African home-grown economies have their own unique indicators

Convergence between formal and informal African economies has become fertile ground for building home-grown economies that have unique indicators. Cities are platforms for such convergence because they are conduits through which Western knowledge flows into Africa via coasts, air transport and communication systems. While African countries are obsessed with marketing tourist sites like game reserves and natural wonders like the Victoria Falls, they are not tapping into fluid knowledge in the form of culture and values that are quietly being traded in cities between imported and local knowledge.

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How coping strategies influence economic indicators

African home-grown economic indicators are influenced by the fact that most of the economies are still closely linked to natural resources. To that end economic circumstances cannot be adequately expressed in terms of imported indicators like employment and unemployment levels. On the contrary, they focus on individual and community ownership of assets related to agriculture and natural resources as key indicators of economic growth or sustainability. If employment or unemployment levels were a correct indicator of economic growth or stagnation, the over 90% unemployment being mentioned for countries like Zimbabwe would have meant the country is no longer function.

That is why Africa needs home-grown economists who can come up with new, relevant definitions of employment and unemployment. Such efforts would assist in shedding light on how cities like Harare and Nairobi with informal businesses and SMEs constituting more than 80% are surviving with high levels of so-called “unemployment”. How can a city with 96% unemployment continue functioning?  In rural areas, drought or disasters like floods would probably account for such levels of incapacity. A 96% disability is not realistic because it’s close to complete shut-down. How is that possible? Instead of depending on imported theories and textbooks, home-grown economists should generate valuation systems that can assist communities to fully know the value of their natural resources. All African communities value what individuals have as a business. You cannot teach entrepreneurship to people who are already practicing different forms of entrepreneurship.

eMKambo recently met a Masaai livestock herder/owner in Masaai Mara grasslands of Kenya. Oiling his gun, the herder said after obtaining a Masters degree at Jomo Kenyatta University he decided to go back and connect with cattle production which he grew up doing, thanks to his grand-parents. With an amazing air of contentment, the herder narrated a recent story in which business people from Nairobi were bringing vehicles to him persuading him to exchange five of his cattle with a Toyota Prado. “What would I use the Prado for?  I am more rich and satisfied with my cattle,” he said with a knowing smile. The Masaai gentlemen is an example of a home-grown economic agent able assess and value his wealth differently.

Imported terminologies do not adequately explain African economies

The Masaai are satisfied with their wealth.  African SMEs are surviving within the so-called 90% unemployment level. Rather than use imported terminologies to value African wealth, African think tanks and universities should generate new valuation knowledge that speaks to local contexts. Such knowledge should guide policy review and remove Africans’ inferiority complexes about their knowledge which is limiting capacity to exploit African comparative advantages based on ownership of natural resources.

Why do African countries agree to measure their poverty datum line using a dollar a day when the majority do not use dollars? African countries should be using social indicators like depression or erosion of values among communities whose relatives are migrating to the diaspora in response to economic down turns. Another indicator should be related to knowledge and information. The extent to which an increase in the cost of communication has become a barrier to knowledge and information sharing is a powerful socio-economic indicator in African economies. A related indicator is how increases in transport costs are leading to the break-down of social fabrics as urban dwellers no longer visit their relatives in rural areas to replenish their knowledge, norms, values and wisdom. The roots of an indigenous home-grown economy are directly linked to social not economic factors.

What happens if African countries stop using foreign currency to value their economies?

African countries have embraced imported western knowledge as if they did not their own knowledge before colonization. Many ordinary people in Africa have never stopped wondering why African governments are allowing their natural resources and food systems to be valued and priced using United States Dollars.  If China wants tobacco from Zimbabwe while Zimbabwe needs machinery and fertilizer from China, why is it not possible for these commodities be exchanged directly without the United States Dollar coming in between?

The value of the tobacco can be easily agreed up and same with the value of the machinery or fertilizer without any money exchanging hands. The same notion can be extended to minerals. Whoever wants African gold should bring what is needed in Africa, with the commodities simply exchanged. As opposed to African countries converting their commodities to foreign currency before buying what is needed from importers of African commodities, those in need of tobacco and minerals should be the ones bringing foreign currency where it is needed but commodities of equivalent value should suffice.

Why is globalization silent about knowledge?

Global trade emphasizes free trade areas and selling of commodities but knowledge is not considered part of the economic and commodity focus. How is knowledge traded as part of global trade just like commercial trade of goods and services?  There are no specific avenues and vehicles for tracking knowledge trading between countries and commodities.  International economic development practice uses indicators like employment creation, income levels and population growth, excluding knowledge as an indicator or component of economic growth.  There has to be more appropriate definitions of an economy in the African sense without continued use of adopted definitions of the economy and economic growth from borrowed and imported knowledge. It is very important and urgent to start developing African home-grown economic indicators that do not just consider economics but embraces social indicators such as culture, tradition and the whole society. All this has its own growth paths from rural to urban areas.

Challenges with domesticating technology

Lack of attention to home-grown indicators has increased African challenges around the adoption of technology. The Western and imported notion of trading platforms was meant for trading commodities without using cash but some corporates in African countries like Zimbabwe have abused platforms by using them for trading money. Had African countries developed their own platforms they would have embedded software to, for instance, modernize barter trade which has proven to be more resilient in all economies across the globe.

Ethical deployment of technology platform should anchor African mass markets which creatively combine barter trade with modern transaction modes.  This is how authentic commodity exchanges can be created and anchored in technology in ways that create networks for facilitating commodities to find each other and transact with no need for money. Communities should then be educated about the fact that by clamoring for cash they are burdening themselves when all they need is to know their needs first.  If money is for buying commodities and services, why not bring those commodities and services together and eliminating the need for cash and middlemen who are abusing platforms?  / /

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Key characteristics of a home-grown African economy

A home-grown economy is all about identity and some identity features start from a country’s name.  During the colonial era Rhodesia had its own meaning and image associated with Cecil John Rhodes. Come independence in 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, derived from Zimba raMabwe – a house built of stones. Naming a country is often based on enormous amounts of collective consensus and unpacking the name has more to do with a shared culture and tradition which is the backbone of home-grown solutions. A well-packaged culture is the foundation of every home-grown economy. Building a home-grown economy starts with answering questions like who are we? What is our culture?  What are our values? What human and natural resources do we have?


Culture and tradition is part of natural resources

Most African countries continue to be envied for their natural resources by the rest of the world. However, building a home-grown economy should start with re-classifying existing resources in ways that reflect strong relationships between culture, tradition and natural resources. For instance, Zimbabwe’s policy makers are still using the colonial characterization of natural farming regions one to five according to amounts of annual rainfall received. Characterizing an economy on rainfall patterns  without considering elements like culture including languages of the local people who have traditionally used local resources, land and minerals, underestimates important characteristics of an economy.

Socio-economic development patterns cannot be determined by rainfall patterns only. That is why all African countries should revisit colonial classifications of their economic drivers and production zones. Mineral dykes should be re-classified in order to clearly define opportunities for local communities. In a changing climate, it no longer makes sense to define farming areas according to annual rainfall amounts. Instead, watersheds and large river basins should be defined as green belts requiring specific resources.   The same apples with forests which should have their own classification and definition from a socio-economic perspective. Cultures and languages should be accordingly classified as part of natural resources so that it becomes clear where Shona, KiSwahili, isiNdebele, Nyanja and all diverse African languages which mediate knowledge used to exploit natural resources begins and ends. Currently, with the dominance of English through imported education systems, it is difficult to tell where local languages begin, end and overlap.

Unlocking investment potential and opportunities

Carefully repackaging natural resources with existing culture and tradition can empower communities to own and control investment opportunities. For instance, each community can ask itself questions like – since we have identified all our natural resources, what opportunities can we open to the outside world? In relation to culture, what investment opportunities can we identified around art, dance, music and others? Each community has its culture which can be converted into knowledge – driven content like films and food.

Although African countries have school of mines, they do not have capacity to add value to their minerals due to lack of appropriate technology. Consequently, mining remains an extractive industry that cannot adequately contribute to building home-grown economies. Good mining policies are useless if a country does not have appropriate knowledge. Anyone who brings equipment ends up being the mine owner. Capacity to produce mining equipment is still lacking and that is why African countries are competing for extractive investors.

Absence of investment analyses

African countries are not benefitting from their resources because they have not invested in assessing and valuing their resources. A home-grown economy needs a whole university focusing on valuating resources, generating budgets and business plans for communities in economic zones.  Currently African countries are just giving out mining concessions to foreign companies who are doing all the explorations and God knows how much information these companies are hiding from African governments, especially relating to the value of local minerals.  Each community should have local invest analysts whose main roles include valuating resources like minerals, forests, soils, wildlife and water bodies. Where perennial rivers exist, valuation can adequately inform setting up of green belts to ensure food security. Valuation will reveal the folly of governments and development organizations trying to drive an economy using irrigation schemes, most of which were set up to supplement rain-fed production not commercial purposes.


Agricultural policies should be developed from the bottom

The current practice of setting and deploying agricultural policies from the top is slowing down the growth of home-grown economies. Policies should be informed by valuation of the agriculture sector covering water, land and production capacity. Such details should inform required budget unlike budgeting annually from the top and ending up dedicating more than half of the budget to a few agricultural commodities. A bottom up approach to agricultural policy development will see communities participating in valuating resources. After all they know what they need for agricultural support, gaps and where support is lacking. Communities can then be assisted by specialists to do the costing and budgeting.  Currently most African countries do agricultural budgeting annually. It is difficult to promote agriculture and grow an economy that way.

Community-based plans should inform the national agricultural strategic plans. There should be a 5 – 10 year investment plan backed by community priorities and targets. For instance, communities in Chimanimani, Machakos and other areas should participate in budgeting their local agricultural activities. They know what they have and the nature of support they need. Building home-grown economies is also about moving away from the Mudhumeni type of extension which has a strong colonial background (teacher-student relationship between extension officers and farmers). There should be a team of experts working with communities based on available resources. For instance, fruit specialists should be concentrated in Honde Valley (for exotic fruits) and Dande (for Masawu). Livestock areas like Gwanda should have a concentration of appropriate skills.  These experts should work with communities in developing short, medium and long-term plans (2 – 10 years).  This approach speaks to sustainability and devolution. You can’t talk about devolution without experts at the grassroots taking care of issues daily.

African academic institutions should work very closely with the agriculture sector. Currently universities are pursuing academic excellence with no links to the economy.  Each university should have an outreach budget that can be used to decolonize the notion of student attachment from a focus on urban industries.  There should be a budget for students to go out and work with smallholder agricultural communities, irrigation schemes, catchments and villages.  That is an important way of inculcating passion for local resources, practices and knowledge. The ministry of agriculture should be part of assessing graduates to prove that the student has impacted the local community in which s/he was attached.

Minerals and arable land is found in rural and farming areas not in cities. Forests are in rural areas not cities and farming happens in rural areas. How can African countries tap into their rural economies so that they become hubs of investment opportunities?  It is ironic that African countries allow money to circulate in cities where most of our resources are absent.

Citizen participation in the development and implementation of government policies

Home-grown economies can only be sustained through promoting genuine participation of citizens in policy development, formulation and implementation. Unfortunately, in most African countries policies are crafted from the top and in cities.  For instance, Zimbabwe’s Transitional Stabilization Programme (TSP) is barely understood by the majority and remains just a buzzword. Each community should identify local socio-economic intermediaries whose roles include extracting local knowledge, solving conflicts and explaining opportunities. Ideally such roles should be fulfilled by traditional leaders like chiefs.

Unfortunately most African chiefs become chiefs through traditional structures and not by merit. This would not be a big problem if there were leadership colleges for chiefs where they would acquire or sharpen important skills like articulating investment opportunities in their areas. Most chiefs have either dropped out of school or have been shunned by the formal education system. Ironically, they find themselves conducting complicated traditional leadership roles that are very important for local economic development. As custodians of natural resources, traditional leaders should have an appreciation of investment analysis in order to accurately value and protect resources for their communities. They cannot just preside over petty cases. Local leaders should go for formative training of leaders just as chief executives go for retreats where they hone each other’s skills as practitioners dealing with complex issues that require emotional awareness and intelligence. Grooming traditional leadership structures to be able to value their own communities and resources is an integral part of building a home-grown economy.

The unfortunate role of partisan politics and imported governance systems

The majority of African countries have imported partisan politics and have failed to separate the ruling party from government which are functioning like one entity. By nature it is difficult to control favoritism. Much of the resources end up following the political route as opposed to the government route from the head offices to the village. The minister belongs to a political party and resources go to the District Administrator who is a member of the same political party and is expected to hand over commodities to a chief who is also expected to belong to the same party for sharing to villagers who are members of his same party.

For a home-grown economy to flourish there should be mechanisms to neutralize politicians and their political parties in communities. Socio-economic development should be separated from politics. In communities with abundant natural resources, investors do not know who to talk to between the District Administrator, Chief Executive Officer of the Rural District Council, Council Chairperson or local Member of Parliament (MP). Too many administrative structures are complicating entry points for investors.  Ultimately, there is an imposition from the top where, for instance, investors get licences to mine in local communities like Chiadzwa from Harare without consulting traditional leaders who just see things happening.

Due to the dominance of imported political structures, rural African communities now think politicians are problem solvers. This is because the politicians are using persuasive information during elections to generate false promises.  This puts communities in a comfort zone – “Our MP has promised us a dam and development so let us relax.”  As part of building home-grown African economies, politicians should not be allowed to use empty promises in ways that destroy our communities.  The fact that resources from the tax system come through the MP results in the MP receiving undue credit.  Communities are not aware of the fact that tax payers money coming to them through the MP to build their communities is not coming from the MP.

There are more negatives than positives in having political structures at grassroots. Such structures disintegrate communities socially and economically.  Once communities are disintegrated there is no cohesive planning and implementation of community initiatives.  An example is food for work where the MP often selects workers according to partisan lines. People with appropriate skills, for instance, in road rehabilitation will be excluded if they belong to a different political party.  More importantly, political differences hamper sharing of knowledge and skills to the community’s disadvantage.  Even at national level, opposition parties do not share their ideas with everyone on the pretext that the ruling party will take the credit from such ideas.  / /

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The flip side of participatory methodologies

While the importance of involving communities in solving their own challenges has been supported for decades, the limitations of participatory methodologies have not received enough attention. Usually participatory methods emphasize the participation of individual people as opposed to communities. Unfortunately, many people may have limited capacity to interpret information and knowledge. It is also sometimes difficult for participants to balance their individual expectations with the expectations of a community in which they are members.


Limitations of sampling and the role of exposure

Participatory methodologies are often associated with sampling, with participants sampled from a community, for instance. Where sampled participants constitute 20% of the population in a community, the knowledge to be harvested will also be in that range, meaning that 80% of the knowledge will be excluded. In addition, the extent to which participants are exposed to the outside world influences the quality of their contributions in participatory activities. For instance, where an agricultural extension officer is a key informant on agricultural value chains, the quality of his or her knowledge depends on exposure to issues along entire value chains from farm to factory to fork or from the soil to the plate. In some cases, the extension officer may not have stayed long enough in a particular community to be able to provide detailed historical experiences of the agricultural community.

The influence of unexpressed expectations

Individual participants in focus group discussions or survey often hide unexpressed expectations which influence their responses. If they think they will get some aid or support they will tailor their responses in ways that portray a struggling community in need of external support. Conversely, if they suspect that their knowledge and information will be used to build best practices to be shared with other communities and the outside world, they will provide optimistic and positive ideas and knowledge systems showing a resilient and progressive community full of amazing coping strategies.

 Gender and participatory methodologies

Participatory methodologies on gender should take into account broader macro issues like the economy, culture and other major factors that affect gender relations. This is because gender issues are influenced by a lot of national benchmarks and contextual factors like culture, religion, economic performance, social class as well as the preferences of the old and young generation. Young couples may have different preferences to old couples.  Once you use sampling and participatory methods the process becomes self-centred and driven by personal experiences that cannot be replicated everywhere. That is why gender-based violence cannot be generalized but has to be contextualized.

Whoever does community contextual research should be a knowledge broker with a broader knowledge base and understanding of issues that individuals. That will avoid taking incidents to be the norm.  Where women are brought together to discuss how a male-dominated society is bad, they will pour out as much as possible how men are bad and not speak loudly about how women sometimes perpetuate negative outcomes. If it is about HIV and AIDS, the conversation will always find someone to blame, for instance sex workers. In addition, participants try to anticipate and provide the answers that they think whoever is conducting a survey wants to hear.

Situational bias

A community’s situation can have a big influence on outcomes from participatory methodologies. That is why timing is very important. For instance if you do a survey in a community that is still grieving from a cyclone, responses will be contaminated by fresh memories of the recent disaster. Depending on context, participatory methodologies may also have a limited sense of openness as some information can be censored. There are things women will not say in public or in the presence of their husbands or in the presence of an extension officer or a leader.  Yet such missing details are the ones that make a difference.

Participatory methodologies should look at the bigger picture

For instance, what are the drivers of gender-based violence at macro level?  It could be due to economic hardships which are a macro issue.  To what extent do communities understand issues that are causing their problems?  Break down in social fabrics with people moving to the diaspora in search of employment could partly explain some of the causes, leading to a clash between individuals’ biological and economic needs. Participatory methodologies have to be backed by local knowledge already existing in the community – tapping into existing knowledge and information sharing systems. That is why research requires a comparative analysis between a community and other areas where knowledge exists. In most cases 20 members participating in a focus group discussion from one community can give you information that can easily be provided by one participant from the same community. This is because they have similar characteristics within a community that has been honing and sharing information and knowledge over years.  There is need to compare with other communities in order to see the differences.

The power of a longitudinal framework

In a changing climate, participatory methodologies should not be once-off events but should have a longitudinal framework that keeps track of changes as they happen. A theory of change should be immersed in background if it is to answer questions like: To what extent has informal markets changed the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the agricultural landscape?  Such a question cannot be answered without historical data and contextual analysis. Informal markets and production zones are different and cannot be impacted by climate change the same way.

A contextual comparative analysis methodology can position potential agricultural Communities of Practice (CoPs) within a broader scope of thematic areas. Communities should have a say on where participatory methodologies are coming from. To what extent have money as a store of wealth contributed to gender-based violence?  A local NGO may not know the impact of economic issues like cross-border trade which are sources of some of the bandwagon effect that is influencing women, with some wanting to dress in a certain way. Identity is often messed up in ways that influences community of practices to change shape especially if cultures are infiltrated.

When dealing with rural communities there is need for a comparative analysis that looks at what informs your sampling. The participatory notion should not just focus on individual people.  For agro-based economies, communities or districts should be selected as participants not individuals. That leads to the selection of agro-economic drivers, making it easier to compare and contrast situations.  Normally where vulnerable households are selected to be participants you are just authenticating individual views. It is like setting and agenda and faster way of validating what is already known.  / /

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How knowledge is different from technical expertise and more powerful

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

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Limitations of a technical skills-driven agriculture system

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

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

Technical skills do not spread along entire value chains

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

Reliance on technical skills tends to derail change and innovation

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

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

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

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

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

Haunga pisi imba nokuti yaita tsikidzi

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

The power of sharing resources

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

Contradictions brought by the new economy

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

From competition to collusion

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

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

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

Limitations of trying to resuscitate an economy using borrowed money

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

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

Need to explore home-grown solutions

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

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

Merits of going back to the drawing board

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

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

A case for revising industrial land ownership structures

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

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

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

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How African mass markets harness the benefits of diversity

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


Keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value

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

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

 Equality, trust and relationships

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

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

Open knowledge society

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

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

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

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Why consumers in developing countries are not crazy about tinned food

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


Commodities that set quality parameters in African fresh markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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