How knowledge is different from technical expertise and more powerful

African countries have been taking advice from foreign technical experts for generations. If technical expertise was a solution, the majority of countries and poor communities would have moved out of poverty by now. The fact that poverty levels have remained the same and in some cases worsened indicates a need for developing countries to pause and reflect on the differences between technical skills and knowledge. While technical expertise tends to promote over-dependence on a small circle of ‘experts’ whose personal biases can undermine the quality of their advice, knowledge is more about tapping into the benefits of diversity.

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Limitations of a technical skills-driven agriculture system

Where technical skills are used to enhance agricultural production and productivity, classroom approaches of imparting skills reveal several limitations including:

  • It is usually a push or supply-driven method whose assumption is that the extension officer or economist or instructor or teacher has all the knowledge, information and capacity to deliver.
  • Skills are limited to available technologies and tools. For instance, fertilizer application is connected with the use of machinery like planters that are largely part of imported knowledge with no room for innovation. What you are taught is what you do. It is a generic curricular-based skills delivery system which does not take into account different environments, natural resources, labor, climatic conditions, soil types (some soils may not respond well to fertilizer).  How do farmers adjust their skills if suddenly they start receiving too much rainfall or less rainfall when instructions on fertilization use are generic?  Some of the skills are applied before crops are planted, for instance fertilizer has to be applied before rain starts falling and there is often a mismatch between amount of fertilizer already applied in the soil and amount of rainfall received.
  • A technical skills focus discourages innovation. For instance farming as a business has formulae for costing, marketing principles and other pieces of information. To a greater extent, the skills don’t provide room for in-born traits or intrinsic skills in which knowledge travels. Natural traits and skills are major sources of passion anchored in indigenous knowledge systems. A technical skills focus emphasizes academic literacy as part and parcel of absorptive capacity. This means no matter how naturally gifted someone is, s/he may face challenges if not literate.
  • Technical skills do not often give room for building Communities of Practice (CoPs) through which information and knowledge is mostly shared. CoPs are good at knowledge generation, processing and communicating with actors using language, skills and relationships that are found within the ecosystem, not cast in stone. Some of the knowledge is built and shared based on the fact that actors come from the same home area. Others use knowledge built over years around particular value chains.

Technical skills do not spread along entire value chains

In most African countries that continue to import knowledge from the West, skills are limited to production and do not go all the way to consumption.  Such skills cannot be used to change consumption patterns.  Where emphasis is on technical skills to enhance production and productivity, a mismatch between demand and supply is a major setback, characterized by volumes (farmers won’t know how much is needed in terms of varieties as well as tastes and preferences).  Ideally knowledge and information from the market should drive production, for instance appropriate production skills and technology should be determined by the market. Production should be informed by the market not by technical skills. In the mass market, knowledge and information generation, processing and communication is fluid as it quickly adjusts to emerging needs.

Reliance on technical skills tends to derail change and innovation

That is why changing mindsets of smallholder farmers is a challenge. There is too much dependence on those presumed to be knowledgeable, leading to most skills remaining in silos. Contract companies may decide to focus on specific skills not replicable to other commodities. For instance, they may encourage farmers to focus too much on tobacco production at the expense of skills related to other commodities.  That is why farmers continue to produce commodities that no longer have a market. For instance, some farmers may hold onto cotton production when the market for cotton has disappeared. The farmers have only mastered cotton production skills so much that they cannot be convinced to replace cotton with sweet potatoes.

As if that is not enough, most of the skills foisted on farmers do not have an upgrading system. A single curriculum has been used for years and farmers are not graduating to new sets of skills.  For example, field days continue to be used in areas that have been doing well with one crop for years.  There is nothing new for farmers to learn using field days in a community where maize production has been done very well for decades.  Mechanisms for tailor-making skills by gender, age and location are also missing.  It is not easy to make technical skills gender-specific, age-specific and location-specific.  Everyone is trained on farming as a business using the same approach and principles irrespective of gender, age and location.   Youths have their own ways of generating and sharing information to build their own CoPs. How can we tap into social media in promoting consumption of nutritious food among youth?  How can we use social clubs or VSLAs to promote nutritious consumption among breast feeding mothers in dry regions of the country?  This is how common knowledge is shared.  / /

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It is not late for African countries to start building home-grown economies

Instead of competing for external extractive investors and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), African countries should start building home-grown economies anchored on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) which continue to keep rural communities resilient. IKS have traditionally been adept at strengthening relationships, trust, social fabrics as well as people’s passion and commitment to grow their communities. That serious commitment to preserve their identities through Communities of Practice (CoPs) saw individuals and communities generating and sharing knowledge as a key part of development.

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Borrowing from tradition, in many rural African communities, knowledge has remained a public good to be always developed and enriched for the benefit of the entire community. That is how communities have developed coping strategies against challenges like drought. Knowledge sharing and concerted efforts to see their communities surviving is a major reason why we still have people living in known drought-prone regions. Otherwise we would not be having communities in deserts with everyone having migrated to high rainfall areas. There would be no people in Binga, Thsolotsho and similar dry areas across Africa. IKS are the opposite of formal education systems which encourage people to run away from challenges and go to the diaspora.

Haunga pisi imba nokuti yaita tsikidzi

IKS had a way of empowering communities to adapt to changes within their community.  Such an attitude was embedded in beliefs and values expressed through proverbs, idioms and metaphors like Haunga pisi imba nokuti yaita tsikidzi which literary means you cannot run away or destroy your homestead merely because you are facing challenges. Each African community and language has several communicating such values. For instance, many indigenous language idioms communicate the value of people working together as a community – Rume rimwe harikombe churu. Chara chimwe hachitsvanye inda.

The power of sharing resources

IKS continue to espouse the fact that you cannot have it all as an individual or community. That spirit of sharing made African communities more resilient and has spilled over into the modern era. Today, in some communities an integration of different socio-economic actors like business people, traditional leaders, politicians, herbalist, agro-dealers and very good farmers (hurudza) comes from IKS. Where they co-exist, all these actors contribute their collective expertise and knowledge toward addressing challenges as they emerge. For example, chiefs are in charge of agriculture and natural resources, councilors tackle political issues while herbalists take care of both animal and human health. This creates a holistic basket of socio-economic-political issues that are addressed collectively. Such a holistic approach is anchored on IKS through the spirit of sharing, norms, values, trust and relationships.

Contradictions brought by the new economy

As African countries embraced the new formal economy built around urban settings, most of the public good knowledge under IKS started to be privatized. There is a very thin relationship between urban residents, making it difficult to generate coping mechanisms that characterize rural areas. While urban communities may face the same challenges like poor sanitation, coping is considered an individual’s private affair. Contrary to rural areas where social classes are invisible, in cities, social classes are organized around economic factors like income levels, location, wealth status and level of education. These factors influence the building of CoPs comprising those from the same social class. Money determines your location and people in your location become your relatives. That is why informal markets and SMEs have built their close communities based on their own social classes.

From competition to collusion

In cities, relationships are usually built around a number of individual firms. The collapse of formal industries in countries like Zimbabwe has reduced relationships among previous firms and the existence of few individual firms has translated to less competition but more collusion. The more these few actors collude, the more they gain power. This is what has happened to Zimbabwe’s financial sector where a few players with viable businesses collude to take advantage of policy gaps, leaving policy makers with no options. If policy makers decide to introduce regulations, those colluding scream to be left alone.

Financial businesses have collapsed due to failure by executives to build alternative viable business models instead of continuing to rely on administration costs like bank charges as a source of income.  As if that is not enough, traditional financial institutions have lost business to mobile money corporates. The  Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has also lost its power over coins and notes to corporates in charge of digital money. There is now a monopoly in the financial sector and the more power is given to a single player, the more that player becomes a monopoly, frequently threatening to withdraw services.

Monopolies tend to weaken policy makers and policy initiatives. They can do what they want. For instance, they can single handedly increase the cost of their services knowing that there is no close substitute for transactions like paying for food, fuel, transport and other transactions. This is different from rural communities where IKS has empowered communities to harness alternatives. Rather than being stuck with expensive transaction charges, rural communities switch to barter trade. For instance, grain milling services can be paid using maize which can also be exchanged with chickens.

Limitations of trying to resuscitate an economy using borrowed money

Challenges presented by monopolies extend to the predicament of African governments trying to revive their economies using borrowed money. When an economy collapses it is better for policy makers to gather evidence and conduct investigations into why it has failed. This prevents throwing money at problems. Several African governments are running to the IMF when it is not a solution. The real solution could come from understanding existing economic actors and resources. How are rural communities taping into IKS to survive?  Dialogue to answer such a fundamental question is not happening at national policy levels. Policy makers are depending on a small coterie of economists, so-called captains of industry and academics, most of whom are out of touch with reality.

When a country is desperate, it creates a fertile ground for opportunists masquerading as solution bearers.  Desperation around employment opportunities, food, essential services like health, education and clothing increases. For instance,  almost every African country now has a thriving second-hand clothes industry but no one stops to ask where those clothes are coming from and what kind of people were wearing them.  Were the previous wearers of those clothes killed by hurricanes or what? It is also in such an environment that corruption thrives because people have no options except resorting to corrupt tendencies.

Need to explore home-grown solutions

There is proof that African countries like Zimbabwe continue to lack home-grown solutions to most challenges. Tertiary education is failing to generate home-grown solutions, jumping to talk about complicated issues like Education 5.0 when basic issues like availing clean water, building feeder roads so that farmers bring commodities to the market and building decent markets remain unsolved. What does Education 5.0 mean to a grandmother trying to process small grains so that she can send her grandchildren to school?

On the other hand, instead of addressing root causes, African policy makers think increasing salaries is a solution. They are ignoring common sense which has proved that increasing money supply in a country facing food shortages increases inflation. Too much money starts chasing few commodities and money ceases to be a medium of exchange and becomes a commodity. The fewer the economic actors closer to policy makers, the less useful information is available to policy makers.

Merits of going back to the drawing board

It is better for African government to go back to the drawing board and look closely at existing economic drivers, then introduce systems of collecting evidence that shows how rural communities are surviving.  Data and evidence should be gathered from communities, districts, economic drivers and informal markets where more than 90% of SMEs and their businesses are transacting. Government cannot realistically expect one or two remaining oil processing companies to provide reliable statistics about the entire economy. Instead of relying on four or five big grain millers, policy makers should get statistics from thousands of small millers or Zvigayo providing milling services to both rural and urban populations. Thousands of SMEs that are quietly processing potatoes into chips can be reliable sources of evidence than a few big companies operating at below their capacity. Hundreds of peanut butter processors that are replacing big processors cannot be ignored by a government that really wants to understand what is going on. Building a home-grown economy starts from all these small actors and processors now anchoring the consumer base – reflecting economic growth direction and pattern.

While formalizing SMEs is one way of normalizing the economy, it does not help to continue using terms like ‘informal’ to describe new economic actors. Something ‘informal’ is still considered illegal by financial institutions and policy makers. Several colonial terms have to be corrected and these include referring to indigenous miners as Makorokoza, indigenous hunters as poachers while outsiders are called professional hunters. Also unhelpful is referring to new indigenous farmers as invaders while former farmers from outside were given decent labels like settlers.

A case for revising industrial land ownership structures

Policy effort should go towards understanding the role of rural communities and SMEs as well as the kind of support they need. Instead of going around spending money looking for reluctant investors, African governments need to think seriously about building home-grown economies from what is already working. Such efforts should include revising industrial land ownership structures. Currently, private properties acquired during the colonial era remain under-utilized while the productive SME sector has no decent working space.

In Zimbabwe, more than 50% of industries have collapsed but their ruins are seating on prime land while the vibrant SMEs are crowded in Mbare, Siyaso as well as high density areas like Gazaland. Some of the  urban prime land is being turned into industrial parks that are not relevant to the SME economy. Developing home-grown economies demands revising these issues and weaning policies from colonial dominance as opposed to looking for outsiders. Instead of being subjected to tough conditions of survival by external financiers, African governments should go back to their roots most of which are still intact. Why should African policy makers continue measuring their food basket using margarine and bread, expressed dollars and cents and call it a national food basket? What are the components of an authentic rural food basket on which the majority depends and is worthy to be considered a national food basket?

IKS enables young people to build coping strategies as they grow up. If life gets tough in the city, those with a farming background can easily go back farming and come back after harvesting. That is why seasonal labor migration is such a big deal in much of Africa and is a key part of resilience. IKS define the culture and growth pathways of a community, especially if it has not been infiltrated by external knowledge and values. It also informs coping strategies – how communities survive without external support.  It also becomes a living reference book from which a community defines what is good and what is wrong. Gender roles are better recognized and respected under IKS. For instance, in-built values like Mombe yeUmai, Inkomo kaMama have remained a powerful empowerment mechanism for African women unlike imported gender norms being foisted on African communities.  / /

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How African mass markets harness the benefits of diversity

Unlike formal markets that tend to promote a narrow selection of commodities easy for commercialization, African mass markets are a true expression of a country’s food diversity. To the extent they are more associated with social class, middle class in particular, formal markets like supermarkets do not often stock indigenous food which are key staples for the majority. Conversely, since the majority are not able to buy commodities from supermarkets, they depend on mass markets including road side markets and street markets. This means food fortification initiatives that focus on commodities sold through formal markets do not reach the majority. For instance, it still remains difficult to fortify wild fruits and indigenous chickens or vegetables that are an important part of African food systems.


Keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value

As in any other active community, information and knowledge within informal markets is kept within the ecosystem. Knowledge sharing pathways within actors in the ecosystem and with actors outside the market are constantly developed and sharpened. All actors in the mass markets have become aware that keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value. The fact that the market functions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year minimizes chances of knowledge and information getting stale since it is constantly freshened up. Again, in these dynamic markets, knowledge and information is not boxed into publications the way formal markets depend on physical books and manuals.

The knowledge in mass markets is consistently shared through fluid nodes and there is a tacit recognition that knowledge and information cannot be counted using number of words or paragraphs due to its fluid nature. In terms of adjustments to customer needs and prices changes, everything operates as a flow. Nobody seats down to gazette prices.  All processes such as price setting and movement of commodities stay fluid. This is enabling mass markets and SMEs to grow faster than the formal economy is some African countries. Emerging economy are embracing the importance of limiting bureaucracy.

 Equality, trust and relationships

In the mass markets everyone is equal, trust and relationships are created through mutual understanding.  Factors underpinning relationship building are based on the common ground, objectives and interests. For instance, traders who specialize in tomatoes have strong relationships with their peers and the same applies with transporters, youth, women, caterers and push cart guys. The entire basket of relationships is kept fresh and holistic. All these kinds of relationships are missing in formal markets where relationships and trust are forced through policies and operating procedures. The boss is the boss and has to be respected even if s/he is not knowledgeable while conditions of service stipulate one’s salary including payment dates.

The same distinctions characterize rural and urban areas. In rural communities relationships are anchored on values, norms, cultures and customs flawlessly. That is how local and indigenous knowledge is passed on to the next generation. In addition, communities have built their own literature such that although market actors may come from different backgrounds and histories, the market remains a single institution where all experiences are fused together.

Open knowledge society

Being open markets where knowledge, skills and backgrounds inter-mingle, mass markets do not rely on written down entry and exit requirements. If you decide to retire you simply do so. There is no system that can be manipulated like what happens in formal institutions. There are no retirement plans so information and knowledge remains fluid. The fact that the market interacts with all facets including the rural folk, means the knowledge is kept relevant, fluid and flawless unlike keeping it in books and manuals where it can be frozen in ways that can see it being over-taken by events.

Traditional norms flow into the mass market from diverse areas. The market also interacts with formal institutions like hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. However, it interacts less with academics and policy makers which is why academics are often going in their own direction looking for literature review as they cannot connect with fresh evidence without looking to the past. The mass market also interacts less with development organizations whose interventions continue missing the mark. Instead of engaging with the market to understand how farmers are coping with drought and climate change, some development agencies prefer literature reviews.

On the other hand, contrary to relying on literature review, the mass market is good at empowering socio-economic actors to use their judgement and intelligence in creating tight feedback loops that expose them  to consequences of their actions. Every African mass market is a knowledge-enabled, connected and collaborative institution, functioning like an adaptive nervous system rather than a rigid skeleton of roles and structures like the formal market system. Value chain actors in the mass market are able to manage complexity by allowing everybody to take ownership of issues and contribute to solutions.  / /

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Why consumers in developing countries are not crazy about tinned food

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


Commodities that set quality parameters in African fresh markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The value of domesticating the Consumer Price Index and other imports

The fundamental role of agriculture and SMEs in many developing countries should by now have seen local economists inventing better ways of capturing and expressing economic conditions and inflation. It is clear that imported concepts like Consumer Price Index and Producer Price Index developed in the North cannot adequately represent economic dynamics in agriculture-driven low income countries.

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For instance, it is no longer debatable that African agriculture requires a dynamic pricing index which takes into account different production zones, seasonality, diverse transportation methods and many other factors. Farmers in different production zones cannot have the same prices for maize and other commodities. For example, farmers producing soya bean and maize in sandy soils use more inputs like fertilizer than those in heavy clay soils. It means these farmers have different costs of production. On the flip side, farmers in sandy soils may use less diesel than those in heavier soils. Distances to market should also be factored in so that farmers in particular areas can know the type and size of transport they can hire cost-effectively. Such information is also critical for transporters, processors and financiers.

Market dynamics

Like most industries, every informal mass market in developing countries has an invisible cartel of price experts who set prices of commodities based on historical trends (not codified) and commodity supplies into the market which give signals of the volumes in farming areas. However, cartels in mass markets do not often know or care about the cost of production enough to consider such costs in setting prices.

Circumstances under which farmers need real-time pricing intelligence vary and include cases where a buyer suddenly shows up on-farm ready to buy the commodity. In such cases the farmer wants to verify some prices with eMKambo and other institutions in big urban markets like Mbare in Harare before making a decision to accept a price being offered by the buyer. In some cases, a farmer may have quietly brought his/her commodities to the city using public transport or his/her own transport and now has to verify market pricesbefore taking the commodity to the market or entertaining buyers. All these circumstances need accurate real-time information.  Historical information is not helpful.  That is why eMKambo has advanced in setting up a dynamic pricing index taking into account production costs and market dynamics.

Beneficiaries from a dynamic price index

Besides traders, beneficiaries of price information include consumers and vendors who need to leave their homes with enough money.  If customers and vendors understand the price, they are able to budget correctly and buy more to the benefit of traders. Commodities also move fast in the market when customers and buyers come prepared.  Negotiation time in the market is reduced as the marketing process becomes very fast. Traders from other markets who often come to buy from markets in capital cities become aware of how much money to bring for hoarding commodities as well as the size of transport to be used.  If a buyer from Masvingo hears that the price of cabbage has gone down from $3 to $2/head he will adjust his budget to accommodate other commodities needed by customers.

Ultimately, transparent price information benefits every value chain actor. Farmers deserve to know how much the trader is going to make on their sweat and how much is taken by other costs like transport, loading, packaging and others. Price transparency through a price index reduces abnormal profiteering by traders at the expense of the farmer. If vendors get tomatoes from Mbare at $17/crate, how much do they charge their consumers in high density areas?

Why this is important

In spite of accounting for more than 70% of the food, economists in developing countries have totally ignored inflation in the mass market, preferring to focus on inflation in relation to basic commodity food basket. Yet it is important to figure out the percentage increase in the price of inputs and transport to the market so that farmers can know if market prices have changes in correspondence to input costs.  Many farmers incur losses because this issue has not been clearly articulated. Using figures, farmers can see how lack of resonance between input costs and market prices is leading them to incur 30% losses.

It is critical to track inflation around the agricultural commodity basket different from the CPI for basic staples like cooking oil and sugar.  Formal companies are recording and doing their costing and are using such details to collude in fixing prices of basic commodities. But there is no such thing for farmers who should be assisted in mastering market-related budgeting.  Farmers are mostly affected by external factors beyond their control and these include cost of inputs, labor, fuel, water, equipment and many others.

Beyond improving quality and economies of scale as well as benefitting from shortages in the market, farmers do not have control over most external factors. In the market, farmers are given a price even if their costs of production and transporting have gone up by 20%.  They are pushed within a certain price range. The price index will give farmers bargaining power and can be able to see that is the production price is going up by 5%, prices offered by the market should be adjusted upwards weekly. Farmers can also know how increases in the price of petrol contributes to increases in commodity prices in the market.

A system should be put in place to reveal some of these issues and impact on the market or consumers.  Inflation around food markets is very important because it assist farmers to plan and make projections. A farmer who harvests crops when inflation is going up by 20% and earns $100, the following month the farmer will earn less than $90. To remain with $100 the farmer has to charge $110. If the farmer sees the price of inputs going up by 5% monthly and expect to buy inputs in three months, the inflation will be 15% and the farmer will not be able to afford inputs.

How consumers are affected by absence of a Price Index

Prices in the mass market are rarely not cost-driven or cost-based but depend on arbitrary decisions.  People just decide how to sell without a clear basis in ways that anchor future increase or decrease of prices based on supply.  For instance, the cost of producing a cabbage head is 60c – 70c of which the bigger component (15c-20c) is the cost of seedlings.  A farmer who decides to price at $1.50 – $2/head on-farm is doing so on what basis?  How did s/he arrive at the price?  Why should a producer increase prices by a 200% mark up?  What is the standard used for setting mark-ups in the agricultural industry?  When a trader gets cabbages @ $2 and sells @ $3 – $3.50, this drives inflation.  Everyone makes a decision on the highest prices. The farmer is not making decisions on costs and the trader is also marking up arbitrarily. They are all guessing and that means the consumer is not charged fairly. Such decision-making is an inflation driver in the whole country.

Supply and demand is over-shadowing costing principles as determinants of arriving at costs.  How can we use costing as the main determinant? Disorganized supply and demand causes all these challenges.  Traders and farmers should know the base price irrespective of supply.  That is why for tomatoes it is important to play with the number of fruits and not sell using kilograms. All parties should control the extent to which prices can fall before everybody begins to incur losses. This important process and analysis should be conducted at food systems level as opposed to isolated individual farmer level.  Banks and other financial institutions can use the price index to track and manage Non-Performing Loans.  / /

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How mass markets bring out the best in African food producers

Farmers and traders who do not frequent the booming African mass market will never know their depth.  New market entrants use commodities like leafy vegetables that are easy to produce. Once they are in the market, farmers are exposed to different kinds of leafy vegetables ranging from ordinary Viscose to ever green Viscose. Eventually the farmers decide to get more sophisticated by graduating into cabbage production and supply.  Here new knowledge includes appropriate varieties to grow, when and how to sell.


From talking to farmers and traders in the market, farmers also become aware of the time of the year production challenges are most likely to be encountered as well as quantities of different commodities required by the market in particular days. For instance, in most African urban mass markets, delivering commodities on Sunday for selling on Monday morning is more profitable because most farming communities do not work on Sunday and that means the market will be empty on Monday. The farmer also discovers that Fridays and Saturdays are good selling days for most commodities because outside markets come to buy on Fridays and Saturdays for restocking. Saturday is also a shopping day for urban dwellers while some travel to see their relatives in rural areas.

Learning from consumer choices

The mass market also informs the farmer and trader about sizes required by the market shown through buyer choices as different sizes compete for the consumer budget in the market.  Other key factors learned from the market include quality, appropriate finishing and leafy cover as well as selling tricks and buying patterns.  Pricing is also learned from the market – the farmer begins to see whether s/he is pricing his/her commodity fairly. Appropriate delivery times and consumer preferences like size and colour are also picked from the market. Farmers who arrive in the market late will find most customers who buy more volumes already gone. The farmer also gets to know about quality as determined by ripening stages for cabbages and tomatoes whose ripening stages have a big influence on quality and shelf life. Likewise, the market informs the farmer about different shelf lives for diverse commodities.

Without feedback, farmers are not aware of the consequences of their actions or decisions

If the market does not inform farmers about quantities to produce and when, the farmers will produce more at the wrong time, for instance during the off-season.  In addition to getting advice on alternative crops to venture into, through the market farmers are able to establish networks with other value chain actors like buyers, customers, traders, consumers, transporters and financiers. Engaging with other farmers enables new farmers to know types of chemicals and fertilizers to use for particular crops at a given time.

Mass markets enable farmers to meet informal financiers like traders who can easily finance certain crops without need for collateral. As financiers, traders can also advise farmers on what crops to grow, when and how?  It is also through mass markets that farmers are able to maintain their customer base and also get new customers. Farmers also gets educated about the preferred packaging materials and sizes as well the best way of packaging specific commodities.

Prospective business opportunities can be picked from the market. If a farmer produces the same commodity for a long time, it reaches a level where production gets boring and the farmer begins to look for new crops or with a different market altogether – from mass markets to formal markets or exports.  However, a new entrant has to start with lower bar crops like leafy vegetables and graduate into complicated commodities. With the right knowledge, the farmer can leap-frog some stages.

Agricultural shows have a different focus and impact

Although they receive a lot of attention from the media and policy makers, agriculture shows attract a few farmers purported to have excelled in producing particular crops or livestock. These farmer are mostly those who will have been judged to be the best from district to national levels according to given criteria.  However the time lag between when a farmer is judged to have been the best and the final show event at national level conveys they wrong impression that there are no other champions in between.

Commodities that will have been judged to be the best are the ones exhibited at the agricultural show but there is no comparison by variety and no explanation on varieties preferred by consumers. The show also tends to mix farmers from different regions yet conditions are different in each district and these influence performance. A farmer in Mazowe which is in natural region two with good rainfall and other advantages should not be compared with a farmer in natural region five Hwange.  / /

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