The merits of a sectoral approach to developing African economies

Challenges facing each African economy are so many and so diverse that trying to address them all at once is like chasing too many hares and at the end failing to catch one. That is why taking a sectoral approach makes sense. For instance, there is no longer any doubt that agriculture is at the centre of most African economies except a few countries where mining and tourism competes with agriculture in terms of contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For various reasons, agriculture tends to have a multiplier effect on other economic sectors


What is the entry point?

Absence of clear entry points in reviving agricultural sectors is a major challenge for many countries.  It is like trying to lift a large pole that has fallen. Do you start from the middle or the other end? This is worsened by the fact that policy makers are not deeply reflecting about their economies in order to draw lessons from the recent past. To that end, they find it difficult to balance the previous phase with the current phase. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the 1990s were characterized by high agricultural production from a few commercial farmers with millions of smallholder farmers being economic spectators.  Food security and export incomes were high but this was not enough to address economic and social injustices in which only a few people owned the means of production as well as markets.

The above scenario justified the land reform as a way of balancing economic and social justice. Land reform produced a lot of farmer categories like communal, A1, A2 and many others. After addressing economic injustices by redistributing land, an enduring question has remained: how can we use agriculture to trigger sustainable economic growth? What can we do to harvest the fruits of land reform?  Redistributing land should not be the end of the story. It is not about endless land audits and redistribution exercises. There is already too much land lying idle without evening talking about land to be repossessed from those under-utilizing it.

It could even be better to leave some of the land fallow for future generations so that they decide how to use it at the appropriate time?  Future policy makers may decide to turn some of the land into plantations of indigenous fruits like masawu, matohwe, mazumwi and others, depending on new tastes and preferences.  Besides contributing to ecological imbalances, industrial agriculture is regrettably nudging policy makers to be in a continuous land acquisition and redistribution mode.  Yet the main focus should be about utilizing available land including water and other related resources. What kind of support is being given to farmers that are already doing well? Answering this question leads to solutions.

Agriculture still has better comparative advantages

Compared to other sectors like mining, agriculture has several advantages. Where in mining, individual actors are called panners or Makorokoza and thus criminalized, in agriculture smallholder farmers are part of value chains. Agriculture has multiple pathways through which ordinary people can become economic actors. You can start growing and selling commodities from your home. You don’t need a certificate of incorporation to begin selling your agricultural commodities as opposed to the gold sector where you only have to sell the minerals to registered buyers. Individuals who decide to participate in wildlife tourism without proper registration can easily be labelled poachers.

More importantly, agriculture has less barriers to citizen participation – that is where employment creation opportunities are abundant. African countries also have more control over agricultural commodities compared to processes through which minerals are priced, demanded and sold. The flexibility in the use of agricultural resources allows Africans to rotate crops and swiftly change land uses yet minerals are not that flexible.  When you are looking for diamonds you cannot begin expecting to see gold in the same mining claim. The flexibility associated with agricultural production has enormous potential to trigger economic revival and growth.

 Start from what is alive and kicking

Each agro-based African country should start by fully assessing its economy and strengthening what is working.  For instance, in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, informal agriculture markets and smallholder farmers represent what is alive and can be revived at lower costs. These actors continue using available resources to produce food with no need for foreign currency. On the other hand, big processing companies are operating at below their capacity due to dependence on antiquated machinery and inadequate raw materials. In the same vein, production by large scale farmers that depend on irrigation is being hampered by persistent load shedding.

Another vibrant sphere is small scale value addition, for example peanut butter processing, mahewu industry, small scale oil expressing and juice making, among others.  These are producing diverse local food products anchored on dynamic demand. Conversely policy makers are listening to some urban middle class consumers who are complaining about the shortage of soft drinks that need foreign currency when ordinary people have moved on and are producing local beverages, cooking oil and other products that apparently have a growing market and do not need foreign currency.

There is no reason why policy makers and financial institutions continue shying away from supporting the evolution of a big mahewu industry as opposed to supporting imported beverages that are losing market share to local beverages.  What is also alive and gaining traction is indigenous poultry which is quietly becoming an entire industry with powerful value chains. On the other hand, policy makers and development agencies are still obsessed with exotic poultry breeds. Building a strong indigenous poultry industry will it taking over from the broiler industry that is exerting pressure on maize and other resources required to manufacture broiler feed, some of which have a foreign currency component.

Not to be outdone is a resilient home-grown industry producing different categories of appropriate agricultural equipment in areas like Siyaso and other local industries that are fabricating metal and steel to produce what is needed and affordable – scotch-carts, wheel barrows, peanut butter processing machines, hammer mills and many others required by the new agriculture landscape and actors.

What informs national decisions and budgetary allocations?

While one assumes what is alive and kicking should be prioritized in national budgetary allocations, that is not the case. From national agricultural budgets, it is not clear how much goes to agriculture markets.  If we are to move activities and actors from where they are to the next level, there is need for a focused vision that answers questions like: when we upgrade existing agricultural markets, which levels are we going to?  It can’t be shopping malls and supermarkets that are smaller economic actors compared to informal markets. From a value chain perspective, what is the destination for promoting small grains? It should aim beyond consumption.

As currently conceived, Zimbabwe’s command agriculture needs a clear vision beyond satisfying consumption needs.  For instance, the national maize consumption is said to be 1.8 million per annum.  But that estimation does not take into account several maize by-products like the burgeoning maputi industry or the green mealies industry.  If the maputi industry is taking 25% of the maize and green mealies 15% of the 1.8 million metric tons, it means only 55% of the 1.8 million metric tons is available for mealie meal.  This is where a maize-based planning is always found wanting because it focuses on sadza yet there are many other things happening.

Likewise, what formulae is used to determine national quantities of wheat consumed annually? To what extent do all African households need bread as part of their daily meals?  Everyone wants bread but not everyone can afford it.  Policy makers are not considering effective demand and willingness as well as ability. They just assume because everyone needs bread, more wheat should be produced or imported.  What id households have substituted bread with rice and other commodities of which a pot can feed a family of six satisfactorily more than a loaf of bread. Besides, bread needs other expensive additives like margarine, eggs and others while rice can be consumed simply with tomato soup.

Who benefits from soya bean command?  As long as there are few players in the oil processing industry, African policy makers need to be careful about continuing to spoon-feed monopolies.  It is better to promote small scale oil processing in farming areas and growth points. Besides broadening the competitive environment, this also encourages rural industrialization. There is a danger of pouring resources into reviving large scale processing companies that have reached their ceiling. Injecting resources into former big processing companies when production is low will tempt the companies to misuse the funds. When industries ask for foreign currency in order to continue functioning that is not a solution. The Grain Millers Association should not be given foreign currency to go around the globe importing grains when such resources are badly needed at production level.

The same effort directed at mechanization at production level should be extended along value chains.  What mechanization is happening and can be supported at the processing level? What are the requirements?  What is working? What products are being processed in the informal economy?  That is an indication of demand.  Indigenous fruits are available in abundance where they grow naturally.  How can we commercialize them to grow our economy? These are God-given answers to our challenges yet we are ignoring them, preferring formal food systems that provide inadequate solutions.

 Re-imagining a new role for African trade promotion agencies

Zimbabwe’s ZIMTRADE is globe-trotting looking for export markets but it is not supporting clear pathways for turning smallholder farmers into exporters. The destination for the majority of smallholder farmers remains Mbare and other informal markets that are now congested. Does ZIMTRADE expect farmers to move commodities directly from Mbare to Angola, Namibia, India, Turkey and other external markets? At their level, informal markets are already facilitating cross-border regional trade where commodities move from Zimbabwe to Zambia, Malawi to Zimbabwe and Mozambique to Malawi and Zambia, among many other neighboring countries.

Institutions like ZIMTRADE should closely study these patterns and pathways and use them to develop fully-fledged regional trading processes unlike conducting studies about what is needed in different countries when such information can easily be provided by those countries through their embassies. In fact, the same information is supplied to all competing African countries and may not be a source of competitive advantage on its own. Strengthening the domestic trade footprint is more important than spending resources gathering information about what is needed in which country when such information becomes stale before any action is taken at the ground. It is through a robust sector by sector approach that sustainable pathways for reviving African economies can be achieved, including streamlining roles.  / /

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Comparative analysis of imported knowledge and indigenous knowledge

Due to continuous dependence on imported western knowledge, most African countries have not invested in understanding their own local knowledges. For instance, while these countries continue to lament that they do not have foreign currency and advanced technologies, they are not taking time to reflect and compare what they have in abundance with what they lack. Once they do that they will discover how land, water, sunshine, forests and many other resources are more valuable than foreign currency.



 Imported Knowledge Indigenous Knowledge
Associated with academic education that alienate people from their local communities. The more one gets formally educated, the more s/he loses identity and roots. Embedded in local context, culture and identity – all these are baked into reliable routines.
Formal companies and corporates are a key feature of imported knowledge. SMEs and informal markets are dominant examples of indigenous entrepreneurs.
Cities are part of western knowledge as shown by infrastructure like roads, electricity and airports, among other Western structures in which imported knowledge is embedded. Imported knowledge in cities draws on resources like culture, labor and natural resources from rural areas where unfortunately little value addition is happening using local knowledge compared to cities where western knowledge is largely used to add value to those resources.
Western knowledge is valueless without indigenous knowledge systems used to produce and safe-guard natural resources. You can bring the best technologies into cities but without commodity supplies from rural areas technologies are valueless.


Food system are generated from indigenous economies and brought into western knowledge for value addition.  The most important resources are culture, values and traditions. Valuing all these resources brings comparative advantages for African economies.
Western knowledge measures agricultural commodities through weighing – scales, kilograms, hectares, litres, etc.

Commodities are also valued mostly in monetary terms to a point of saying a cow is worth so many US dollars.

IKS uses buckets, baskets as well as human senses like taste, smell, touch, hear and sight that are more inclined to IKS. Instead of using monetary terms only, IKS has a lot of value related to social beliefs, economic beliefs and even tradition (if we sell a family bull, how will we replace it?). How do farmers value their commodities in order to come up with a price?
Cities talk in terms of unemployment. What do we mean when we say someone is unemployed? How can a city with 96% unemployment continue functioning? How is the city surviving with such high levels of unemployment? In rural areas such levels of unemployment or incapacity may be related to drought or floods. Rural communities are linked to natural resources and do not talk in terms of employment and unemployment at both individual and community. They speak more in terms of asset ownership in relation to agriculture as well as the needs of individuals and communities.
Imported knowledge talks in terms of free trade areas and selling of commodities but knowledge is not considered part of the economic and commodity focus. But there is no clarity on how knowledge traded as part of global trade just like using commercial trade of goods and services. African countries do not have specific avenues for tracking trading of knowledge between countries and commodities.   IKS has strong pathways for knowledge and information exchange combining natural resources, culture, religion, values and other critical factors.


African countries have borrowed definitions of the economy and economic growth from imported knowledge. Much of economic growth uses indicators like employment creation, income levels and population growth as well as ICT penetration. But we don’t have knowledge as an indicator or component of economic growth. IKS thrives on social indicators. Whereas the measurement of Western economies is based on economics, African growth paths are defined by social parameters. Social aspects, which we have not defined at the expense of social indicators include culture, tradition and the whole society. All this has its own growth paths from rural to urban areas.
Western platforms are meant to facilitate payment for commodities. The whole notion of platforms was meant for trading commodities without using cash but we have abused it by using it for trading money not commodities. African countries now have a challenge around the adoption of technology. Mobile money is not an innovation because we have failed to put technology to good use or domesticate it to support our traditional transaction modes.
Uses a dollar a day to measure poverty datum line. IKS uses social indicators like depression among men whose wives go to the diaspora or the small house effect on economic depression. These social indicators are directly linked to the indigenous economy. The roots of an indigenous economy and home-grown economy are social not economic factors.
Imported knowledge has become a public good and that is what African universities are investing in instead of venturing into the new and unknown African knowledge. The business cycle for pure knowledge has reached a ceiling and could be seen in the form of sales going down. A major advantage with Africa is that much of the knowledge is yet to be unearthed and has a lot of value. For Africa it’s more about coping this knowledge than creating new knowledge using new inventions.  Wisdom is the basis of the economy.
Defines growth as turning land into buildings like sky scrapers for investors or markets. IKS leaves prime land for producing food systems.  Growth should make IKS pure so that the world can come and learn from Africa on how to build an economic power house based on IKS.
Promotes monocultures in production, consumption and lifestyles. Restoring African culture is a good starting point. For instance, what makes a rural African country or district  unique? IKS also recognizes indigenous institutions like traditional leadership structures.


Promotes continuous importation of raw materials and human resources from Africa IKS would rather invest in valuating our resources and knowledge and then we become champions of exports by selling our products not labor and add value to our commodities.
Believes in central policy making and resource management. IKS is conscious to the fact that devolution should not just be about political power. It is about identity and culture. Resources need to be managed at all levels including policy.  Devolution is about opening pathways to receive voices from all angles as well as innovations and initiatives that just need to be supported.
Imported scientifically proven knowledge may not change within the next five to 10 years. It represents a comfort zone for academics who are more interested in proven and reliable routines. IKS recognizes that if we remain stuck with proven knowledge of the past, we will not improve. We have to go beyond and venture into the unknown while building on what works well.


 The power of mastering the knowledge value chain

Few initiatives are as important as paying attention to the interface between formal and informal knowledge as well as Western and African knowledge. Processes are critical and so is external knowledge while relationships are important in gaining knowledge.  There is no longer any doubt that African countries need a collaborative knowledge base driven by more than 80% of the local people. That is why a clear understanding of the knowledge value chain is critical. It is important to appreciate what you have and try to improve on your weaknesses. While academics find it easy to theorize from a distance, development is about addressing equity and superiority issues between the state and ordinary people, young people and poor people. Formal and informal economies have different knowledge systems and processes. There are also different processes between the public and private sector.  / /

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Yes, Indigenous Knowledge Systems have a distinct flavor

Some intellectuals have been suggesting that knowledge is the same everywhere, so it is wrong to speak in terms of indigenous knowledge as if is distinct from all other knowledges. Such views are far from the reality on the ground. There is definitely a difference between knowledge found in academic circles and ordinary people’s knowledge used by communities to innovate and cope with daily challenges. Although overlaps are common, it is very possible to separate indigenous knowledge from all other knowledges

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Pros and cons of imported knowledge

There is no doubt that imported knowledge has made some positive differences in many developing countries especially in the areas of automotive engineering, aviation and medicine. But there have also been notable failures.  For instance, imported knowledge in the form of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is on the verge of redundancy because it is failing to contextualize African content. It is a remarkable myth that the entire African memory can be digitized.  In spite of the hype surrounding mobile money, African countries have largely failed to marry brick and mortar financial systems with mobile money. Consequently, mobile money now causes massive unemployment to professionals that have absorbed imported knowledge while creating transitory employment for mobile money agents.

In any case, business models anchored on exploiting poor masses are not sustainable. Why should low income communities in countries like Zimbabwe incur the highest mobile money costs and a whole finance minister defines that as progress?  We do not have economic models that fully embed the African ecosystem.  The main dilemma in all African countries is that policy makers have reached a point where they think money is the most important commodity that should substitute all levels of thinking. It is as if there is no business when there is no money irrespective of the abundance of resources like good soils, climate and water. It is all about the search for foreign currency.

 Indigenous knowledge is more of a contextual characterization

eMKambo is not suggesting that developing countries have a monopoly on what is considered indigenous. In every country, whatever has thrived over years and has built pathways of binding and sharing knowledge has become indigenous. An outsider will need years to understand that knowledge. Africans who go to live in the United Kingdom find indigenous knowledge systems in that country.

Where you encounter indigenous knowledge systems, you cannot avoid learning in order to be a useful participant in existing knowledge systems. Africans are struggling to learn imported science because it is not indigenous to us while people who grew up with science easily understand it. On the other hand, when a European visits an African village like Gokwe and sees people cooking sadza, s/he has to learn how those people prepare their food.  The notion of literacy came through the Western world while much of our African practices and knowledge systems remain undocumented.  That is why most African communities continue to thrive on raw knowledge.

From indigenous knowledge to patents

Western knowledge might be indigenous in countries of its origin but it has unfortunately been entirely moved from being indigenous to privatized patented knowledge. For instance, people who write books end up with exclusive copyrights to the book. Those who invent machines also privatize their knowledge for profit. Fortunately in much of Africa, knowledge is still public information/knowledge.  For example, African traditional courts do not use previous cases to make judgements the way judiciary systems imported from the West depend on legal documents and use precedents after reading cases of previous judgments.  In Africa, traditional leaders use wisdom acquired over years, not by one person, but by the whole traditional judiciary system (Dare). They understand values, norms, extenuating circumstances, among many other aspects surrounding court cases.  That is why they sometimes relate some cases to Ngozi or the avenging spirit.

The entire traditional leadership system has acquired collective intuitions of what informs people’s different behaviors including inclinations towards different kinds of crimes. Some crimes can be traced beyond an individual to the entire clan that has to appease past wrongs for the benefit of the future. On the other hand, imported judiciary systems reduce complicated social issues to an individual who should go to jail for crimes that may be beyond him/her. Yet on the positive side, a skilled person may be understood to have acquired his/her skills from his/her grand fathers who may have been craftsmen or hunters. If they carefully borrowed from African traditional systems, conventional anti-corruption commissions in Africa would reach more meaningful conclusions that build cohesive societies.

Indigenous knowledge as intangible heritage

Most of what has been explained above comprise soft elements and behaviors that become a collection of facts and knowledge. For example, as the rainy season approaches, some African communities are able to predict the season using their own local signals. They do not use using modern gadgets like those used by the meteorological services but they arrive at correct conclusions using their own interpretations independent of science. While formal learning is about absorptive capacity, indigenous knowledge systems are part and parcel of experiential learning embedded in practical wisdom. Indigenous knowledge systems are also part of ecosystems and pathways of how people live, relate, interact, what to do and what to avoid and, not just about how they communicate.  Also critical is how relationships are built and strengthened as well as how communities find solutions to emerging problems before looking outside. Not every solution can come through external investors.  What about local investors?

Concentration at source

More importantly, indigenous knowledge systems tend to be concentrated more at the source and get weaker as you move away from the origin or source.  For example, Binga district in Zimbabwe has a lot knowledge on Tonga culture and language but such knowledge weakens as you move away from the district because it gets diluted with imported knowledge. At national level indigenous knowledge systems are weaker in cities but stronger in rural areas that remain strongholds of African culture.

That is why building home-grown African economies should start with identifying where indigenous knowledge systems are coming from and track them all the way to the source. For instance, tracking banana production knowledge to Honde Valley enables tapping into opportunities for using local knowledge. Rather than continue with imported notions of development, African countries should embrace a home-grown economic development agenda, starting from where knowledge is strongest unlike trying to extract agrarian solutions from cities that have been diluted by imported knowledge.

Just as technology providers want you to come to the source at some point, for instance when a Combine Harvester breaks down, the strengths of indigenous knowledge systems is at the source.  While western knowledge patents are at individual level, indigenous knowledge systems are patented at community level. Community members know what to give out and what not to give. Even at household level, some knowledge remains classified. Indigenous knowledge systems become more classified at the source.

The role of African embassies in promoting indigenous knowledge and food systems

Currently African embassies in Western countries seem to focus more on politics and foreign policies but are silent on promoting African identity embedded in food systems and indigenous knowledge systems.  Ideally exports should be in the form of our own indigenous commodities. We may think we are getting valuable foreign currency from exporting peas but this may be happening at the expense of other more lucrative commodities. Africans should not continue using their resources to produce products that satisfy foreign food systems and tastes. Yet if foreign consumers acquire tastes for African products, African countries will become less vulnerable to international prices. When there is a glut Africans will just lower production. But where African countries produce food for foreign consumers there is no control over prices because foreign can just decide to get the same commodities from different African countries with the same climate.  This is how African countries are made to compete against each other for external tastes.  / /

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Should we really be talking in terms of rural finance?

Should we really be talking in terms of rural finance?

Among dozens of terminologies that have found their way into Africa over the past few decades is rural finance. The term suggests that there is probably also something called urban finance.  How can we, on one hand, characterize some financial services as rural while purporting to be promoting financial inclusion? Developed economies do not have a demarcation between rural and urban finance. In fact, the same services and lifestyles found in cities are also prevalent in rural Europe, for instance.

Rural finance has some deep colonial roots

Mentioned above are some of the issues through which imported knowledge in business and financial institutions is misinforming decision-making processes in Africa. In many African countries, attempts to distinguish rural from urban finance were derived from differences between rural and urban economies, as determined by colonial agendas. From an agricultural perspective, urban areas were associated with value addition and processing while rural areas were largely associated with primary production done in farming systems like communal, large scale and resettlement areas.  Rural was also about black farmers producing largely for subsistence while large scale farms that bordered rural areas were not considered rural people. However, the fact that some large scale commercial farms paid levies to rural councils showed they recognized their belonging in rural areas.


What features were used to define a rural economy? 

Following land reform in Zimbabwe, it has become difficult to characterize Zimbabwean agriculture as strictly rural. Farmers who have moved from communal to A1 and A2 farms cannot be considered rural. Comparisons in terms of infrastructure, services and value addition do not show much distinction between rural and urban areas.  So what do we mean by rural?  How do we define a rural farmer?  Can we just use a boundary like a fence to demarcate rural from urban?  For instance commercial and A2 farms in Mazowe district of Zimbabwe are merely demarcated from Chiweshe communal area by fencing and rivers but they are in the same climate and share the same soil characteristics among other similarities.

Some people living in urban areas have invested in their communal areas where they came from so much that their areas have become remarkably more urbanized that some areas close to big cities – they have modern homesteads, solar power and internet connection. Can such people living in the lap of modernization far from the city be still considered rural? On the other hand, many A1 and A2 farmers have stayed under-resourced because new farmers getting into a new area may not be able to share resources with their neighbors with whom they do not share indigenous relationships.

It is better to think in terms of ecosystems finance than rural finance

One of the biggest dilemmas is that African financial institutions do not conduct thorough investment analyses to figure out if there is really need for financial packages they develop from their head offices in the city. Rather than thinking and functioning in terms of rural finance, it is better for financial institutions to embrace an ecosystems and value chain approach especially given that most communities share the same resources like water, soils and passion. If they carefully ask themselves questions like what type of finance model do we want to develop and for whom, they should be able to design different finance models for A1, A2 and resettlement rather than using an umbrella term like rural finance.

While finance that is targeted at irrigation schemes is framed as rural finance, most irrigation schemes were not designed for commercial purposes but as a fallback position to complement rain-fed agriculture.  When financial institutions decide to finance irrigation schemes, to what extent are the loans going to be repaid by surplus production without compromising local food which is supposed to be a buffer?

More importantly, irrigation schemes depend on shared resources by plot holders. Only a few farmers can realistically do commercial farming while the rest are subsistence producers. What financial models can you develop in situations where resources are shared? Why have many agricultural-oriented financial institutions reduced their presence in the form of branch networks in production zones like Gokwe for cotton and Honde Valley for horticulture? These financial institutions are not sharing their critical lessons but they are letting small players like Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) getting into those areas.

Making sense of indigenous financing models

The fact that farmers and rural communities thrive without banks and other formal financial institutions is enough evidence that they trust their own indigenous financial models. Policy makers and development agencies have to invest in understanding and developing these models. If money was everything, millions of farmers and communities would be seen queuing for loans. Financial inclusion should not just be about cannibalizing indigenous financial models like Voluntary Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs) famously known as Mukando. Why should we burden these local indigenous finance models whose remarkable resilience is connected with social fabrics like beer brewing (Ndari)?

Traditionally farmers in rural areas were attracted to the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) model mainly because of the interest they earned that was a powerful incentive towards the wealth-creation route. Today, rarely can you find a farmer selling a beast and depositing money in the bank. Most farmers do not want to take loans from banks due to the unpredictability of markets. For instance, they cannot take loans for tomato production when there is no specific off-taker and prices on the open market can change any time.  On the other hand, most contractors have not invested in building good relationships with producers and farmers so they cannot develop sustainable models.  Farmers who have participated in different contracts are still nursing their wounds and have sad stories to tell.

We should not rule out the element of self-exclusion where farmers exclude themselves from models that sound good but turn out to be rapacious and predatory in nature, mainly at the point of marketing. That is why participatory ways of developing financial inclusion indicators are needed.

How about financing value addition processes?

A majority of banks tend to have similar finance models and some even have MFIs. Are these the right models for building a home-grown agricultural-driven economy? Instead of just thinking in terms of rural finance, financial institutions in Africa should focus on value addition. For instance, most agricultural commodities from rural areas and farms are getting into urban markets in a raw state. It is better for banks to finance rural industrialization under which value addition and agricultural semi-processing enterprises are set up at growth points and in production zones. Urban centres can then focus on final processing into finished products for domestic consumption and export.  / /

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How informal food markets express African-oriented knowledge realities

When you visit an African city and want to see practices that portray African identity and knowledge don’t believe what you see in hotels, colleges, formal schools or government departments. Your most important eye-opening destination is the informal mass market preferred by the majority. Besides farming communities and forests, informal markets are some of the most important sites and situations where indigenous knowledge systems reveal African-oriented values and realities. Most of these aspects are embedded in identity expressed through practices and real life problem solving not just traditional dance.


Indigenous knowledge has existed in Africa’s rural areas and practices for generations. Over time, such knowledge has found its own pathways into other neighboring communities through local trade and socio-economic practices, among other ecosystems. Communities had realized that they would not grow if they remained closed from the outside world. As they started opening up they began exchanging knowledge and enriching their identity and values.

Food systems as knowledge avenues

Food systems shared through informal agriculture markets have been a critical avenue in knowledge exchange between communities. Through local languages used in African markets, communities which did not use to produce and consume yams have become avid consumers of this food. Related knowledge has not been documented into recipe books but simply shared through verbal explanations of how yams are grown, cooked and consumed. Such knowledge has not been locked into strict manuals but has remained fluid to provide room for other options like processing yams and consuming with other locally available foods, depending on context.

Compared to formal institutions like universities and private companies where knowledge is considered private property, informal mass markets are public institutions where knowledge is a public good. Those who benefit from the knowledge are expected to contribute new knowledge to the institution and there are consequences for privatizing public knowledge. This is typical of African society where knowledge is shared openly as part of daily life. Informal mass markets also have unique ways of targeting knowledge according to age, gender and other roles and responsibilities. While men are seen lifting heavy loads like bags of potatoes and cucumber, women are seen creating food baskets comprising carrots, butternuts, peas, pepper and other ingredients. Women’s dress codes like aprons and hats also speak to their roles.

Knowledge travels within commodities and people

In the informal market you can also easily tell the identity of crops or food. For instance, while imported fruits can come in certain labelled packaging, local food is often identified by its raw state sometimes coming into the with soil particles from production areas, for instance, potatoes from Nyanga district.  Measurements used in the market also communicate contexts and identity. Indigenous measurements include wooden boxes, buckets, tins, baskets and cups, among others.

African informal markets bring together different ages and gender. By looking at participants you can easily estimate the ratios of men, women and youth. That tells you the proportions of local people, for instance Zimbabweans generating their own solutions and creating their own employment in Mbare market. If the market comprises more than 90% local people, it means purely indigenous knowledge is being used to generate home-grown solutions. On the other hand, in UN agencies where local staff can comprise 65% it means 35% of the knowledge is not indigenous and may not produce local solutions.

 The market as an open learning institution

As an open learning institution you do not have to pay tuition fee or entrance fee to start learning in the informal market. The consensus in these markets is that knowledge is about sharing. On the other hand, imported knowledge acquired through formal institutions is about memorization before going to the next stage. If you miss the next step the knowledge and users become redundant. Knowledge is locked in a chain unlike indigenous knowledge systems which respond to different pathways, contexts, users and demographics.

In informal markets, there is a specific way you speak to a granny or in-laws. Yet in academic circles, relationships are based on first name basis where old professors can be called by their first names – John, Peter, Hazel and many others. In the market you don’t hear a married women called by her first name. She is either addressed as Mai Tawanda (Mother of Tawanda) or using her totem like Chihera. Men are mostly addressed through their totems – Moyo, Humba, Mhofu and so on. This is a powerful way of recognizing identities.  Greetings are not just good morning but “how is your family at home?”

The learning is not closed like where one needs qualifications in order to participate (5 Ordinary levels plus English and Mathematics or Science) in knowledge sharing platforms. It is about passion – you observe, learn, participate and grow in the ecosystem and graduate from one value chain to the other. Your failure is through experience not examinations. For instance, one day you experience losses due to over-stocking or under-stocking. Within three to five years you have mastered the business – you know where to get what, how to negotiate, build trust and relationships that build these markets holistically so that they continue functioning based on relationships built over years.

 Language as media of communication

Whereas imported languages like English, French and Portuguese have been imposed as media of exchange in formal institutions like African government departments, private companies and universities, more than five indigenous languages can be spoken in one informal market. All these languages communicate an African identity.  Unless you are good at picking different accents, when you see a black person speaking in English or French in a development organization, you cannot tell if that person is from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Namibia, Malawi or Zimbabwe. This is how imported knowledge and associated languages have interfered with African identities.

 Building knowledge systems backwards

Due to the resilience of African informal markets, indigenous knowledge is now growing backwards from urban markets like Mbare back to rural markets at growth points and road side markets.  That way knowledge is becoming more context-specific.  For instance in Zimbabwe, traders from Binga, Masvingo and other districts are going back to embed knowledge acquired from Mbare and that means food systems from other areas are being anchored on local markets.  That is why you can find butternut and pine apples in Gokwe where they are not grown, thanks to the local market which has become a scaffold for what is coming from outside.

On the other hand, academic knowledge cannot go back to assist communities. The more you go up, the more detached from local reality. If you come from Mutambara and go to study robotics, there are no pathways for you to come back and use that knowledge to uplift your local community in the event of a cyclone striking.  You can only donate some goods but cannot apply your acquired knowledge.

The way African countries define literacy is still based on imported knowledge which does not take into account emerging knowledge that people use daily. Imported knowledge is based on case studies but no one has ever succeeded in generating solutions through case studies. African countries should seriously consider re-defining and broadening the definition of literacy to include indigenous knowledge aspects like culture, identity and values.  It doesn’t matter how much imported knowledge you have absorbed, if you are ignorant of your culture, identity and values you are illiterate.

This is not to minimize the significance specialized knowledge

eMKambo is not suggesting that African countries can solve all their challenges using indigenous knowledge systems. There are many knowledge themes where Africa is still lagging behind and certainly need imported knowledge. For instance, knowledge for treating certain human diseases can be legitimately imported through medical experts and specialized medical equipment. In addition, since Africa has not participated in generating imported knowledge, experts who repair air crafts and dialysis machines are still coming from outside because certain levels of knowledge require going back to the source.

However, where Africans participate fully like in agriculture all the way from production to marketing, they should be able to generate solutions without resorting to imported knowledge. For instance, through informal markets, Africans can be able to rationalize few supplies, adjust market demands and reducing market outreach. There is no need to import knowledge for let development organizations direct such decisions.  / /

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Yes, African food traders have better techniques than PhD graduates in Economics

Academics like economists rely on authors and literature based on research conducted within a given time frame. Such literature has no room for adjustments as new events and knowledge emerge.  For instance, Keynesians economics was based on theories of John Maynard Keynes whose research revolved around the laws of supply and demand, among other principles of economics. Since the research was done decades ago and in specific contexts, such knowledge lacked fluidness that would have kept it fresh. To that end, studying economics has become more about memorizing old economic principles yet in real life people should be equipped with real time knowledge to respond to events as they happen.


How informal markets are different

Unlike academic corridors in which economists thrive, African informal markets are open spaces where knowledge is shared as events unfold. These markets are always solving problems as they emerge and build more solutions continuously. For example, when a food commodity is in short supply traders do not just increase the price. Instead, they break bulk so that many consumers at least get a smaller share.  Another response is shortening the market out-reach such that commodities that would normally travel 400 km from the main market like Mbare in Harare to Bulawayo reduce their outreach without increasing prices.  Consumers also respond by going for substitutes, supplements and complementary commodities. In glut situations the market broadens the outreach to far-flung areas.  All these are different kinds of solutions not found in the economics text books. More importantly, in informal markets knowledge is collectively mobilized to generate solutions in ways that a whole faculty of commerce at any university cannot do through reading economics textbooks. Sadly, when economists rely on text books written by individual authors, more than 40 percent of the content in those books comprises the author’s personal opinions or thinking as opposed to collective wisdom of the mass market.

The power of experiential learning

Academics like economists also lack experiential learning without which they cannot be able to figure out how mass markets decide it is time to increase commodity prices. On the other hand, traders are acutely aware that they do not live in isolation like academics in their ivory towers. To that end, traders and informal markets know the users and uses of their knowledge. They treasure an ecosystem of knowledge sharers made up of consumers who pass on knowledge to traders who also pass it on to farmers and the cycle continues. This sharing of knowledge within an ecosystem purifies knowledge into a fluid package unlike textbooks where knowledge is closed and frozen such that there is no room to add fresh content.

Economists who read the same textbooks end up thinking and behaving like one person. While a class of 40 economists thinks the same, an ecosystem of traders in informal markets taps into diverse thoughts and experiences. To a large extent, projections by traders in the market are based on experience not figures. They know how different commodities and consumers behave at different periods of the year and that informs their projections for the next 3 – 6 months.  Experiences and knowledge from the market has taught traders to do moderate projections (not too long or too short) that fit within production cycles of particular crops (2 – 3 months).

Policy makers’ projections are rarely based on thorough evidence

Contrary to traders in African food markets, budgetary projections by African policy makers who rely on imported knowledge are barely informed by events in the market.  When the finance minister prepares a 12 month budget, what historical information informs that budget?  What consumption patterns and economic dynamics like expenditure patterns during the year inform the budget?  Absence of thorough evidence contributes to over-spending.

Ideally, the budget for the ministry of agriculture should speak to seasons and production cycles. For instance, the ministry cannot pretend that farmers demand the same amount of extension support consistently throughout the year. It is possible that the amount and intensity of extension support in winter is lower than in summer given that African agriculture is largely rain-fed. The budget should reflect all these different cycles or activities like planting, harvesting and marketing.

Most government policies do not have specific users and uses. It is important to ask who will use the agricultural policy. Who will be excluded or advantaged?  Who will benefit from an export policy or financial inclusion policy? Where are the pain points for different actors?  Why should we even be talking about rural finance as if rural areas have a distinct economy separate from an urban economy?  Who loses from government’s free inputs program?  Obviously, agro-dealers bear the market-distorting impact of free inputs.

Diversity as a source of knowledge

Diversity of demographics in mass markets also presents a lot of favorable dynamism in terms of knowledge. Found in mass markets are the youth, women, the old, the literate with wisdom, the illiterate with plenty of experience and wisdom as well as many others who bring commodity-specific and task-specific expertise.  Conversely, if you are in university, reading the same books, the thinking is the same and you cannot develop new knowledge.  Economists speak the same language, lawyers the same and engineers the same. While their knowledge is considered “pure”, it is redundant and closed in ivory towers.

As shown by informal markets, the power of many numbers explains why they traders have better techniques. Where many people come together for a shared initiative, they generate better solutions than a few graduates no matter the number of books they have read. Informal markets have a solid pathway from famers – traders – vendors – consumers through a strong information exchange ecosystem. They borrow from indigenous knowledge systems which had pathways through which knowledge was generated and pathways inherited.

Dependence on imported knowledge is the main reason why have African policy makers have remained detached from reality to the extent of expecting an individual minister Mthuli Ncube to come up with sound economic solutions from Cambridge University where he studied.  It is very clear that African academic policy makers are failing to contextualize and simplify imported knowledge. More importantly, academics should ask themselves: Who is going to be the consumer of our knowledge products? If knowledge generation is not informed by the consumer or the market, there will be a serious mismatch. The industry is not employing many PhD graduates due to this mismatch. As African countries strive to revive and strengthen industrialization, to what extent are universities informed about the needs of different industrial sectors, some of which have completely collapsed?

How responsive are institutions of higher learning?

If they really want to be relevant, academics should create space and time to hear what is really needed.  For instance, following land reform in Zimbabwe, how are universities generating a new type of agricultural economist who can connect with new land use patterns?  The food basket has also increased from 10 to 80 commodities and indigenous wild fruits have entered commercial markets. Some crops that did not use to come to the market are now dominant market fixtures. How are universities as knowledge institutions responding to these new ecosystems?

It is lamentable that formally educated Africans cannot understand or contribute to the indigenous economy because at the heart of formal education is a colonial extractive agenda. For instance, in the agriculture sector, the mudhumeni type of extension was introduced as a conduit to impart imported knowledge to farmers. While there were more extension officers than agronomists as specialists, the former white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe and other parts of East and Southern Africa valued  agronomists who specialized on specific crops.  To the extent almost every African farming community has diverse crops, livestock, wild fruits, exotic fruits, natural forests, a single extension officer in is not able to mediate knowledge needs and fill all the gaps.

By holding onto imported knowledge, African institutions of higher learning are not generating relevant knowledge for the Bottom of the Pyramid. In fact they are betraying millions of parents who are spending their hard earned income getting their children to absorb irrelevant imported knowledge. If you generate your own knowledge you should be able to find alternatives and solutions. Conversely, imported knowledge ends somewhere and forces you to go back and consult the original suppliers. For instance, if a combine harvester breaks down, Africans always go back where it came from because they cannot manufacture spare parts.

Who has determined that a university course should be three years?

One of the reasons why academic curricular has become too detached from local contexts is that it relies so much on stale literature which is not fresh knowledge.  African policy makers should not buy the false belief that economics is an international subject which can be used as one size fits all. Economics is certainly different from country to country and region to region. Who has determined that a university course should be three years? Africans have agreed to measure knowledge according to absorptive capacity yet learning in African economies is a process with natural graduation pathways seen through products  and emerging areas of excellence along the way.  You would see that someone is now an expert in thatching roofs, weaving baskets and taming livestock through products.  We cannot assume that a class of 200 economists should all be economists within three years.  We have used academic measures by resorting to tests and assignments.   Our African economies works through experiences of the user not tests. The learning is seen in how the user uses knowledge.

Those who spend three years in university cannot even interpret their knowledge, let alone apply it. Academics reduce knowledge to classroom learning when it should largely be more research-focused. In fact, it should be 30% classroom and 70% refining in the field and not just be about tests. Academics should spend more time in the field and reduce reading and depending on bibliography where if you write a short bibliography you do not pass because you are said to have not read many books.

Context-specific dissertations

Dissertations should not just focus on one topic as if that is the essence of the whole course.  Research should be longitudinal and experiential such that students should start documenting and turning their research into actual solutions from the first year at university so that upon graduation the student is already a specialist. Graduation pathways should be guided by the context such that someone can decide to drop off at some stage and go to work while others continue.  Those studying agricultural engineering should be working with artisans at Siyaso refining knowledge and what is working or not.

The whole notion of attachment is currently too cosmetic and meaningless. It is more like an event covering 6 – 12 months. If African institutions of higher learning cared about generating solutions, they would see that devoting 6 – 12 months of a four year course to practical engagement is a drop in the ocean of real contextual knowledge.  Other faculties should learn from the medical field which is more solutions-focused in that trainee nurses and doctors are always seen in hospital practicing what they are learning. Most medical schools and schools of nursing are also located at hospitals.

In the same vein, why should the faculty of agricultural economics or engineering be at the university campus when it should be where solutions are needed?   Also missing is a seamless transition between agricultural colleges and universities. Ideally, colleges should be extensions of universities and communities the way schools have form 1 to 6. For instance, in Zimbabwe Chibero agricultural college  should be linked to University of Zimbabwe or any other university in such a way that some university courses are actually studied at Chibero college. Students who want to drop off and focus on farming as an enterprise should do so while others continue from Chibero to university without any barriers like current silos where universities think they generate superior knowledge when they are less relevant than colleges.

African countries have unfortunately imported a superiority complex associated with imported knowledge into institutions of higher learning.  We have not adapted natural learning which is more indigenous and very important process which you can’t read from a book.  We have not built ecosystems of learning from our agricultural markets and SMEs where you get all aspects of knowledge and entrepreneurship.  As if that is not enough, Africans are using too much imaginary learning and not equipping children to learn from their context. Why should children in rural Binga and Chireya learn about the Central Business District (CBD) and how are they expected to use that knowledge? Africa still have abundant natural resources, human capital, IKS as well as strong relationships that constitute most of our solutions but policy makers still think external finance that comes with conditions is our salvation.  / /

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Convergence between imported knowledge and indigenous knowledge

African countries have not invested in understanding areas of convergence or overlap between Western knowledge and indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). In addition to continuous dependence on imported knowledge, most African countries suffer from a serious inferiority complex against their knowledge resources.  For instance, they continue to lament about lack of foreign currency, equipment and efficient transport systems as if that is the entire definition of an economy.


Ideally, African countries should take time to reflect and compare what they have in abundance with what they lack. They will be surprised to discover that have abundant resources like land, water, sunshine, forests and, more importantly, labor which is lacking in most developed economies. By embracing  imported knowledge, these countries have not developed their rural areas and economies to be able to anchor and utilize talent. Consequently, the best brains are always attracted from rural areas to cities. Highly educated and entrepreneurial Africans fail to fit into rural economies where the only knowledge-intensive pursuits are teaching, nursing and agro-dealership.

There is need to unpack principles of trading between African and Western knowledge.  For instance, how can African countries translate agricultural commodities from physical states to monetary states? How are these countries trading western knowledge with IKS in African cities?  A lot of fluid knowledge is being traded in cities especially interface between African and Western knowledge. It is critical to gather all this resource into a comparative advantage and sell it to the West. The starting point is knowing existing knowledge and its contribution to socio-economic development.

Interface between Western knowledge and IKS

Agriculture is a good example of a sector where Western knowledge and IKS have merged creatively. As agricultural commodities move along value chains there is a notable translation of IKS around value. Farmers produce using local knowledge and local resources but get some bit of western knowledge in the form of chemicals and fertilizer. However they only apply western knowledge where they really think it add value. Most farmers are now selective in using fertilizer especially in cases where manure is not available. They know their soils and micro climate and where their IKS informs them about the likelihood of minimum rainfall, they do not just apply fertilizer.

Farmers also have an intimate connection with local environmental features which inform them without writing anything down. Their entire planning is based on IKS especially in relation to weather. Once commodities are produced that is where they fuse IKS with western knowledge.  For instance, most African countries have not developed appropriate technology for processing or adding value to commodities. This is where knowledge gaps exist.

Western knowledge is not mainly for the benefit of African countries

Western knowledge is mainly designed to exploit opportunities and its main priority is not to feed Africa but preserve African products and make them meet standards of western consumers and markets.  Imported technology is brought in to increase the shelf life of African food systems for western markets.

One of the contributing factors is that African countries are failing to exploit their comparative advantages in the area of valuing food systems so that they can export IKS as a full package. If they had developed good technologies for drying vegetables and processing small grains as well as indigenous fruits, Africans would be very far.

A starting point can be communities valuating their natural resources as part of people’s daily lives and ecosystems. If Honde Valley communities say after producing bananas and other fruits for years they now want to venture into value addition and processing, we should design curricular to answer these needs. The same applies if communities in Dande who survive on masawu want to start producing value-added products, university curricular should focus on those needs.

Besides universities, the industry can also be involved in identifying needs at SMEs like Siyaso – what is the next level of knowledge do you want in terms of technology, finance and equipment?  This should be followed by appropriate financial packages.  We can avoid cases where students just study Banking and Finance. The curricular should be informed by the financial needs of SMEs and the new economy.  Some areas like accountancy and auditing have become redundant for the new economy such as accounting and auditing packages need a complete overhaul. How can we design accounting and auditing principles that apply the burgeoning SMEs sector? After graduating, students should go back and work with communities as knowledge leaders able to lead in imparting packaged knowledge embedded with IKS and imported knowledge.  / /

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