Nudging universities in developing countries to harness community based inquiry

Contrary to prevailing formal approaches, knowledge sharing in most rural African communities is embedded in the way people work. For instance, knowledge sharing happens as farmers select seed or choose livestock breeds.  It also happens as they milk cows, plant crops, weed, harvest, store and market.  They do not stop and say, “Now let us share knowledge”.  They do not take agriculture as an event but a messy process.  That is why policy makers, development agencies and other formal institutions have to be continuously reminded to understand how rural people use knowledge assets in answering their needs.


The role of colleges and universities in rural development is yet to be clearly articulated. These important knowledge filters and gatekeepers have not yet adequately awakened to this reality. Instead of creating pathways for students to learn from local communities, universities continue to encourage students, especially those going on more than ten months internship, to look for placement in formal institutions like parastatals and corporates. Unfortunately there is not much to learn from these institutions because practical knowledge and innovations have migrated to informal ecosystems like SMEs owned by people who used to work in formal institutions.  This is the situation in many African countries.

 Using informal networks and markets to inspire new knowledge interpretations

As if the above is not enough, the digitally-informed dynamic and hybrid economy is now increasing the demand for technological, social and emotional skills that cannot be found in most formal institutions.  For universities, informal networks and SMEs as knowledge markets provide opportunities for new theory development and knowledge interpretation based on real-time practical experiences. Academics and universities that tap into this resource can overcome the inertia of conventional tools, processes and learning habits that are not matching the pace at which people are innovating in response to the market.

Learning institutions like universities are being forced to rethink their businesses models and imagine how they can develop and put appropriate tools in ordinary people’s hands for better decisions.  Instead of waiting for society to demand data or information on ad hoc basis, universities should put their approaches, methods and tools into daily activities and processes of farmers, consumers, traders and other value chain actors.

The current dominant research techniques used by universities in developing countries take a narrow view of what constitutes quality evidence or knowledge.  This is ignoring and undervaluing unique local solutions to unique community problems. While scientific merit is necessary, it is not sufficient. Universities and other formal learning institutions should acknowledge the crucial role of alternative knowledge generators and users such as farmers, artisans and traders, among others whose knowledge has gained local legitimacy over time. Research should no longer be just for academic purposes.

The role of universities in building community knowledge retention strategies

A low hanging fruit for universities in developing countries is empowering local communities to retain and re-use knowledge so that they fully participate in the knowledge economy.  What is often considered the brain drain from rural to urban African cities leads to rural communities failing to function due to progressive loss of intellectual capital to cities. Universities can assist communities in building knowledge management systems which can retain and disperse expert knowledge within the entire community.  Such knowledge can also be absorbed by the young generation in ways that make it available when needed unlike would be the case if such knowledge is held by a few individual experts.

A university-driven community knowledge retention strategy can embrace the following steps:

  1. Analyzing the risk of knowledge loss in a community through the death of elders or migration of local experts to cities. Through student research projects, universities can develop methods for identifying where and how risks of community knowledge loss are greatest. A system can be put in place for doing this on a regular basis.  For instance, such a system can track knowledge loss along specific value chains like livestock production, crop production and food processing.
  2. Identifying and engaging community knowledge experts and convincing them of the importance of knowledge retention as well as associated risks of not retaining knowledge. Once knowledge management practices are embedded and retention is routine, this step becomes more efficient. Universities can assign intellectual facilitators to work with local community knowledge experts.
  3. Scoping and planning the retention process. This involves identifying topics that are unique to different community knowledge experts. Working with experts, universities can map out knowledge topics known by different experts and prioritize them for retention or transfer.
  4. Setting up a knowledge retention framework and ecosystem – This can be a series of activities to make sure critical knowledge is transferred to the young generation, it is documented in guidance, stories, procedures, checklists and university training or learning material.
  5. Documenting and structuring community knowledge. In addition to much knowledge being transferred directly to young people by elders through various means, some can be recorded in audio, video and text. Evaluation reports produced by several NGOs working in particular communities can be part of this resource. Universities can synthesize this material into usable forms or knowledge assets that can be included into university curricular, making it fluid.
  6. Embedding the documented knowledge within the community and university knowledge bases. A knowledge ecosystem that seamlessly connects communities to universities as fluid and interdependent knowledge sources and users is a very important output. For instance, bringing together university students studying pharmacy or medicine and community herbalists can inspire collaborative drug discovery towards expanding pharmaceutical ecosystems that are currently too narrow for the diverse health needs of developing countries. On the agriculture side, economists, extension officers, veterinary officers and other knowledge brokers can begin to be rewarded on the basis of how many farmers absorb and re-use knowledge shared as opposed to just counting the extension officer to farmer ratio and using that as a basis for providing incentives.

Addressing fragmentation of knowledge

Although development organizations and government departments know and interact with each other, agricultural and rural development initiatives in many Africa countries remain fragmented. By harnessing community-based inquiry, universities can re-define their core business in ways that influence development policy and benefit communities directly. Community knowledge platforms such as informal markets can be the most effective ways to accelerate learning and strengthen coordination in agriculture and rural development. Through focused and concerted efforts, actions of farmers, traders, health practitioners, consumers, teachers, extension officers, veterinary surgeons and other community actors can be byproducts of deeper connections and shared learning between universities and local communities.

If seriously motivated by acquiring new knowledge that makes a difference, universities, lecturers and their students should look for learning opportunities in local communities instead of flocking to cities where formal institutions cannot produce dynamic knowledge that inspires positive change and progress. Technology is breaking and scattering knowledge from many value chains in ways that formal organizations like universities cannot adequately master. Without effectiveness and well thought out knowledge management frameworks, universities and formal institutions will struggle to initiate and sustain meaningful engagement with the public, especially parents who are paying university fees hoping to get good returns on their investments.  / /

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Asking and answering fundamental questions through informal markets

Street markets or roadside food markets have remained a permanent feature in most developing countries. The fact that these markets continue to flourish alongside emerging shopping malls shows they occupy a unique position in commercial activities.  Informal markets were previously designed for disadvantaged, low income households with ad hoc incomes who were considered not able to buy from supermarkets and formal value chains.  However, spending years in the informal business has seen some of the traders and vendor upgrading their standards to cater for diverse consumer classes. Consequently, informal markets are now part of a business growth path comprising food chain stores, hotels, restaurants and formal institutions.  In order to stay in this game, traders and farmer have been compelled to acquire a certain level of tertiary knowledge, resources and entrepreneurial skills.


On the other hand, this evolution in markets has brought its own challenges in many African countries where agriculture continues to be the backbone of the economy. The formerly employed and pensioners with reliable sources of income have been attracted to moonlight in informal markets, pushing out poor and low income traders in whose name informal markets were originally set up. Instead of being a domain for the poor, informal markets are now for every business-minded individual. Most of these markets have become part of solid business value chains able to ensure consistency in supply as opposed to ad hoc participation in the market.

Solidifying the aggregation role of informal markets

African food markets are no longer just seasonal events where farmers come to the market according to seasons.  Middle class farmers who have embraced farming as a business are now found in the market consistently since they have built niche markets that have to be continuously served. In order to consolidate its aggregation role, each informal market now requires resources to be able to ensure necessities like potatoes, vegetables, eggs, fish and other commodities are always available.

As niches become highly competitive, ad hoc traders and market participants are being pushed closer to the supply side like road side markets in farming areas and village markets. In these areas, ad hoc traders become small aggregators with just enough resources for pulling a few resources from farming areas.  Once in a while, marginal traders can go to big urban markets where they buy a basket of banana and a crate of tomatoes for selling in local markets where these commodities are not produced.

Need for middle class markets

With urban informal markets becoming part of regular value chains, the need for middle class markets, different from supermarkets or food chain stores has become more urgent in many African cities. New land uses, accompanied by investment in agricultural value chains by different classes of actors, are producing more commodities than can be handled by supermarkets and informal markets traditionally meant for the poor. This has seen many of the commodities overflowing into street sales, some sold from stationery vehicles and makeshift market stalls. Middle class markets from which food chain stores, processors and even exporters can get commodities consistently represent the future of agriculture in developing countries.

Almost everyone now knows how to produce commodities but very few know how to deal with perishables once they have been harvested. Neither are many producers able to anticipate the speed at which consumers consume and come back to buy or re-order.  Ministers, members of parliament, bankers, lawyers, accountants, university professors and other professionals interested in agriculture are all competing in producing and selling agricultural commodities through informal markets when they should invest in building a middle class market of their own.  How can a whole minister compete to sell cabbages in the same informal market with grandmothers struggling to feed orphans?

Need for careful characterization of markets 

In addition to congestion in most informal markets, there is limited differentiation in terms grading and quality. For instance, the prices of a box of tomatoes can range from $1 to $8 in the same informal market yet such a market should be for low income consumers and traders. A trader who sells fruits for $1, another  one who sets a price by counting the number of fruits in a pile and yet another one who sells for $10 for the same commodity quantity, are all found in one market.  While this is good for diversity, it inhibits definition of business boundaries.  Absence of proper clustering means you cannot separate classes or good products from bad products.

Clear characterization and classification can support the evolution of a middle class industry and ensure the definition of Micro, Small, Medium and Large does not just remain on paper.  Different classes should be in specific locations – building layers of one enterprises on another. Where these classes are all in one space, micro and small enterprises end up being over-shadowed by medium and large actors.  It should not just be about numbers of actors in one category but different capacities.  Some commodities can have differently entrepreneurial capacity, quality, standards, formality like registration and markets. For instance, those in processing industries may not want to see commodities being delivered in baskets.

Appeal to a broad section of the middle class

There is need for middle class traders, saving the up-market and farmers like pensioners with high capacity to produce more volumes. For most pensioners, farming is the next career step so they should have appropriate markets. Most pensioners have resources and need a market that can ensure good return on investment (ROI). Some have built networks in government institutions, hotels and even foreign markets. For instance former ambassadors in foreign countries need a market that acts as a holding centre before they connect and ship commodities to their networks in foreign countries. They cannot use informal markets or their farms as holding centres.

Agribusiness is no longer for the uneducated or illiterate. It is now export- focused and a career path for many people. With high literacy levels, it means a lot of ethical considerations like licensing, book keeping and other formal requirements are critical. Unfortunately, governance approaches in developing countries still focus controlling than enabling the growth of local informal economies. Public expenditure is also not taking these markets into account. Collecting and sharing evidence can assist in positioning informal markets for public expenditure. Government input programs tend to absorb a lot of the public expenditure but incentivize corporate industries. Informal markets are different from shopping mall-driven models where people are working long hours for low wages.  On what terms are smallholder farmers in developing countries participating in contract farming models and value chains?  In most cases they are just providing land, cheap labor and pushed into debt cycles for the sake of obtaining inputs. An integral part of informal food markets is the capacity of people to mobilize and exchange food commodities, informed by an intuitive cultural value of food.  / /

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Stimulating more value by tracking what is happening

Tracking local activities and keeping daily updates does not just enable communities to practice what they preach. It also helps them to increase awareness and value for the wider society. When farming and fishing communities are able to track local activities, they build their own capacity to analyze what is going on and identify next steps towards positive outcomes. The ability to analyze what is happening at local levels clarifies the nature and size of the local economy and surfaces progressive ideas.


Pattern recognition

Inability to track activities limits the capacity of many communities in developing countries to know how to improve. Once they are able to track their work, they will know about their situation, behavior and prune future plans. Another key benefit of consistently tracking what is happening is heightened awareness, leading to pattern recognition. For instance, communities that track their production and consumption practices long enough are able to limit damaging practices like land degradation and maximize positive practices like water harvesting. Community intentions and opportunities become more tangible when tracked, leading to positive reinforcement. This does not just speed up change but enable communities to move from old agricultural models to new digitally-enabled ones. Unfortunately, in most African communities there is no one responsible for tracking collective incomes and expenditures.

Tracking can also reveal circumstances under which focusing on local activities can be too small to be viable and how an international focus can be too disconnected to local reality due to diverse interests.  It is through tracking changes in the local environment that communities can embark on activities that enable them to get local rivers flowing again and create a local movement to improve natural resources management. Without tracking, it can be easy for farmers and other value chain actors to focus on crops and forget grass, livestock and wildlife. The contribution of each farming community to national food supply can also be made visible through tracking volumes, seasons and other critical factors. For instance, in Zimbabwe, tracking commodity supplies into informal agricultural markets has made it possible for eMKambo ( to persistently notice that more than 70% of commodities flowing into informal markets come from communal areas, except potatoes, oranges, bananas and cabbages which require bigger pieces of land for profitability.

The power of tracking agricultural production corridors through agricultural markets


The charts (above) show that Manicaland province has remained a major source and supplier of sugar beans into Mbare, Harare maket over the past three years (50%), followed by Mashonaland East (26%), then Mashonland Central (18%) and lastly Mashonaland Central (6%).  More evidence shows that this trend has been driven by investments in irrigation facilities by government and development partners in Manicaland as well as suitable climatic conditions. The trends also reveal the potential of sugar bean to be  a key agro-economic driver that can influence rural industrialization in Manicaland province.

Assimilating local experiences into mainstream views

Tracking and gatherig local evidence can empower farming communities to influence change and get their worldviews assimilated into mainstream national decision-making processes. This can happen if these communities have skilled people who can recognize and capture strategic opportunities. A community that tracks its activities can establish a stronger foundation for scaffolding growth and set achievable ambitions. New grounds for interpreting local knowledge can be inspired through persistent tracking and updating local evidence.  Some of the most important insights that can be generated include existing food supply networks, driving forces, adaptability of food systems to dynamic environments and relationships between food and identity.  / /

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

The merits of an effective marketplace for agricultural evidence

Discovering and maintaining agricultural commodities markets is not enough for developing countries. They have to build a culture of synthesizing and sharing evidence in real-time. Absence of a culture of synthesizing information and knowledge from diverse sources remains a big challenge among farmers, economic actors, consumers and policy makers in the majority of developing countries. Formal education is still not adequately build the capacity of students to share what they learn and integrate new knowledge within existing contexts. Farmers and other value chain actors continue to rely on information that is out of date, incomplete and biased. For instance, they end up taking everything that comes from a single seed company or livestock breeder as gospel truth.

The role of evidence in dealing with emergent situations

A critical consequence of failure to bring evidence together is lack mechanisms for rapidly drawing together evidence to inform emergent situations such as a sudden fall in market prices, an outbreak of livestock diseases and crop pests like Fall Army Worm. Advice that comes when a problem has already covered the entire community is useless and may even disrupt local coping strategies. As if that is not enough, Government departments like the Meteorological services and National Statistical agencies are still more reactive than proactive partly because they tend to ignore evidence from alternative sources like private knowledge brokers.

Instead of relying on national statistical agencies which generalize information and insights at a national level in ways that do not adequately embrace local contexts, developing countries should seriously consider promoting local evidence synthesis platforms where decision making can be built on concrete situations. Local informal markets can provide a starting point in cultivating such platforms which local farmers, traders and consumers can easily identify with.  In addition to facilitating quick trading, informal markets are bumping spaces for accidental encounters that stimulate conversations and meaningful knowledge sharing.

Need for an effective market place for synthesizing local evidence

A dynamic marketplace for evidence synthesis can enrich public debates on issues like genetic engineering, organic food and others not fully understood by the general public. To the extent that it is populated by government departments, development agencies, churches, the private sector and farmer organizations, African agriculture’s sources of evidence are as fragmented as organizations working in the same sector. An institution that will be able to create an effective marketplace for synthesized evidence will have provided a game-changing solution. Such a platform will encourage academics, researchers and other actors to synthesize evidence from their work knowing that there is demand for it.  Keeping such evidence in specialized journals or elite conferences will limit societal benefits. If local people and policy makers know where to find the best evidence, there will search for it. A local evidence synthesis platform also underpins the identification of relevant research themes for ordinary people and vocational institutes – enabling them to address real needs such as micro-climate changes and evolution of local consumption patterns.  As shown below, alternative knowledge brokers generate a lot of data that policy makers prefer to either ignore or under-utilize.

Without capacity to rapidly synthesize evidence, local authorities and governments cannot respond more tactically to emergencies like sudden dry spells or day-to-day socio-economic activities. In a rapidly globalizing economy, communities should be empowered to identify and diversify sources of evidence that can inform long-term decision-making on issues like drought, market failure, livestock diseases and dynamic post-harvest handling of agricultural commodities. Where there is no rigorous evidence synthesis, there are high chances of biased decisions, leading to costly mistakes.

Demonstrating consensus or contention

Another major role of local evidence synthesis is showing areas of consensus and contention as well as fundamental disagreements. Without a disciplined evidence market place, it is impossible to habitually synthesize evidence to provide answers to enduring questions surrounding malnutrition, poverty and unemployment.  Given that the development sector has existed for generations, by now we should be seeing consolidated models on issues such as financial inclusion. In the absence of evidence, financial institutions continue to disguise their resistance to finance new innovative projects by asking a thousand questions which have nothing to do with genuine curiosity. A knowledge platform will provide a mechanism for continuously refreshing synthesized evidence unlike leaving things fragmented.  However, collecting evidence and making it usable is a time-consuming mix of art and science.  / /

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



Informal food markets as platforms for sharing aspirations and frustrations

An under-appreciated advantage of African informal food markets is how they allow farmers, traders, consumers and other actors to emotionally participate in business and change processes through sharing their aspirations and frustrations. The same cannot happen in formal markets like supermarkets and formal manufacturing industries where farmers just deliver commodities and wait to be paid after weeks if not months.


Some of the enduring frustrations among African smallholder farmers participating in formal marketing systems is absence of profit-oriented budgeting. For instance, it remains largely unknown how much a farmer should put in to earn a profit in potato production from different production zones. Such insights cannot be generic but have to be tied to specific markets like processors, food chain stores or informal markets. Due to this loophole, some buyers end up offering low prices, citing invisible costs incurred along the value chain. Ideally, all production elements should be put together and reveal different scenarios. That is why a system of managing, tracking and updating production budgets for different contexts should be put in place.

Expanding price negotiation mechanisms

In additions to issues mentioned above, the majority of African smallholder farmers do not have mechanisms for price negotiation, taking into account issues like distance, road networks and other factors. A budget for farmers in Mazowe should be different from that for farmers in Nyanga, especially when they sell to the same market. Nyanga may require different inputs from Mazowe in ways that make both places profitable in different ways. The cost benefit analysis in different production zones can provide a meaningful Return on Investment (ROI) for farmers in the different areas.

Spending time in the market enables farmers to identify and define details surrounding market dynamics and see opportunities that drive positive agricultural change. Through regular presence in the market, farmers and other value chain actors are able to anticipate challenges and opportunities coming down the pike and respond proactively. For instance, an impending drought van be picked from frequent discovery research exercises in the market. That is also how under-appreciated facts about ways in which agricultural food systems function can be surfaced. These hidden facts include how potatoes and onion are becoming staples, thanks to increasing urbanization as well as new tastes and preferences of the young generation who now patronize fast food outlets.  Exposure to the market also enables all value chain actors to realize how markets can be vital sources of wealth, prosperity and social values on a larger scale.

Opening more avenues for growth and progress

While rapid changes in consumer tastes and preferences are triggering demand for diverse foods including natural commodities, most African countries do not have proper systems for aggregating, packaging, preserving and distributing different foods. With informal markets playing a major aggregation role, developing countries are being forced to characterize and categorize food traders into:

  • Micro to small traders and food suppliers – catering for subsistence and household consumption.
  • Medium traders – catering for supermarkets, fast food outlets, small scale processors and other smaller markets.
  • Large scale traders – catering for large scale processing industries, triggering exports while also satisfying national food security aspirations. Large scale traders (big pushers) go as far as supporting production, aggregating at source and supplying other markets.

Insights from diverse agricultural markets show that this arrangement will create a graduation pathway for different classes of farmers and traders, who can be registered according to credible socio-economic criteria.  Farmers who want to work with informal markets and vendors will be able to know the required volumes as well as absorptive capacity. This will inform planning for consistency in supply and introduction of a Warehouse Receipt System (WRS). Although the transaction process for large volumes can take up to 60 days, farmers can still access inputs if their commodities are already in the market pipeline through an efficient WRS.

Towards a fluid WRS

The WRS should not be understood as merely a physical structure where commodities are piled up. It should be understood as a fluid system in which commodities are always in transit from production zones to different classes of consumers and end-users. In almost all developing countries, the cost of aggregating commodities for upstream value chain actors is very high due to pockets of disintegrated production. Being on the market, traders are strategically positioned to connect with other value chain nodes. Different categories of traders can be matched with appropriate classes of farmers. All these critical actors need to be profiled with such information informing farmer characterization as well as appropriate production zones and their capacity to meet the demand side.  That way, informal markets are empowered to promote market-oriented production as opposed to supply-driven production.

A solid system for collecting orders can be set up around traders already in the business. The whole process can be anchored on rebuilding value chains from informal markets. Currently, the playing field in informal markets is not bringing out the real potential of African agriculture.  For ease of aggregation, there should be markets for large scale farmers. Lack of a system presents risks to processing companies who are always not sure if they are going to get adequate stock for processing.  Ideally, processors and contractors should just provide their specifications to farmers and traders who can go ahead to produce and mobilize commodities accordingly. Aggregators and packagers should do what they are good at while processors also focus on their core business. Once standards for each process company are codified and shared, processing companies will not struggle to get their requirements from the agricultural ecosystem.  / /

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

Searching for balance in African food ecosystems

While it may not be the mandate of development organizations to build manufacturing industries in developing countries, pouring billions of dollars in agricultural production is not lifting people out of poverty. For every $1 billion invested in agricultural production, another $1 billion should be invested in agro-processing and other value added services to reduce losses and generate sustainable employment.


Synergies between agriculture and other socio-economic systems

The structure of food systems in many African countries continues to be influenced by an enduring colonial legacy. For instance, a key feature of most sub-Saharan African countries has been a dual economy characterized by rural and urban economies, with the rural economy dominated by subsistence production. Instead of just concentrating on few staple commodities like maize, meat, milk and wheat, each country should be able to regularly map its agriculture landscape as part of a broader socio-economic context. That is how important overarching principles can be teased out from looking at the entire food ecosystem in terms of where it is coming from, current status and future direction.


For a long time, African rural areas have had their own food basket confined to basics like small grains and tubers like yams whose nutritional knowledge is rooted in local tradition. Exotic commodities like cabbages, onion and tomatoes were recent additions to traditional food systems. Tastes would only change if somebody went to a city where consumption patterns were driven by what was available in urban areas. Increasingly, cities were ( and have remained) the demand side of processed agricultural products like packaged maize meal, cooking oil, slaughtered cattle or chickens, with most products found in shops. To a large extent, the urban economy was an industrial economy focusing on processing and manufacturing of different commodities.


From a consumption perspective, rural consumers would eat processed products like bread or baked beans during the festive season like Christmas holidays. That is how rural consumers acquired new tastes for processed foods like Jam, Margarine, tinned beef and exotic fruits such as apples and oranges, brought by relatives who worked and lived in cities.


On the other hand, in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, colonialism created a  separate economy in the form of large scale farms, neither rural nor completely urban.  This economy produced huge volumes of agricultural commodities for the manufacturing industry and exports. Most commodities produced by large-scale farmers went to processing and manufacturing industries in cities from where finished products would be sold in retail shops and supermarkets.  Large farms also produced non-food commodities like flowers which were exported for foreign currency, enabling the country to trade with other countries.


Responses to a disruptive economy

Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAP), a few decades ago, triggered the birth of the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) sector as those retrenched from large manufacturing industries used their exit packages and pensions to set up new business. As employees left formal employment to start their own businesses, experience, knowledge and skills were transferred from large industries to the SME economy. Different classes of people took their passion, capabilities and skills into the SME sector – constituting a new business class.


On the other hand, the expansion of formal education in the form of schools, colleges and universities increased literacy levels. It is known that literacy plays a central role in in creating social classes and that meant formal education produced lecturers, engineers, managers, business owners and others, with different food tastes and needs. Although ESAP was blamed for destroying some African economies, it gave birth to new opportunities for people to innovate and create new enterprises. During the same period, investments in infrastructure like rural electrification supported the expansion of SMEs into previously marginalized rural areas.


Decentralization of knowledge, tastes and consumption patterns

The emergence and growth of SMEs has significantly defined consumption patterns. Some SMEs have taken the role of manufacturing, processing and value addition. There has been was marked decentralization of knowledge, skills and business activities to smaller towns, growth points and business centres. This transition has happened together with consumption patterns as food systems have followed the SME sector wherever it blossoms – integrating consumption patterns in the SME ecosystem.


Prior to the evolution of the SME sector, companies and industries used to define consumption patterns of the working class through canteens where menus were set to meet demand during working hours.  At least 90% of working class people spent much time at work where they did not have much choice in terms of food compared to SMEs where food choices are broader and flexible. In countries like Zimbabwe where land reforms have happened, there has been an unbundling of knowledge and skills previously confined to farms. Food production patterns have changed based on knowledge, skills and resource capabilities. As smallholder farmers respond to unpredictable climate change, they grow short cycle crops, most of which are part of horticulture.


Changes in food markets

Previously, food markets were dominated by supermarkets and food outlets, catering for the upper class and hotels. The working class was catered for by small shops and established markets stalls like vegetable markets set up by municipalities in high density areas.  On the other hand, the greater population of people stayed in rural areas and rarely came to cities. Following ESAP and the growth of the SME sector, there has been a marked expansion of informal markets, located close to the SME sector.  These food markets have evolved to save all classes of consumers ranging from low income to upper class.  Informal markets have become part of the new economy with a broader food basket.  Each African country has more than 50 food commodities comprising fruits, tubers, vegetables, legumes and field crops for different classes within the sector and their households.


In addition, while in the past, demand for food was defined by month-end, in the SME sector money circulates every day and that influences consumption habits.  This means production and supply have to be consistent in order to meet these new needs. The informal market has to meet the demands of 70% of the SME working class from which demand is consistent for 80% of the time.  The substitutability of commodities is no longer defined by levels of income but by consumer tastes and preferences as well as nutrition and health consciousness. Consumers are becoming aware that lacking specific nutrients can become costly in the form of family members seeking medical attention due to deficiencies in specific nutrients and vitamins.  That is why most households are now paying attention to what is in the food basket.  The market has responded consumers get something within their income. This is visible through different measurements and grades. Supply has also responded to this consistent demand for different food commodities.


Enduring gaps

Big issues in African food systems include the fact that consumption patterns remain uncodified by different emerging consumer classes, age, income, location, income, wages, work types and other determinants. Knowing the number and unique characteristics of existing consumer classes should inform each country’s nutrition basket and entire agriculture sector.  Policy makers and development agencies will also become aware of the extent to which, by continuously promoting maize in the face of changing consumption patterns, they are earning the correct Return on Investment (ROI). Addressing such issues will inform agricultural policies and practices in ways that sustain farming as a business.


In addition, requirements of the expanding SME economy should inform agricultural support in the form of hand-outs, training and infrastructure rehabilitation like irrigation schemes. Critical questions to be answered include:

  • What is the relationship between informal markets, supermarkets, hotels and regional markets?
  • Where are hotels sourcing food? Are the markets competing, complementing or duplicating each other?
  • What are the value chain nodes within markets? For instance within the processing industry, who are the micro-processors, medium processors and large processors? Are they competing or adding value to each other?
  • On the production side, what is the relationship between different classes of farmers like communal, resettled and large scale commercial farmers? Are they competing or adding value?  Who is growing what and for which market?  Production and supply patterns cannot continue to function in an ad hoc manner.

Articulating value chains within value chain nodes will enable traceability and ensure food safety, which are pre-requisites in an integrated global economy.  / /

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Unless know-how is evenly distributed, development will remain a dream

In addition to enabling the exchange of valuable commodities, African informal markets provide a remarkable environment for examining the relationship between knowledge and societal benefits. It is from that vantage point that eMKambo is beginning to see the limitations of conventional formal education systems and scientific research. An increase in the number of schools, colleges and universities in developing countries is not leading to an even distribution of know-how, which is more than knowledge. It is through know-how that knowledge is put to work in the real world. Know-how is how scientific discoveries become routine medical or veterinary treatments and how inventions like grinding mills become services that change lives in rural communities.


Uneven distribution of know-how

While digital technology is increasing the capacity of individuals to share their knowledge, it is far from reducing the uneven distribution of know-how in most developing countries. If it was easy to distribute know-how evenly, developing countries that have a world class aviation industry like Ethiopia and South Africa would easily transfer aviation innovations to other national areas like poverty and malnutrition. Why are developing countries that can manufacture vehicles and harness the enormous power of digital technology not able to address the devastating effects of basic agricultural diseases like Anthrax, Theileriosis, Fruit Fly, Army Worm and Tuta Absoluta? In spite of good intentions and exposure, why are development actors, financial institutions and governments not able to solve basic challenges?

It is difficult to understand how extraordinary geniuses who can make a plane that carries 500 people in the sky for 10 hours are not able to produce innovations that can deal with basic diseases like typhoid or decisively address drought. If know-how was evenly distributed, countries with talented geniuses who can successfully conduct complicated surgery would easily solve social problems like squatter camps, dirty water and nutrition insecurity. Know-how enables people who have not gone through formal education to come up with innovations that can defy logic.

From knowledge to know-how and how informal markets are ahead

Assessing and comparing the state of know-how between communities and countries will assist in getting to the bottom of development outcomes. When you look at knowledge without going deeper to examine know-how, you can come up with wrong assumptions and reward the wrong things. While knowledge can be measured by the number of people who attain degrees and PhDs, know-how looks at beneficial things, products, processes and services that are produced from that knowledge. Most developing countries are still stuck at knowledge and wonder why their investments in formal education is not yielding results.

On the other hand, African informal markets show the merits of working with know-how not knowledge. Brilliant artisans who can make amazing products and fix complicated problems can be found in the African informal sector, sometimes called the Small and Medium Enterprise sector. Unless developing countries focus on know-how, they will spend billions of dollars on knowledge that will never be turned into know-how. Many academic researchers are not creating new knowledge but repackaging the same old knowledge. In other words, recycling ideas from peer reviewed papers will not create relevant new knowledge.  Informal markets reveal how it makes sense to find a person who knows what you need to know rather than search volumes of uncontrolled content on corporate intranets or in academic publications. In spite of the hype surrounding digital technology, technology alone will not suffice because people prefer to connect with other people rather than with data bundles.

The magic of know-how is a core of reliable action that can be standardized and improved over time. Informal traders who have been in the market for generations have standardized their measurements, processes and vocabulary into a core of reliable actions that enable the informal market to survive any catastrophe. Know-how is about the tools and processes communities develop in order to act and think better. Once traders find a common cause in a reliable practical solution, they rally around it in ways that advance their collective interests. That is how they distribute know-how much faster than formal branded events like science symposiums, agricultural shows, training in farming as a business and other famous approaches. For a new tomato variety to be accepted in a new market, many people including farmers, traders and consumers have to cooperate and converge around the new variety.

 Science and Technology is not enough without know-how

While developing countries have embraced the notion that science and technology is a magic bullet in solving most of their problems, informal markets have good examples of know-how in action. If policy makers use the informal sector to understand human know-how, they will be able to identify new ways of generative progressive solutions where technological fixes do not exist. A better understanding of know-how can help communities, development agencies and policy makers to think more strategically about problems like reducing poverty, addressing unemployment, improving public health and reversing climate change.

Rural communities and informal traders have learnt to find ways of deploying their human know-how and effectiveness without technological solutions. Know-how is at the core of how communities approach and address most pressing issues like outbreak of crop and livestock diseases. Harnessing know-how enables the African rural population to depend on indigenous healing knowledge for their healthcare. Unfortunately, that knowledge is in danger of extinction to due lack of documentation, low life expectancy where people die before transferring it to the next generation, as well as failure or reluctance by governments to incorporate it into the mainstream health system.

Towards a know-how based economy

Actors in the African informal sector have become experts in leveraging know-how and collective knowledge as primary sources of innovation. They have become aware that innovation is about connecting ideas to other ideas. Without know-how you cannot extract value from the land, water and other natural resources. All actors in the informal sector are knowledge workers supporting a knowledge economy where know-how is a competitive advantage. Through the informal sector, know-how or implicit knowledge moves from farmer to farmer, trader to trader and consumer to consumer within one ecosystem.

Critical lessons from the informal sector include the fact that effective communities are those which grow spontaneously as people come together to grow their knowledge about specific commodities. There is also increasing awareness that transparency is necessary if the markets are to leverage collective knowledge fully from a confluence of diverse perspectives in the entire market. Sense-making is done jointly by traders, farmers and consumers who hold many perspectives. Traders have enormous respect for knowledge from consumers because customer knowledge allows them to learn what is working, what is not working, and problems to be addressed. The relationship between value chain actors in informal markets resembles a single interconnected mind through which meaning is discovered.  / /

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