How African farmers are dealing with bad news brought by COVID19

How African farmers are dealing with bad news brought by COVID19

From the Masaai livestock owners in Kenya failing to access veterinary products to farmers in Lupane district of Zimbabwe failing to access usual markets due to lockdowns, COVID19 has resulted in uniform collective grief among food producers across Africa. To the extent dealing with droughts, locusts, fall army worm and other shocks pale in comparison to COVID19, the pandemic has shown how concerns of smallholder farmers are interconnected.

Different ways of handling bad news

Research and observations from eMKambo indicate that different agricultural commodities influence ways in which farmers are coping with bad news associated with COVID19. For instance in Buhera and Hwange districts of Zimbabwe, the pandemic struck when field crops like groundnuts, sweet reeds and green mealies were ready for the fresh market where such commodities enable farmers to buy basic commodities like cooking oil, sugar and horticulture foods that do not do well in the district. Consequently restrictions in movement introduced by government as part of containing the spread of the pandemic blocked income sources from the market.

Due to the limitations of a production-focused agricultural system, policy makers have not looked at the impact of lockdowns on entire supply chains. Banning public transport like long distance buses that ply cities and rural Africa has not only compromised nutrition but stopped more than 60 percent of food that moves through public transport from production zones to consumers.  “Just as some airlines are re-purposing passenger planes into cargo planes, why are governments not seeing the obvious merits of converting long distance buses into carriers and distributors of food from rural districts to cities?,” wondered one of the traders in Mbare Harare.

Need for psycho-social support

There is no doubt that the pandemic has taken African farmers through different stages of grief such as anger, denial, depression and acceptance. Providing free inputs will not be a solution for farmers to deal with the psychological and emotion stress of losing their sources of livelihood. There is need for psychologists and sociologists to assist farmers with the grieving process which, depending on how it is handled, will influence how farmers’ responses to future interventions by development agencies and government.  Many NGOs who were working with farmers pre-COVID19 left farmers in the cold and went into isolation, leaving farmers to grapple with market issues on their own. 

Across much of Africa, guidelines for dealing with COVID19 were not explained in sufficient detail for farmers, traders, consumers and other value chain actors to fully understand what was happening.  Explaining decisions in enough detail would have shown that leaders were treating farmers and agricultural value chain actors with care. Lack of clear information has made it hard for farmers, especially those in remote communities, to process complex information about the pandemic. By providing regular market updates, eMKambo has tried to sustain hope, resilience and inspiration among farmers so that they continue producing.  This prevented a withdrawal syndrome among those who were contemplating stopping to produce after the first loss during the first 21 days of the lockdown.

Importance of farmer leadership during shocks

Failure to come up with tangible comprehensive solutions will slow the ability of African smallholder farmers to bounce back from effects of the pandemic. Many farmers are losing trust in farmer leaders, rules, laws and informal social agreements that have driven agriculture for decades.  No amount of free inputs will rebuild the trust.

What has become clear is the dire need for appropriate farmer leadership during difficult times such as pandemics. A key role for such leadership is building cultural and psychological protection for farmers to secure their well-being, livelihoods and performance. Facilitating alternative markets can be a better way of reducing the damage inflicted on farmers by the pandemic as well as directing their willpower and energy to preparing for the future. Creating pathways for sustaining farmers’ hopes and collective resilience cannot be over-emphasized. Unfortunately market failure caused by lockdowns has largely been treated as business as usual through bureaucratic processes that have not taken into account the perishable nature of most commodities produced by African smallholder farmers. When tomatoes are ready for the market they are ready for it.  The same applies with eggs, beef and pork.  / /

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Building appetite for empirical guidance in developing countries

Building appetite for empirical guidance in developing countries

Besides health-related statistics like COVID19 cases, number of those recovering and number of the deceased, most countries lack data and statistics related to how the pandemic has impacted the economy. Without significant appetite for empirical evidence and guidance, it is difficult for policy makers to take appropriate precautions towards reviving the economy.  Data and evidence has never been so important in directing decisions on recovery and restoration of agro-based economies. The graphic below show the impact of COVID19 on potato supplies and price trends in Mbare market of Harare.

Lack of data and information along the supply chain leads to ad hoc decisions.  More importantly, without data and statistics, policy makers will not know what will be the price of staples like maize meal in the next six months or by the beginning of the next planting. COVID19 has revealed the importance of collecting data towards informing pricing models. When quantities of commodities in farming areas and volumes destined for the market are not known, price setting is an artificial exercise.  Mass markets are different to formal markets in that they tend to predict and prices when the commodities reach the market.

Who should have appetite for data?

In addition to policy makers, formal organizations like seed companies and processing companies should be interested in market data. For instance, volumes of commodities flowing into agriculture markets reflect inputs that have been provided or sold to farmers just as such volumes will guide processing companies in procurement decisions. More importantly, formal companies should be interested in data on what is happening in informal markets because the more informal the economy becomes, the more formal companies fail to understand the competitive landscape and eventually collapse.

Research institutions, government department and farmer unions should also have a strong appetite for data because they work with many people whose millions of insights should be collated to give a complete national picture. Individual farmers may not be able to demand data which they have no idea how to use or interpret it. In the same many consumers would rather eat a meal than be given different ingredients to make their own meals, farmers may just be interested in solutions not ingredients.  Otherwise restaurants and fast food chains would have gone out of business as consumers resort to preparing their own meals at home.

In most cases, individual farmers may not have uses for all the data comprising more than 80 commodities when they are only dealing with two or five. If you are selling a few buckets, information about all commodities may mean nothing.  Even if farmers are informed about prices of commodities, they may not have the power to influence price changes except may be to make decisions about selling to the local market. Big companies and research institutions who are more interested in understanding the entire value chain or ecosystem definitely need data. Wholesalers and processors need the data for projecting their trends and plans. On the other hand, since they are not technocrats, ministers should not be bombarded with complex data.

Achieving collective impact through data

Development organizations like NGOs that have become used to pursuing isolated impact in rural Africa are being challenged by COVID19 to consider embracing collective impact through collective utilization of data. In big districts like Chimanimani or Lupane in Zimbabwe, it is not possible for a single NGO or a consortia of NGOs under one program to achieve real impact without bringing on board other actors in the same communities towards collective use of data. How can an NGO working with 10 000 beneficiaries hope to impact the entire community of more than 400 000 people?  Likewise, it is far-fetched for a program working only in 18 districts to dream of impacting a country with 60 districts without paying attention to the power of data.

Given the number of years they have been operating in African countries, some UN agencies would by now have built a huge knowledge base comprising fluid statistics.  Unfortunately that is not the case because such organizations work through consultants who just present reports after every assignment and walk away with much of the knowledge gathered from the field. When there is an outbreak of Fall Armyworm, Anthrax or locusts, African scientists are not able to generate home-grown solutions but have to tell farmers to spray chemicals imported from the West. Experiences of dealing with previous shocks have not been consolidated into a solid knowledge base. Every interventions starts from scratch.

The imported formal education system is partly to blame for this predicament. African experts cannot move beyond numbers that are just thrown around with no interpretation. For instance, a country can say its population consumes 1.8 million metric tons of maize annually but there are no attempts to break down the figures into what goes to processing companies, what goes for the Maputi industry and how much is taken by the green mealies consumption. Irrespective of pandemics like COVID19, agricultural commodities are always in transit and if the government does not know where commodities are coming from and going as well as in what quantities/volumes, policy making is like chasing greased pigs.  / /

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To what extent should African agriculture continue to be extension-driven?

To what extent should African agriculture continue to be extension-driven?

In much of Africa there is an age-old assumption that agriculture has to be driven by extension. This is visible in how much of the support from governments and development agencies tend to focus mainly on production while neglecting other value chain nodes such as logistics and markets.  More importantly, agriculture has not been properly segmented in ways that can show its contribution to various aspects of the society and economy.

Beyond contribution to GDP

Agriculture’s contribution to the economy is only mentioned in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). What about its contribution to critical social aspects like diverse livelihoods and wealth levels, for instance, around livestock and natural resources? There is also no support to ensure agriculture informs nutrition and health. From a structural perspective, the department of extension has a presence from village to national level, with specialists in the production of diverse agricultural commodities. 

However, once a commodity is produced that is when other aspects of the society and economy get involved – social contributions, contributions of agriculture to local development, household income and other economic needs including exports.  For appropriate Return on Investment, all these other fields need specialists whose collective effort and expertise should inform investments in agriculture, policy review and development.

Markets are more than demand and supply

Currently, agricultural markets are only approached as an expression of economic needs such as demand and supply, excluding social, developmental and other needs. If you look critically at markets, many agricultural commodities and products are used for traditional, spiritual and social purposes that have nothing to do with economic needs.  Examples include use of cattle for paying dowry and mother’s cow (Mombe yeumai/inkomo kaMama), draught power as well as traditional ceremonies in the case of small grains. A lot of traditional commodities are found in mass markets because they satisfies traditional functions for many Africans who have migrated to the city with their traditional values. Such a social contribution has to be recognized as it provides dignity and sense of fulfilment for some people. All these aspects should be valued and expressed as agriculture’s contribution to the economy.

Developmental issues – how does agricultural contribute to community development? There is a wrong assumption that community development is about roads, clinics and schools. Such a notion of development does not take into account agricultural issues. Policies should look at issues like agriculture and development, agriculture and sociology, agriculture and business (business models), agriculture and economic growth, agriculture and ICTs. There should be a strong link between agriculture and ICTs.

Disciplines needed in a vibrant economics and markets department

Ideally, the department of economics and markets in an African ministry of agriculture should comprise experts from multiple disciplines including the following experts, among others:

  • Economists (pure) – focusing on macro and micro issues. Economists should also have a financial bias so that they are able to assist farmers with understanding monetary and fiscal issues as well as implications of mobile money on agricultural markets.
  • Sociologists – these focus on development, social, gender and other issues including how  markets contribute to rural development.
  • Agricultural economists – These focus on how agriculture and economics fuse together. Whiles some of them may be found within the department of research, that department is often not represented at the markets. 
  • Nutritionists – In addition to addressing nutritional issues, these should take care of food safety and ensure food systems are not loaded with chemicals.
  • To the extent agriculture is largely a market issue, those who did business studies should also find space in economics and markets.
  • Markets are about data – To that end, experts and systems for analyzing data are need if the ministry of agriculture is to accurately interpret markets.  Such experts can be in the form of statisticians and ICT specialists who will ensure market-related policies are backed by evidence and statistics.
  • Livestock / veterinary specialists should be seconded to the market just as the ministry of ICTs should second experts to the economics and markets department.
  • Specialist on infrastructure to work with local authorities on market infrastructure are critical.  Infrastructure is not just about irrigation systems.

One stop shop department

The economics and markets department should become a one-stop shop. Just like production, markets start from local communities all the way to foreign markets like Europe. That is why the department of economics and markets should have a presence at the grassroots where markets start.  Some value chains end at local markets. If economists are only stationed at head office, how will they get statistics about short value chains that end at local level where they contribute to socio-economic development? 

Local and village markets are the foundation for robust supply chains.  Once a community has succeeded in production, what type of support can it get from economics and markets department?  Such support should become from ICT specialists, development specialists, pure economists, agricultural economists, statisticians, nutritionists, gender specialists, financial specialists and others. This will ensure as commodities move along the supply chain, they are given appropriate direction for maximum impact. While there is nothing wrong with focusing on agricultural extension, supply-driven approaches have enormous limits.  The best way of strengthening a chain is to pull it, not push it!  / /

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Some deeper questions COVID19 is inviting African countries to answer

Some deeper questions COVID19 is inviting African countries to answer

The COVID19 pandemic continues to invite developing countries to consider both hard and soft data when making decisions. Hard data refers to numbers and facts in addition to concrete statements that can be proven. Soft data refers to people’s feelings and emotions including how people feel about the lockdown. While numbers explain what is happening, for instance number of cases in each country, they do not sufficiently account for why things are happening or how people feel about that is happening.

For how long are middlemen going to be part of trading agricultural commodities?

Farmers who had made progress in increasing their interaction with the market before COVID19 are beginning to see middlemen strengthening their stranglehold in value chains as lockdowns block farmers from accessing consumers and markets. Many farming communities lamenting why middlemen have always been part of both formal and informal markets for decades. The dominance of middlemen has prevented the old generation from passing market knowledge to the young generation directly. Young people have always had to start from scratch in understanding the market. To a large extent, COVID19 is reversing some of the major gains that had been scored in strengthening relationships between farmers and markets.

Limitations of depending on middlemen

While big farmers may want to continue dealing with middlemen because they do not have time to visit mass markets, small farmers see more benefits from engaging directly with the market and consumers. Relying on middlemen has several limitations including the following:

  • Middlemen become custodians of market trends as farmers are just told to produce.
  • Middlemen end up bringing inputs to the farmers as if it is a favour yet that weakens farmers’ bargaining power.
  • The middlemen also end up understanding varieties demanded in the market better than farmers.
  • Big farmers become blinded by depending on one middleman who comes to collect commodities from the farm, impeding farmers from knowing different markets or customers who want their products. Ideally farmers should know the extent to which they are feeding the country by meeting the needs of different niche markets. That cannot happen if the middlemen always comes to collect commodities from the farm.

What are the benefits of forcing school children to write exams during COVID19?

 Forcing children to sit for examinations during the pandemic fully demonstrates the extent to which African education curricula is exam-oriented rather than problem solving-oriented. If African countries had a fluid educational curricula college students would be applying their knowledge to challenges presented by COVID-19. Those studying law, finance, medicine, veterinary science, economics, risk management and other disciplines would be able to apply their knowledge in a COVID-19 world. 

The ordinary person in the African street now understands the economy during COVID19 much better than academics. If street vendors have more financial literacy than academics and college students it means developing countries do not have future leaders. In countries like Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, informal traders are now more informed than the economists. Meanwhile, students are grappling with the wrong syllabus and waiting for COVID19 to end so that they resume studies yet knowledge is passing them by through opportunities presented by COVID19. What does the lockdown mean for those studying engineering, law, medicine, veterinary science, finance, insurance and many other disciplines?  Developing countries should not continue to be proud of an examination-oriented education system where students learn to churn out answers without understanding the subject matter.

Can lessons from COVID19 facilitate returning farmers and traders to profitability? 

COVID19 has surfaced a couple of tensions that had been simmering underneath African agriculture-driven economies for decades. For instance, the pandemic is revealing the importance of understanding needs and realities on the ground before designing financial models. After being exposed to simplistic notions of financial inclusion which have apparently been challenged by COVID19, many African farmers and agricultural value chain actors are becoming more skeptical of losing their knowledge and access to land through badly designed financial models.

The pandemic is beginning to inspire new ways of financing agriculture, seeking answers to questions like:

  • If smallholder farmers and rural communities are not investment ready, whose role is it to make them ready? 
  • How do we avoid over-investment?  A crisis in micro finance should not extend to agriculture.
  • How do we use the supply chain to clarify opportunities in the agriculture sector?  Pipeline challenges have existed for too long – some businesses can be good at production but still not meet the criteria for funders. 
  • How do we localize critical capital so that it satisfies local needs?

Answering the above questions prevents an elitist view of investment in agriculture and ensure funding addresses grassroots issues. The pandemic is already showing that what is being negatively referred to as the informal sector is the critical light industry.  The distinction between agriculture and manufacturing is sometimes very artificial. Monetary policies have to change in order to build resilient enterprises from the grassroots. SMEs will have to be empowered so that post-COVID19 they inspire the state to play a different role not just formalize them for the purposes of taxing them.  / /

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The knowledge brokering role of transporters in African food systems

Beyond transporting commodities from production zones to markets, transporters have a much more important knowledge brokering role in African food systems. Transporters are unique informants who get information from diverse actors and sources such as farmers, traders, other transporters, fuel dealers, equipment manufacturers and others. They also convey information from the market to farmers better than traders who may want to hide some of the market intelligence from farmers. More importantly, they are often willing to move commodities without cash and be paid after commodities have been sold. This is critical in limiting the use and demand for cash while keeping the marketing system flowing efficiently.

A case for the lead transporter

While on the production side there is a lead farmer, there is often no equivalent recognition of a lead transporter on the market side or along the supply chain. Ideally there should be a lead transporter with  rich experiences and knowledge from dealing with farmers, peer and consumers. Circumstances under which farmers fail to pay for transport services can only be more understood by the transporter.  Farmers often inform the transporter about cases where they are mistreated by different kinds of traders.  All this information increases the transporter’s understanding of the food supply chain.

How transporters influence production

Transporters tend to have more exposure to different production zones and terrains in areas where they are hired to collect commodities. That enables them to follow production cycles intimately, making them well versed in how different actors respond to production cycles. The cost component of the transporter builds between the farmer and trader.  Farmers can decide to transport commodities to the market before talking to the trader but negotiations between farmers and traders can be handled by the transporter.  If not negotiated properly cost components have a bearing on relationships between farmers and the market. 

While some farmers can specialize in tomatoes and some traders specialize in butternuts, the transporter is an all-rounder which means s/he can acquire knowledge about diverse commodities which s/he carries from farming communities to markets. The transporter hears all the pain points from different actors including farmers, traders and consumers.  However, to be professional knowledge brokers, transporters need mini-knowledge cafes through which they can be vetted based on their experience in transporting different commodities as well as their knowledge of farmers and farming areas. 

After spending years in agribusiness, most transporters increase their customer base to include formal and informal markets, in the process broadening and deepening their knowledge. Through their distribution roles, transporters know destinations of different commodities and are very important actors in African food supply chains.  It is often difficult for rural areas to process agricultural commodities unless they have distributors who know where the end product will go. Some of the independent distributors have technical and export know-how. Where the majority of farmers lack a direct link to distant markets,  transporters can reach those markets and acquire vital knowledge on how they function.  Like middlemen and traders, transporters are so fundamental that it may not be surprising that removing them from the supply chain may be tantamount to taking away more than 50% of the market’s role and knowledge.  / /

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To what extent does the market inform production decisions?

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

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

Towards needs-based interventions

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

What drives units of measurement?

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

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

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

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

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

Why not use scales? 

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

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

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

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

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

Answers are as good as the questions asked

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

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

Systematic challenges around knowledge

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

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

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

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

A home for indigenous food systems and traditional medicine

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

Turning to sports, art and culture

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

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

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

Streamlining African identity and culture

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

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

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

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

Strategic grain reserves have their own limits

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

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

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

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The power of clear role definition in African food systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to a dynamic environment

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

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

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Reimagining a new socio-economic fabric for African informal economies

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

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

Importance of careful business profiling

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

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

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

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

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