  The inquiry was extended to finding out communication channels used by farmers in different production zones. At production level, major communication channels mentioned include meetings, farmer to farmer interactions, radio, extension services from government extension services and NGOs, field days and demonstration plots.  Channels for accessing market-related information include calling market traders and relatives in towns, word of mouth from peers coming from the market, extension officers, NGO officers and radio. Information collected this way pertains to potential markets, prices, specific buyers, packaging, quality standards, varieties and transportation.

What drives units of measurement?

 The study also sought to find out how farmers make sense of units of measurements in African mass food markets.  It turns out farmers do not have control over units of measurements. For instance, in Mbare market of Harare units of measurement for commodities like sweet potatoes are moving from 50-60kg bags to five litre tins. This is driven by the nature of selling – direct to vendors and consumers in ways that supports breaking of bulk.  Some vendors are do semi-wholesaling and find it convenient to sell sweet potatoes as heaps in residential market stalls. Consumers have also become comfortable with a five litre tin as a measurement because it is fairly affordable.

Saga-based packaging: Mbare sells huge volumes of different sizes of sacks that go to many parts of the country.  Like most packaging, decisions and choices for using a saseka or semia bag were informed by vendors who specialize in butternuts and cucumber. When these vendors tried to break bulk from 50kg bags into heaps they discovered that the 50kg bag contained less commodities and as they looked around they stumbled on the 62kg saseka which landed itself very well to breaking bulk, heaping and other forms of repackaging that happen in smaller residential markets.

The other influence came from transportation where it was discovered that given that transporters charge per bag and not per entire load, the 50kg was expensive to transport while it contained fewer commodities.  Having looked at all the sacks in the market, consensus zeroed on the saseka which, when carrying butternuts and cucumber weighs 62kg.  After the number of fruits or tubers were counted, the saseka matched expectations of many actors.  It also matched the number of sacks that can be loaded on the truck. Interestingly, the saseka and semia came from Malawi into Zimbabwe through companies that imported wheat bran, before the bag found its way into Mbare market for multiple uses.

Wooden crates: The idea to use wooden crates was driven by communal tomato production but the crates are gradually being replaced by plastic sandaks.  The 8kg wooden box also fulfills the needs of low income consumers who cannot afford large packages.  As most communal farmers engage with traders who are bringing 30kg plastic crates to the farm as standard measurement, the wooden box is slowly being pushed out. It means the nature of product exchange at the farm is replacing the role of the wooden box.

20 litre tins: These take care of volume that cannot be counted.  After the 5l tin the next level is 20l which traders derive from the number of 5l that can get into the 20l, simplifying calculations.  However, the 20l tin is highly controversial because it is not the same everywhere.  Most 20l containers have commodities weighing 18kg. Some have collars while other have lower brims. The 20l tin is not ideal for selling Matemba because they do not have enough weight to fill up gaps. It is meant to please the seller not the buyer.  Matemba are better sold through kilograms like what happens in formal markets. Matemba in Mbare tend to be over-priced because they use 20 l tins as measurements.

Why not use scales? 

Some commodities like sweet potatoes cannot be satisfactorily sold through weighing scales but through quantity. Potatoes are sold in 5l tins to ensure affordability by many consumers.  However, heaping is now a more common way of selling. The increase in heaping speaks to affordable measurements by consumers most of whom cannot afford large volumes as they live from hand to mouth. According to vendors, there is also some proof that when you buy heaped potatoes you get more than buying a single 15kg pocket of potatoes. Eight to nine heaps can give you more than 15kg pocket.

Behind each measurement are units of measurement. To address the inconvenience of having to weigh commodities each time someone wants to buy, mass market actors have simply agreed on rules of thumb. As long as a saseka is full everyone is satisfied.  There is no need to spend time weighing commodities all the time. If that was to happen, there would be long queues as buyers waited to have their consignments weighed. The market has merely converged around some consistency guaranteed through common measurements.  As long as market actors know the measurements there is agreement.  / /

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Once existing structures are strengthened information can easily flow from the grassroots

One of the main problems in African countries is the absence of systems for collecting data and information in ways that take advantage of existing structures from the grassroots to national level. Almost every country’s ministry of agriculture has officers from ward level to national level whose daily roles include gathering, processing and sharing information. When such information is not prepared and shared in alternative formats other than circulars and minutes, development agencies engage consultants to collect information that should be flowing daily through government structures.

COVID-19 is quietly re-defining the role of agricultural extension agents to be value adders of local information. Very soon development agencies that are fond of engaging consultants to conduct time-bound researches (two – six months) will be getting such information from government extension systems without going to the field to ask farmers the same questions asked by local extension officers. After all, consultants collect information from the same informants (farmer to minister) who should be providing information to a system in a fluid way rather than waiting for consultants to request for it.

Answers are as good as the questions asked

Information is always abundant in communities if the right questions are asked and proper systems of collecting it are put in place.  Local leaders are always ready to collect and send information if the right tools are provided. Why look for money to conduct a vulnerability assessment when information is always there and flowing fluidly from the grassroots to the head office and back?

Compared to European countries, in African countries with small populations like Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe compared, it is possible for the NGO to people ratio to be less 100 people to one NGO – more than the farmer to extension worker ratio which is said to be 1:500.  Why is poverty increasing when we have so many well-intentioned NGOs? When COVID19 is over, we should be able to take stock and find out how each organization addressed the pandemic while fulfilling its mandate.

Systematic challenges around knowledge

Many development agencies working in Africa are getting information for free from intermediaries by hiding behind the fact that their policies do not allow paying for knowledge.  They insist on either paying for food, accommodation and transport as a proxy for paying for the knowledge held by workshop participants. To what extent is food and transport enough compensation for knowledge?  To the extent critical thinking and knowledge generation quickens the development of products and provision of services, people with such skills and knowledge should be recognized the same way someone whose knowledge is used to produce a tractor or any equipment is valued because such knowledge saves costs.

Paying for processes through which information is gathered should recognize the holders of information.  Communities and markets are examples of living literature that is constantly reviewing knowledge and keeping it fresh as well as fluid. Lived experiences have to be recognized and valued more than literature.  That includes gurus in African mass markets who are always guiding young people to find their purpose.  / /

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Why each African country should have a ministry responsible for indigenous foods, medicines, arts, culture and sports

To the extent combinations of food systems, arts, culture and sports can be a full expression of national identity, the African Union should ensure every African country has a government department responsible for indigenous food systems, medicines, arts, sports and informal science. At practical African grassroots level, all these aspects are part of an integrated package not split into individual departments such that there is sometimes a thin line between food, medicine, art, culture and informal science.

A home for indigenous food systems and traditional medicine

More importantly, indigenous food systems do not have a home in the conventional African ministry of Agriculture and natural resources which tries to cater for everything including imported breeds, fertilizer, chemicals, equipment, seeds and food, among others. Likewise, although there have been efforts to make traditional African medicine an extension of modern imported medical practice, such grafting has not given African traditional medicine enough room and inspiration to express its breath and depth. A major  weakness in the modern medical field is that it privileges someone who studies imported subjects like mathematics, biology and physics or chemistry to become medical doctors ahead of an African herbalist who acquires superior knowledge through traditional pathways and practical wisdom.

Turning to sports, art and culture

The way these fundamental conveyors of knowledge are currently understood and harnessed does not take into account African content.  For instance, the conventional African ministry of sports, culture and arts is yet to create pathways for authentic African arts, sports, culture and rich forms of recreation like traditional dancing, tsoro, hunting, beating drums and many others.  While there is nothing wrong in importing sports, African countries should by now have domesticated the notion of Olympic Games to suit African purposes and contexts where various social games are conduits of knowledge preservation and sharing.

The same way the creation of Olympic Games was inspired by the Ancient Greek Games  held in Olympia, Greece from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD is the same way Ancient Africa can inspire the evolving content of Olympic Games. Currently, none of the sport competitions under Olympic Games originate from Africa. It is as if African countries do not have games worth to be internationalized yet the opposite is true. African Games were connected with knowledge around nature.

Where the Western world takes wine tasting as an art or sport, it would certainly be reduced to an amateur sport if the African version of the same sport would be brought forth and legitimized in the modern world.  There is so much that Africa can contribute to world knowledge through food systems, medicine, arts, culture and sport if there was political will to modernize African knowledge systems in various spheres of life.  Hunting and fishing are now considered elite sports worth thousands of dollars but none of those modern Western hunters and fishers can beat Africans who grew up doing those things.

Streamlining African identity and culture

The proposed ministry responsible for indigenous foods, traditional medicine, arts, culture and sports should streamline several important African identity aspects in ways that preserve local knowledge, food and nutrition security as well as health systems, building on existing natural plants/trees/animals that are part of the local context. For many African communities, traditional games were not just for entertainment but pathways through which knowledge was shared, acquired, adapted and improved. Young people who grew up near big rivers are good at swimming and fishing while those who co-existed with wild animals in the neighboring forests have acquired skills in hunting as a livelihood and source of knowledge.

When each African country sets up a ministry responsible for indigenous foods, medicines, arts, culture and sport, it would look at ways of domesticating Olympic Games and give them an indigenous face from a content perspective.  Why not have Olympic winners for different forms of traditional dance?  If there was going to be an Olympic competition for brewing traditional beer in the midlands province of Zimbabwe, three grandmothers would dominate the competition hands down.  vaMachuna would certainly lift the Gold medal, followed by vaHuna taking silver and vaMushabani bronze.

Africa is rich with similar champions in different livelihood pursuits including domesticating livestock, leather tanning, weaving baskets, iron smelting, breeding indigenous seeds, pottery, fashioning tools from wood carving, thatching and generating diverse recipes from mixing a wide range of nutritious foods. Some of these in-born skills could be weaved into novel forms of Olympic Games through which gifted people can test each other’s knowledge as opposed to limiting every learning to classrooms.

The proposed ministry will ensure African Games find their way into educational curricula. By abandoning their traditional Games and sports, most African countries are throwing away critical knowledge that can assist in building resilient communities from a food, nutrition and well-being perspective. It is through Games and different kinds of sports that African communities acquired expertise to deal with pandemics like droughts and diseases equivalent to COVID-19.  When each country has such a ministry, it will lay pathways for creating continental-wide knowledge-based Olympic Games. Ultimately, we would see, for instance, Ashanti grandmothers competing with Chewa or Tutsi grandmothers in passing on knowledge on brewing traditional beer or preserving indigenous food that can last for decades.

Strategic grain reserves have their own limits

African policy makers may think their countries will be sufficiently food secure by depending on strategic grain reserves. But what if climate-changed induced pandemics like COVID-19 or drought persist for more than four years, making it impossible to produce enough grain for households and surplus for storing in the national food reserves?  The importance of alternatives like natural foods and fruits, most of which do not need any fertilizer of sophisticated preservation methods, cannot be over-emphasized.

An appropriate ministry responsible for alternative foods, medicine and related aspects in each African country would advocate for setting up plantations of indigenous fruits, vegetables as well as big farms reserved for indigenous livestock. Currently, horticulture and livestock departments in ministries of agriculture in the majority of African countries do not sufficiently embrace indigenous fruits and vegetables with much attention going to imported horticulture. Robust supply chains for indigenous commodities and knowledge from production to consumption or utilization can only be driven by a fully- fledged ministry unlike leaving such important resources to predatory NGOs and private players.

While African countries have traditionally thought they cannot do without the North, COVID-19 has shown the potential for Africa to stand on its own feet. The same way African countries have imported knowledge including text books from the North should see African countries developing and packaging their knowledge for exporting to the North. The pandemic has shown that Western knowledge has reached a ceiling as shown by how world-class health facilities and knowledges have failed to stem pandemic.  / /

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The power of clear role definition in African food systems

COVID-19 has revealed the importance of understanding roles of different actors in Africa’s food systems. When roles and responsibilities are unclear, smallholder farmers are exposed to conmen.  For instance, in Zimbabwe farmers are losing produce to unregistered buyers. The situation would be better if all buyers were registered and the trading of all agricultural commodities was properly regulated.

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Due to lack of coordination, there is so much overlap and duplication of roles.  Farmers need value added services and these can come from knowledge brokers. There should be an institution whose core business is knowledge brokering and consolidating knowledge in ways that show overlaps in service provision.

Role of the Reserve Bank: Farmers and other value chain actors think the reserve bank and ministry of finance in each African country should have a budget for information or knowledge gathering and processing if it is to really unlock the potential of agriculture and food systems.

Farmer unions: While their role seems clear, it is still confusing when considered in the same breath with other service providers.  Since unions are membership-driven, they should become a local hub for information dissemination to their members.  This can be their main value added service and they can be a conduit between their members and other service providers and markets.

Agricultural marketing authorities: These should regulate brokers and service providers in the market.

Agritex extension services:  Their role should shift to monitoring farmer activity at grassroots and providing generic information, mainly for new farmers or those getting into a particular commodity for the first time. For learning purposes, extension officers can ensure knowledge barriers are  lowered so that a farmer can obtain the basics before becoming an expert.  Most farmers, particularly those new into a particular commodity, may not know what they need to know.  Self-learning works where farmers have acquired enough basic knowledge to know what they need to know.

Associations: Ideally information should travel from the farmers/associations to brokers to buyers/processors/end-users.  Associations can provide vital information required by markets. Ideally commodity associations can be built in the framework of farmer unions.

Knowledge brokers: As a way of controlling costs that farmers may end up incurring, knowledge should facilitate information movement between informal markets and processors who often find it difficult to consolidate information in terms of what volumes, quality and types of commodities in the market.  Markets also find it costly to get information from the production side, especially for specific commodities. The broker can consolidate all this information and share it with all actors including marketing authorities who can use it for policy review and crafting responses to COVID-19.

Chambers of commerce:  These should have sectoral representations from farmers unions/associations, manufacturing, input suppliers, equipment manufacturers, etc.

NGOs: These should focus mainly on social enterprise so that vulnerable groups are not left out of socio- economic activities and interventions.

Responding to a dynamic environment

All the above categories of institutions are targeting the farmer. However, if a farmer is to belong to an association, farmer union or chamber, what services does a farmer get from an association which s/he cannot get from a chamber of commerce?  There should be levels of membership and service access.  An association should provide well defined services different from what can be obtained from a chamber or marketing authority. If these roles are not neatly defined, farmers will continue losing through membership fees.

Given than the benefits of belonging to one category are not clear, farmers end up trying to belong to all and thus ending up belonging fully to none. Farmers who used to produce major staples like maize had no reason to worry about market information because prices were set by the government for the entire season. In addition to new farming dynamics associated with horticulture and other high value commodities, farmers have to keep monitoring prices and other changes.  This is where ICTs like mobile phones have potential to provide solutions beyond just calling, short message service and Whatsapp groups, some of which are leading to information overload due to lack of fresh content.  / /

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Reimagining a new socio-economic fabric for African informal economies

Lockdowns as a major method for containing COVID-19 has undoubtedly destroyed social fabrics that sustain most low income economies. While governments have tried to soften the pandemic’s blow by providing cushioning allowances and other social safety nets to vulnerable members of society including vendors,  Mukando or Stokvel and other forms of voluntary and savings clubs will no longer be the same. Vendors and other low income earners who live from hand to mouth are wondering how they are going to repay loans they had taken before the pandemic arrived.

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Social safety nets will not be able to cover ordinary people’s coping mechanisms. Where economies were functioning normally, many farmers, traders and other entrepreneurs were busy servicing loans taken from banks and Micro Finance Institutions. What is going to happen?

Importance of careful business profiling

The biggest challenge for policy makers is navigating difficult trade-offs between promoting public health and stimulating socio-economic revival while competing for limited resources. Widespread informality and information asymmetry in most African countries makes it easier for government to mistakenly subside what is in abundance and miss sectors that need critical help.  For instance food distribution remains an unsustainable option when it is better to provide resources to communities so that they can produce their own food in gardens, wetlands and production zones.

Teasing out all these issues requires careful profiling of people, communities and available resources. A biggest headache for countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe where the informal economy employs more than 80% of the population is how this economy can be re-opening during the lockdown and post-COVID19. The importance of careful profiling of economic actors in the informal economy cannot be over-emphasized. The following is how a detailed and meaningful profile will look like for each actor:

Profile element Justification (why it is important)
Personal details  
Name and sex Name is about identity. Who are we dealing with?  In the final analysis, sex reveals the extent to which the informal sector is dominated by women, for instance.
Age This has economic implication for business. What has been the impact of closing businesses on youth in response to COVID-19? What is the impact on the elderly pensioners?  How many young people have become unemployed due to the lockdown?
Marital Status COVID-19 has had a different impact on the married, unemployed single mothers and widows.
Household Size Household size has an influence on the pace at which small enterprises can recover from the pandemic. For most SMEs, more than 90% of the business income is more of a salary for the household.
Level of Education This has a bearing on the introduction of financial literacy and provision of technical skills.  How many graduates and school drop outs are in the informal sector?
Home Address (Location) Where do informal traders and SMEs stay? If staying in Epworth, why do they prefer selling to Mbare? What are the business factors for staying in Epworth and doing business in Mbare? This is a description of the ecosystem.  While policy makers may want to be directed by availability of land and by-laws in allocating work spaces, traders and SMEs know what should be considered in setting up a business.  They know the behavior of their customers and target market.
Mobile Number This is becoming a key unique identifier.
Business Information
Business Name and Location Where is the business operating from?  This assists in mapping and revealing the concentration of SMEs.
Is the premise a. rented from i. private property ii. Council property. owned c. home This will assist in assessing risks. If one is renting at a private property, does the by-laws allow or property owners are just taking advantage of desperate SMEs. In most countries private property owners have become more of tax collectors. What plans can be put in place to bring commodities closer to consumers and de-congest Mbare? How can some premises be combined into industrial parks that accommodate street vendors and those operating from home? If you chase street vendors you are saying where they bought is also illegal.
Year business started This provides landscape in terms of experience as shown by years.  Are SMEs growing? What is dominating in terms of years?  What is the age of the business? How old is the SMEs?  If an SME has been running for 20 years but policy makers still do not recognize it, there is something wrong with government policy not with the SME. One cannot continue to be called informal merely because s/he has not been given works space or there is no supportive legislation. For instance what company registration is needed for brick molding? Youth enterprises should not be called projects but enterprises.
Average monthly sales How much is a SME contributing to the economy? Such information will provide a basis for clustering. It will also lays the foundation for creating a growth path. If someone has been in business for 20 years but sales are going down, it could signal lack of adaptation or existing knowledge has reached a limit.
Number of employees: a. full time b. part time This is a key component of economic growth.  By closing SMEs, how many families have been affected?  Any support required may not just be for the business but enhancing employment creation.  Job losses need to be accounted for as SMEs may not be able to sustain full-time employees post-COVID19.
List of assets and estimated value This shows production capacity and contribution of the SMEs to national economic growth.
Do you have any running loan? If yes state amount and lender? What is going to happen to enterprises that had acquired loans pre-COVID?  Their reputation with financiers is likely to get sour?  If more than 60% had loans, how are they going to be repaid?
What kind of support does your business currently need? Provide details This is critical. Most countries do not have fluid needs assessment management systems for the SMEs sector. In most cases there is an assumption that SMEs need loans when they probably need knowledge and skills.  Some have their own knowledge and should not be locked in five day training courses. Others are always learning from each other and can produce items without having gone to college.
Equipment As technical people, SMEs know what equipment is lacking.  In clustering SMEs, policy should be informed by existing type of equipment or come up with special grants that can enable SMEs to import appropriate equipment. A supply chain for equipment can anchor rural industrialization with no need for every aspiring entrepreneur to visit the capital city for everything.

Clustering as a success factor
The above profile is critical for clustering business according to services and products. The SME sector should work hard to classify commodities towards clustering. Profiling is important for systematic formalization. The informal sector is already in motion and most SMEs in urban centers are now very dynamic. If government policy says passports can be applied online from today, everybody will apply. Likewise, SMEs should be able to take advantage of ICTs by filling in their profiles online and send completed forms digitally without travelling to towns and cities for such simple processes.  / /

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Africa Day should now be more about knowledge than politics

Without belittling the importance of celebrating independence, African countries should now be using 25 May (Africa Day) to take stock of knowledge-based achievements and gaps. If all African countries had created a university education model relevant to their development needs and aspirations, African Day would be ideal for celebrating home-grown science around indigenous food systems. By consuming imported food during special days like African Day, African countries limit the capacity of indigenous food to participate in socio-economic development. Indigenous hotels should lead by example through serving indigenous food as a unique selling proposition for each country.

charles dhewa covid

Recognizing intrinsic knowledge and indigenous science

African leaders should use African Day to reflect on why imported science that continues to control formal education systems in Africa is still failing to produce graduates with relevant skills, knowledge and dispositions for generating solutions. For instance, much of the indigenous food systems are driven by intrinsic knowledge and indigenous science especially in relation to food preparation. Where imported knowledge systems emphasize boiling for 20 – 30 minutes, African food preparation systems and skills are in-born. There is no measurement or scale for putting salt besides tasting.  Unfortunately, African university graduates have not been able to process indigenous science into a knowledge basket that can also be exported. Cooking sadza with mugoti and making hodzeko milk are skills that should be exported as intuitive knowledge worthy studying in higher institutions of learning.

When you ask formally educated Africans why they are not solving simple problems the main answer is lack of money. Yet not everything needs money because there will never be sufficient money for solving problems.  That is why people acquire knowledge so that they do not associate every advancement with money but knowledge. Indigenous science is different from imported science which takes learning as memorization and reproduction of facts, figures and rules. It is not only about using available resources to solve problems but also includes building the capacity of young people to interrogate their attitudes, beliefs and mentalities as part of formulating solutions.

Need to domesticate imported science

If imported science was easy to domesticate, African medical doctors trained through the Western university education system would by now have used their knowledge to develop local drugs combining western science and indigenous science. After spending more than five years studying medicine and thereafter practicing as a medical doctor for more than 10 years, an African medical doctor still cannot generate new knowledge in the form of drugs or new ways of treating diseases. Although some diseases and ailments are contextual, African western trained doctors continue to merely administer medicines and cures developed by other people in the West.

Medical professionals around the world are failing to find cure for COVID-19 because they are using borrowed knowledge developed by a few individuals. By now African doctors should have been able to contextualize imported knowledge and created unique medicines using local herbs. If medical doctors were paid by results, what would be the results of African doctors who continue to use imported science?

After spending 7 years studying veterinary science and practicing as veterinary doctors for decades, African veterinary doctors can only administer imported veterinary products while millions of farmers continue to lose millions of cattle from Therleriosis (January disease), Antrax as well as Foot and Mount Disease (FMD) among others.

As they celebrate Africa Day on 25th May 2020, African leaders should be worried that imported curricula remains a barrier to innovative solutions using local plant materials and indigenous science passed from one generation to the other. The more an African absorbed western education, the more s/he is alienated from local science and indigenous knowledge systems.  / /

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Rediscovering the value of indigenous knowledge through COVID-19

By restricting movement between rural and urban areas, there is no doubt that lockdowns in African countries have weakened domestic trade and social fabrics that sustain most low income economies. Contrary to views from policy makers, African economies are not sustained by international trade but domestic commerce and social capital. COVID19-induced lockdowns have made it difficult for urban dwellers to get bags of Nzungu, Nyimo and Mumhare from parents in rural areas as long distance buses have been stopped from operating. Neither can they taste favorite indigenous fruits like tsvubvu or herbs like Zumbani and others famous for fighting flue which is common in winter.  However, that is where the bad news ends.

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Going back to the roots

Failure to transport perishable commodities to cities is beginning to inspire a new sense of self-reliance among farmers and rural people. So important has become traditional ways of preserving food that most farmers are wondering why they were always rushing to sell their valuable commodities for a song when they can wait and add more value. On the other hand, urban consumers who have previously over-depended on imported food systems to the point of associating mufushwa with poverty are beginning to look for it to fill gaps created by absence of fresh vegetables from rural areas. Those in the fresh meat and fish industries are dusting their knowledge on drying beef into chimukuyu which after all is said to be superior because it does not cause gout. Pre-COVID-19, the promotion of indigenous food was labelled informal food vending – of Mutakura, Mahewu, road runners and Mazondo.

Drawing lessons from COVID-19, if African policy makers had promoted a very strong culture of food preservation, the impact of the pandemic would be softened.  More than 90% of our major staples in Africa are rain-fed which means they are seasonal. The same applies to indigenous vegetables like nyevhe as well as fruits like mawuyu, nyii, tsvubvu and masawu which come in abundance leading communities to suffer economic losses.

Unfortunately policy makers’ notion of preservation is just about storage and warehousing yet food should be warehoused when already preserved. African grandmothers made different kinds of mumhare and mufushwa to last until the next harvest. Sweet potatoes were preserved in pfimbi and ripening of fruits through kupfimbika remains a very common practice today in Zimbabwe, for instance. All that knowledge is now due for assessment and improvement although preservation technology is yet to fully embrace indigenous knowledge systems.

No need for preservatives

A major attraction for indigenously preserved food is that it does not have preservatives which are said to be causing different kinds of cancers that are claiming the lives of many eminent Africans. There is a strong emerging view that if properly done, preserved indigenous food can go through the retail supply chain involving agro-dealers who are an integral part of processed food distribution chain.  Farmers have observed that the growth of the modern food chain like fast foods is not contributing much to the growth of smallholder farmers. Recipes and spices used by fast food outlets are meant to promote producers from source countries. For instance, recipes and spices that go into pizzas and niche restaurants are not produced locally as a way of preserving global supply chain from which fast food chains originate.

Upgrading and simplifying indigenous value addition knowledge

Developing countries have not looked at appropriate technology that can simplify value addition knowledge especially traditional knowledge such as on drying mufushwa and brewing mahewu. Consequently there has not been much preservation and quality improvement of mufushwa and other indigenous foods into ready to eat products for better domestic nutrition and export. At national or regional level there has not been meaningful efforts to add value to traditional knowledge on preservation methods.

There is still overwhelming preference for imported knowledge like canning beef and beans as well as tomato sauce which process requires hitech. Africans who grew up in an agrarian society remember producing their own baobab yoghurt through mixing with cow milk while herding cattle.  It is possible that such indigenous knowledge was poached and commercialized.  Now it is not clear who is coping who in producing yoghurt. Mahewu was brewed using chimera but now some companies are producing mahewu but have kept the original sources of knowledge invisible.

For how long are African food systems going to remain locked in specific areas or regions?

This is another fundamental questions triggered in people’s minds as they grapple with the consequences of COVID – 19 on their food systems. Suddenly they realize how their food systems are still locked in specific rural areas and production zones and why they need to develop supply chains through which different production zones can enrich each other. Another telling observation is that more than 50% of the urban population lack rural knowledge. Little knowledge of what urban people are aware of is obtained through informal markets like Mbare in Harare and many others across African cities. However, Zumbani and Mufandichimuka cannot be found in supermarkets where the majority urban dwellers shop.

A lot of knowledge gaps exist between the young generation and local food systems. By not cultivating such knowledge, Africans are killing future demand for indigenous food. The young only know about pizza and Ice cream but very little about sources of food. In terms of demand it is not about young people knowing the plant but developing taste and appreciating home-grown food and associated advantages. Another mistake being corrected is packaging food in modern measurement like calories, kilograms and alcohol content, among others. “Our own knowledge systems should empower us to desist from expressing our food through medicinal properties because the food end up being associated with diseases or illnesses. We should elevate the nutritional side associated with wellness although we are aware of medicinal properties in the food”, one farmer from Mutoko district of Zimbabwe told eMKambo.

Combination of medicine and nutrition

Farmers added that nutrition and medicinal properties are closely linked in the African sense and knowledge systems. However, many lamented the fact that when food is expressed as medicine through modern science it is taken like a drug although it has preventive elements. On the other hand traditional foods like small grains are mostly promoted from a nutritional perspective while their medicinal angle is not elevated. When food is a combination of nutrition and medicine it is consumed as a package as opposed to imported practices where Vitamin A tablets can be consumed separately.

These are some of the discussions happening between farmers and traders trying to continue trading during and after COVID-19. While the majority of African mass markets may have been closed physically, trading of knowledge and real commodities is continuing underneath as part of economic self-reliance and keeping indigenous food trading vibrant.  / /

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COVID-19 shows symbiotic relationships between formal and informal economies

Among other revelations, COVID-19 has shown the extent to which formal and informal African economies do not work in isolation but are more like Siamese twins. African economies are structured in such a way that there are no distinct supply chains that can be locked down without affecting entire ecosystems. For instance, agriculture is tightly interwoven with the non-food informal sector which consume more than 70% of the food, constituting the key demand side for agricultural commodities.

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Given that less than 10% of the demand for food comes from the formal sector, opening that sector without opening the informal sector does not improve agricultural incomes.  One of the most important decisions in opening economic sector while others remain closed in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 should focus on stimulating the buying power. Suppressed buying power affects smallholder farmers more because there will be few buyers for the commodities, leading to enormous losses. That is why it is important to link the safety net system with food markets so that farmers earn income that will enable them to go back and grow more food.

The power of data and evidence

While mass African markets generate a lot of fluid data about the movement of food, African countries do not have institutions responsible for collecting and interpreting such data to inform policy decisions during pandemics like COVID-19 and other disasters. If such an institution existed it would show how much food is consumed by the transport sector, health sector and other non-food sectors. Careful analysis would reveal the implications of opening up one economic sector while keeping others closed. It would also show how opening the formal sector without opening the informal sector compromises demand because it cripples the buying power of the pro-poor majority, mostly those who depend on the informal sector that apparently drives the economy. Evidence would also show how social safety nets are not the solution on their own unless cash meant for social safety nets is plugged into the food supply chain so that poor people do not spend their little money looking for food.

Technology should be playing a more meaningful role

Most African countries still lack technologies that can help them to collect or process information and data. By now, digital technologies should be producing maps for diseases like Malaria, Cholera, Food and Mouth Disease, Fall Army worm and many other diseases that have made Africa their home. Such maps would provide wider sets of fluid data, demonstrating linkages between disasters or particular diseases with food systems. Unfortunately, African ministries of finance do not set aside specific budgets for gathering such important fluid data which remains fragmented in different government departments, local communities and development organizations.

Technology-driven data and evidence can demonstrate why progressive farmers and traders should be interested in mastering trends that contribute to their growth pathways.  If you are a potato trader, it is not enough to know only about that particular commodity and competitors. Understanding the entire ecosystem is more fundamental because fruits like oranges and Nyii can have an indirect but very serious impact on potatoes. Appreciating the role of data and understanding one’s business performance is critical. Banks are realizing that a bank statement is no longer a sufficient instrument for evaluating a business’s performance especially given that companies that have not been operating for months due to COVID-19 have not been banking or generating income but virtually in limbo.

Importance of post-harvest policies

COVID-19 has also revealed the extent to which African countries need post-harvest policies as opposed to too much focus on inputs provision, mechanization and irrigation issues at the expense of post-harvest issues. For a very long time, farmers and traders have been finding their own way around post-harvest challenges, developing their own economy with no policy guidance. Information and knowledge has remained in silos, for instance between farmers and traders who build a close relationship among themselves.

Information asymmetry, barriers to market participation and negligence of market infrastructure has remained the order of the day for decades. Policy makers have never questioned how food finds its way to urban markets from diverse farming areas.  Likewise, few people have been curious enough to find out how urban consumers get potatoes, carrots and other commodities. Very few policy makers know that to operate on full throttle, formal businesses depend on the informal economy for much-needed oxygen without which the whole formal economy cannot breathe. Most food and beverage formal companies would not be getting cash if they did not work closely with the informal sector in the form of tuck-shops and street vending of food. For instance, in Zimbabwe a big sausage making cottage industry is an extension of the informal sector on which many people are depending for food and income.  / /

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Reflections on costing of agricultural commodities – thanks to COVID19

In addition to disrupting food supply chains, COVID-19 has presented a pricing headache for smallholder farmers in African countries. If government directs supermarkets to revert back to pre-COVID19 prices they can easily do so because they have a tradition of keeping records on stocks and prices.  On the other hand, mass markets will not be able to do the same because there is no institution responsible for keeping records and tracking prices. Neither can local authorities like municipalities provide such records because their main mandate is collecting revenue through providing trading space without bothering to collect commodity prices.

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Worsening an already bad situation

PreCOVID-19, fluid interaction between supply and demand in mass food markets at scale assisted farmers and all value chain players in setting prices.  For instance the demand side was made up of specific urban populations which guaranteed uptake for huge volumes of commodities from smallholder farmers. In fact there was a neat match between demand and supply.  However, following lockdown induced by COVID-19 commodities from farmers started flowing to cities through middlemen since the majority of farmers have been restricted from coming to the market in huge numbers.

This scenario has destroyed the previous playing field where demand and supply used to meet in ways that determined prices fairly. Where some farmers try to price their commodities when selling locally, it is difficult unless they are aware of prices in other areas they are competing with in producing the same commodity. Due to the lockdowns, food supply chains are being controlled by opportunists who are determining prices that can be given to farmers desperate to get rid of perishable commodities and prices that consumers desperate for food have to pay. Consequently, there is a big difference between the selling price and the buying price. While farmers are getting very little for their commodities, consumers are enduring very high prices.  Opportunists are the ones reaping abnormal profits. These challenges can be addressed if African countries build robust food supply chains in which every actor’s role is clearly defined.

A case for contextualizing costing in the agriculture sector

Agricultural extension methods in Africa are yet to design dynamic costing models taking into account all commodities produced by smallholder farmers in diverse production zones, especially for informal farming systems and their ecosystems like informal markets. Costing is still based on formal farming systems informed by inputs like fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, cost of water as determined by ZINWA, gazetted labor costs based on representations by National Employment Councils and General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) or their equivalent in other countries.

There are still no formulas that take into account major production cost components for smallholder farmers and informal markets. For instance, the majority of smallholder farmers still depend on natural resources and their own resources for producing commodities. Such resources whose costs have not been calculated by extension agents include communal land, livestock manure, rainfall, family labor or Nhimbe, retained seed, draught power and many others.  Farmers still struggle to convert most of these inputs into monetary value for easier costing.

It is a huge anomaly for African economies not to have costing models for smallholder farmers and informal markets in which the majority trade.  That is why most smallholder farmers have remained price takers for decades.  Usually when farmers sell their commodities, their pricing is based on the gravity of challenges they wish to solve not how much has been invested in agriculture production. A typical question in the smallholder farmer’s mind is: “How many bags of groundnuts or maize can I sell to meet school fess worth $1000?”  In this case, selling commodities is not related to farming as a business but solving external needs like school fees, meeting basic needs like sugar, cooking oil or travelling a long distance to attend a funeral.  Any surplus income from trading commodities is by chance.

Closing a huge knowledge gap

Lack of statistics from the mass markets is a big knowledge gap that every African country should strive to close. By not collecting statistics from the expanding Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector of which mass markets are a key component, African countries are under-valuing their economies and piling pressure on the fiscus to provide social safety nets. The best brains in African economies have remained concentrated on the production side, for example agronomists, equipment engineers and economists, among others. Conversely the market and commodity handling side has been left to illiterate and semi-illiterate traders whose interest is mainly to maximize profit.

Such traders can only deal with food and markets to the extent their knowledge allows them to do so. Given the knowledge-intensive nature of food and markets, most traders cannot be expected to come up with solutions beyond their levels of knowledge and expertise. For instance, trader may not see anything wrong in selling all commodities using sacks, wooden crates and baskets yet that is a major avenue through which farmers lose income.  / /

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How COVID19 has exposed limitations of colonial food systems in Africa

The majority of developing countries are still to tear themselves away from the colonial set up where major food markets were located in cities or towns in order to provide food for low income people working in formal industries. Under that arrangement food had to travel from rural areas most of which were 100km away to cities where the main distributors were pro-poor mass markets like Mbare market in Harare. While the majority of urban consumers depended on pro-poor mass markets for food, supermarkets were for the elite and middle class. With the emergence of COVID-19, international standards of dealing with the pandemic have compelled African countries to close mass food markets. However that has happened at the expense of the urban poor on depend on these markets.

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Disruption of natural remedies

COVID-19 has dealt a heavy blow on poor people’s access to natural remedies. Over the past few years, African mass markets have witnessed an increase in the supply and demand for seasonal indigenous fruits, tubers and herbs that have provided stiff competition to exotic colonial foods. The marked increase in the consumption of indigenous foods has revealed urban consumers’ preference for natural remedies. Since most of the indigenous foods and herbs are not sold through modern supermarkets, the closure of mass markets as part of combatting the spread of COVID-19 has denied urban people access to the natural foods and remedies they have become accustomed to over the years. Farmers and rural people who were earning income from harvesting indigenous fruits, herbs and edible insects for sale in mass markets have also been left in the cold by the closure of mass markets.

Urban dwellers who had become accustomed to consuming tsvubvu, matufu, nyii, nhengeni, nhunguru and other fruits that ripen at the same time as field crops have not been able to get such fruits due to COVID19-included lockdowns and restrictions in movement of people and commodities. According to many consumers, indigenous fruits and herbs have medicinal properties that cannot be substituted with pharmaceutical products that are also beyond the reach of the majority.

Towards resilient food supply chains

In the wake of challenges caused by COVID-19, many African countries no longer have money to waste on ill-conceived agribusiness models. That is why the government of Zimbabwe and its partners has started putting in place carefully thought-through food supply chain systems. Besides assisting to cope with immediate, medium term and long-term impacts of COVID19, a robust food supply chain system is envisaged to have meaningful benefits for several value chain players as explained below:

Food supply chain benefits for farmers – A resilient food supply chain will enhance production planning guided by market volumes and trends.  Most farmers do not know market trends and start looking for the market when commodities have ripened or already in the truck at the market.  That should be a thing of the past.  Information generated along the food supply chain is beginning to make farmers aware of the diversity and volumes of commodities consumed by each market, enabling farmers to plan their production in ways that minimize waste of inputs by producing what does not have a market. Aggregation centres are being set up in production zones so that farmers with smaller volumes of commodities sell closer home and do not have to incur losses by travelling to distant urban markets.

Benefits for seed companies – Seed companies in Africa currently compete to produce more seed than farmers can use. That is why a lot of seed is seen in retail shops well after the planting season is over.  Some seed companies end up persuading government to embed their seed volumes in government input programs. A clear supply chain will show the actual demand for seed and help seed companies to plan their seed production properly.

Benefits for nurseries – By showing quantities of food produced and consumed in different areas, the supply chain will assist nurseries to produce seedlings in the right quantities unlike producing more than is needed, leading to throwing away of some seedlings due to absence of demand.

Benefits for stock feed manufacturers – The supply chain will show statistics about livestock producers and their volumes, enabling stock feed manufacturers to produce and distribute stock feed to known potential buyers unlike sending stock feed to communities where demand is not clear. When smallholder farmers produce maize, their major priority is meeting household consumption. They do not plan for livestock unless they are contracted. By revealing volumes for human consumption in particular communities, the food supply chain is beginning to show volumes that can be set aside for livestock.  At community or ward level, the supply chain will soon enable people to plan for household consumption, livestock consumption and surplus for the market so that they do not run out of food.

Benefits for supermarkets, food processors and fast food chains – Most of these players have depended on middlemen for years.  If they put their needs and specifications on the supply chain they will get what they need on time.  Their volumes are often too low to the extent that it does not make economic sense for them to go and fetch commodities on their own from farmers in distant areas.

Benefits for financial institutions – The days of banks giving loans to agricultural clients based on bank statements are over. The supply chain will show statistics of each player’s participation and such evidence will be used as collateral.  In fact the supply chain itself will be a collateral for the entire food system.

Characterizing traders and flushing out unscrupulous ones – By separating genuine traders from the unscrupulous lot, the food supply chain has started eliminating inflation caused by middlemen who merely exchange commodities and increase prices before passing on the prices to the consumers. When negotiating with farmers most middlemen have become used to cite high transport costs as the reason why they should pay less to the farmer but a critical look at transport costs would show that they are not as high as claimed.  In any case, why should the farmer meet the trader’s transport costs?

Who says butternut, sweet potato, carrots, green beans, green pepper and many other bulky commodities should be sold in a 60-70kg bag called a semia or saseka?  In Zimbabwe such measurements have been  distorting value to the farmer’s expense for decades.  Instead of allowing traders to set rules of the commodity trading game, the supply chain will introduce proper standards and measurements starting at local aggregation centres. Most of the bad trading practices are not market-driven but introduced by cartels of traders. For how long are African farmers going to continue selling their commodities in big sacks some of which are over-filled in ways that disadvantage smallholder farmers? Introducing modern measurements like weighing scales at local aggregation centres will sweep bad trading practices away.

Time to build home-grown social safety nets

Among other knowledge and resource gaps, COVID19 has revealed the need for African countries to revisit colonial food policies that have continued to guide decisions about food production and supply without fully taking into account the important role of pro-poor mass food markets. To the extent COVID19 has first attacked donor countries and sources of food aid, low income countries have to urgently start building home-grown self-sustaining social safety nets and resilient food supply chains. Currently, smallholder farmers do not originate units of measurement because they lack a basis for doing so. Most elements for pricing and price determination come from the market. What policy, institutional or operational measures can governments put in place to transfer the power of originating units of measurement from traders to farmers?  This is a powerful avenue for building resilient food systems.  / /

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