Lessons from how farmers view wealth creation as a holistic system

Although there is a tendency to treat the majority of African smallholder farmers as passive recipients of external information and knowledge, they are very good at learning from their experiences. In Zimbabwe, eMKambo has discovered that farming communities and individual farmers contribute to the national knowledge base more than they will ever know. They have perfected collaborative ways of discovering and synthesizing what is often hidden in plain sight. More than 80% of their knowledge comes from daily experiences, insights and intuitions which are then condensed into a complete world view.



Increasing systemic approach to farming

While most agricultural support programmes either focus on crops or livestock as separate models, the majority of African smallholders embrace mixed farming where crops co-exist with livestock. For example, following the loss of confidence in formal banking from 2008 to date in Zimbabwe, there has been a marked increase in mixed farming. Farmer who would have saved money in a bank have switched to livestock as a store of wealth. Rather than taking money to a bank after selling maize or horticultural commodities, farmers have opted to invest in livestock. That partly explains gluts in eggs, chicken and beef. In addition, as a response to climate change, many farmers are balancing their investments between field crops, livestock and horticulture.

Such holistic strategies by farmers have started to illuminate and inspire new ways of gathering and sharing knowledge. For many researchers and rural development specialists, farmers are reluctant practical and intellectual heroes. There is a strong signal that farmers and their communities have more lived knowledge than can be found in published literature. In discussions with eMKambo, many farmers expressed their disillusionment with the lack of respect for local knowledge that is at the centre of farming cultures they have admired for generations. Absence of reliable markets has seen their disillusionment becoming despair.

Eyes on the whole system

The majority of farmers’ eyes have remained open to the interlocking ecological, economic and social challenges they face every day.  As demonstrated by a strong faith in mixed farming than restrictive models, many farmers are convinced that socio-economic planning can only succeed if it is aligned with how nature works as a balanced ecosystem. According to the farmers, livestock cannot exist in isolation from crops or plants. While this may sound obvious, farmers lamented that many people including policy makers do not seem to see the practical benefits of balanced social, economic and ecological health.  “Innovators and entrepreneurs in developing countries are not sufficiently experimenting with practical ways to re-imagine new and balanced socio-economic approaches,” said one farmer.

From their agricultural practices, farmers are convinced that everything in the universe is organized into systems whose interlinked parts work together in a larger process and pattern. The interdependence between crops and livestock is not romantic or superficial but realistic. This interdependence is at the heart of a self-organizing, naturally self-maintaining and highly adaptive socio-economic systems that produce lasting value for everyone.

The power of a holistic view of agriculture

By taking into account how farmers take a holistic view of agriculture, researchers and policy makers can come up with a very practical, rigorous and common sense new picture of how the world works. By using livestock to store their wealth, farmers are sure that true wealth is not merely money in the bank. Wealth has to be defined and managed in terms of the well-being of the whole ecosystem made up of biodiversity and all forms of capital such as social, cultural and experiences.

Stories from farming communities can help in catalysing a new socio-economic paradigm. In an interdependent farming system such as mixed farming, farmers believe fitness comes from contributing to the health of the whole ecosystem. Instead of assuming economic efficiency and GDP growth can automatically lead to prosperity, farmers understand that long-term socio-economic vitality depends on creating conditions that unlock the vast potential for true wealth creation that lies dormant in every individual, community, business network and farming region. Instead of pursuing government regulation as the only realistic solution to markets when they run amok, policymakers should understand the importance of designing incentive-driven and self-regulating systems that embody the critical balance between innovation and constraints necessary for effective collaboration. Where policy makers may believe increasing efficiency and cutting costs are always good, farmers understand that resilience requires balancing numerous equally critical but competing resources.  Each farming community has divergent views but all these eventually converge. There is also as much emphasis on individual and collective needs.  While each farmer pays attention to personal needs, s/he also takes into account the interests others.

Contact :

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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

Taming agricultural value chains through data and evidence

Many people who grew up in African communities practicing mixed farming, remember how taming young bulls or steers into a span of oxen was not easy. The situation was the same with taming a cow to milk it when it had just given birth to its first calf. In most cases you would not complete the taming process without suffering serious injuries. In a dynamic world where niches are becoming highly competitive, taming agricultural markets requires data and the same tenacity that goes into taming livestock for multi-purposes.


Going beyond obvious ICTs capabilities

Thanks to ICTs and new knowledge, there is now a diversity of techniques for identifying and seizing opportunities across agricultural value chains. Unfortunately, the majority of farmers and agribusinesses are struggling to optimize their resources for better production.  For instance, new farmers in Zimbabwe are grappling with challenges in combining available inputs and other resources such as water.  This is partly due to lack of appropriate skills and reliable information.

If the ICTs sector is to be fully directed at improving agricultural practices, African universities and colleges should ensure sophisticated advanced data modeling is part of the curricular. At the moment, African graduates in ICTs are only able to manipulate platforms like websites, mobile applications, mobile money and WhatsApp. To fully tame agricultural value chains, we badly need   experts who can generate accurate market-size forecasts, assemble commodity and input price curves as well as gather and interpret historical equipment data. Many farmers buy second hand or new farming equipment without a thorough understanding of how long the equipment will function optimally. The absence of many decision-making variables reduces farming into a small game. Business models resulting from accurate data can offer farmers and other value chain actors a precise understanding of the effects of weak value chain nodes. They can then easily fine-tune the mix of inputs, equipment and harvested commodities while constantly identifying opportunities for improving their practices. Without such level of granular detail, value chain actors will not get a clear sense of their needs, constraints, trade-offs and new agribusiness opportunities.

Addressing wrong assumptions through evidence and technology

While assumptions that have condemned African countries to the current food insecurity mess may not be obvious to policy makers, evidence and technology can remove most of the blinkers. This is where trends like machine learning and data analytics can have significant impact.  Where agricultural policy makers may not see the precise importance of logistics, data-driven insights from the market can inform investments in agricultural logistics. Data and evidence can also reveal the futility of large agribusinesses and multinationals shutting themselves off trends coming from the growing informal agricultural markets.

Where established formal agribusinesses think and act in terms of months, quarters and years, traders and other actors in the informal sector think, plan and act in terms of days and weeks. They also focus on changing something today rather than waiting to take action next week. Entrenched thinking in formal institutions has been the main reason why the majority of formal banks cannot penetrate the informal sector in a sustainable manner. These financial institutions continue to plan in terms of months, quarters and years when their potential clients think and act on their feet in response to the agile environment where information and responses have become very fluid. Trying to play it safe by taking years studying the informal sector in order to invest has become very dangerous for formal institutions in these changing times. They have to embrace new processes for making more efficient decisions.

The transformation headache and tapping into the wisdom of value chain actors

In addition to harnessing ICTs, interdisciplinary collaboration will allow greater agility that make it  easier for agricultural value chain actors to capture new opportunities. Outside traditional IT and new mobile platforms, the agriculture sector has to develop deep technology expertise. While many young Africans are embracing ICTs, the main challenge is transforming different technologies from outside so that they meet current and future requirements. Ensuring a positive public perception of technology talent should be at the forefront of technology development considerations. Colleges and universities have to produce ICT graduates able to generate an end-to-end view of critical nodes in agricultural value chains.  For that to happen, it is important to build digital centres of agricultural excellence that enable fast and creative knowledge exchange between experts from different backgrounds.  This will ensure everybody remains plugged into the latest trends.

Thousands of university graduates willing to get into the informal sector have to be trained in a new way of thinking and working. They will have to learn to address quality problems on the spot rather than send them to the market and expect consumers to answer back.  Most consumers may decide not to answer but look for goods and services from elsewhere.  The youth will have to be on the front line of the agriculture sector in order to understand day-to-day operations better than disconnected value chain actors. Eventually they should be able to tell why some agricultural activities are done a certain way as well as factors that hold the agricultural sector from moving forward.  Without such insights, it is impossible for them to take an imperfect step forward in a turbulent global market where all solutions are becoming increasingly imperfect and require real-time evidence.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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


It will take integrative thinkers to fully exploit African resources

The majority of African economies are too complex to be fully exploited through current formal education systems that promote silos. While it is important to have expertise in crop production, livestock production, nutrition, road construction and natural resources management, what matters is how all these forms of knowledge can be integrated into a cohesive system. It takes a certain skill set to get knowledge systems that have traditionally functioned separately to speak the same language. That challenge is preventing developing economies from fully exploiting their natural resources.

The power of integrated thinking

Integrated thinking is basically about seeing the connection between different things and resources whose interaction can generate a wiser ecosystem. For that to happen it is important to imagine how existing knowledge systems can take advantage of their healthy interdependence and creatively dance together. Rather than talking in terms of agriculture in isolation, the narrative must change to agribusiness. Since agribusiness is about managing and sustaining change, it calls for new sets of skills to supplement what farmers and other actors have become used to. Each community will start noticing the need for people good at screening opportunities and business models in favour of local development. Progress will no longer be about working hard but working smart. African communities, especially farmers, have worked hard for generations. If working hard was the only route to success they would have long become millionaires. Success is becoming more about correctly connecting the right resources and opportunities.


The myth of ‘best’ practices

Some of the so-called agricultural ‘best’ practices have been extracted from contract farming and conservation agriculture models.  However, most ‘best’ practices have been impossible to put into practice in different contexts. Part of the challenge has been lack of local capacity to integrate ‘best’ practices from elsewhere into contextual resources and models. Adopters that can establish a corresponding level of effort and skills needed for screening and valuating what is coming from outside have been missing in most rural and farming communities. In fragmented farming communities, farmers need essential capabilities to screen equipment, technologies and business models coming into their contexts from elsewhere.  This cannot be left to marketers bringing the technologies, equipment and models because their main motivation is selling. How things work in practice is not their main interest.

A related challenge is lack of clarity on roles, responsibilities and breadth of skills required to exploit existing natural resources. It is also not very clear how local communities acquire complex knowledge required to unlock value from their natural resources.  Everyone can own and operate a garden, rear livestock and produce food but very few can get into complex value addition processes that require different levels of knowledge. Ideally, each community should have individuals with experience in diverse core socio-economic areas. Due to this lack of clarity, most technologies going into rural Africa are not being evaluated so that their efficacy can be matched with available knowledge. Every farmer just buys his scotch-cart, diesel engine or Brahman Bull and start using locally. When things go wrong, the farmer is at a loss or the technology is taken back to urban centres where it was bought. In most cases those selling have no knowledge of how to fix emerging problems. That is why it is becoming very important to build a variety of capabilities needed by each community to be able to source, evaluate and integrate different types of equipment, technologies and business models.

 Toward a holistic perspective

Each rural community should have a holistic view of what is needed to exploit available resources fully as well as identify the needed skills in line with strategic needs. At the moment, most community development initiatives are introduced from outside before thorough identification of local people or institutions with enough clout to understand and assume responsibility for evaluating what is good for the community in the long-term. From a holistic and sustainability perspective, there should be local people or institutions with the competence to defend proper use of common pool resources such as pastures, forests, wildlife and water. Such people and institutions should also have integrative expertise to be able to define attributes of what they see as a desirable community model from a socio-economic angle. Integration efforts in this case can vary widely, depending on the degree of integration. Technologies from outside need significant pressure-testing at a local level in order to determine longevity. Across the whole African continent, there are few cases where foreign technologies or socio-economic models were rejected at the outset because they were not relevant.

Integrative thinking capacity will enable communities to tuck-in resources and opportunities from outside into their larger socio-economic ecosystem. They won’t just accept a dam project when they already have many under-utilized dams but direct resources to local priorities. Such decisions require in-depth knowledge of the community’s socio-economic drivers. In communities that will have been able to do several tuck-ins, opportunities should be on the radar well before a new investment shows up. In-depth knowledge will also be important in maintaining valuable resources and developing relationships with potential partners. Each community should have people able to implement an integration process that is more consistent with local people’s needs, desires, dreams and aspirations.

The impact of rural to urban migration on knowledge integration

Unfortunately, because in most African communities, the best talent migrates to urban centres, there is often inadequate talent at local authority level to be able to develop viable combinations of integrated thinking models. In the absence of reliable and verifiable advice at local level, 50 farmers from the same community can go and compete selling sweet potatoes and other similar products in one urban market. They may not realize the extent to which competing among themselves harms their collective income levels. Also unknown to most farmers is how external factors such as the fragmentation of the agricultural industry, the complexity of value chains and major market shifts, have an enormous impact on how each rural community can identify the requires skill sets for exploiting available resources.

An integrated thinking approach will broaden experiences and deepen understanding of the whole agricultural industry. Ultimately, that will address the perennial African problem where farmers always blame the middlemen for everything. Farming communities should be able to quickly review and understand the turbulence that often grips the agricultural sector as an industry. That way, agricultural industry expertise becomes more important than functional expertise.

African farmers and value chain actors have been complaining about the same issues for over 30 years. Rather than continue complaining about the complexity of the agriculture sector, they should strive to acquire relevant knowledge and attitudes to inform their competitive strategies. Besides clearly articulating their strategies, they must determine how they want to manage their agribusinesses in ways that enable productive and efficient use of resources. They should be sufficiently motivated to do everything necessary to become more productive and perform at the peak of their potential.  Maximum use of available natural resources should enable every African farmer and value chain actor to model mastery and elevate local communities.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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

African agriculture requires serious disruptive thinkers

If African agriculture is to be truly transformative, there is need for disruptive thinkers who can  revisit boundaries between smallholder and large scale farmers. These boundaries have extended from physical (size of land) to the mind-set, creating unsustainable mental blockages.  Most smallholder farmers have bought the myth that they cannot think big and challenge conventional mental chains. Yet when you compare commodities from smallholder farmers with those from large scale farmers in the market, those from smallholder farmers tend to be superior in quality and appearance.


A culture of disruptive thinking that seems to dominate innovation around communication technology is not rapidly finding its way into African agriculture where most methods remain traditional. Rather than looking at agriculture as a holistic ecosystem, actors are busy compartmentalizing producers in line with land holdings instead of the size of their brains. Disruptive thinking should see more innovative models based on changing consumer patterns. Contract farming models have hogged the agricultural landscape for too long without much creativity. Some of the disruptive thinking should come via agricultural financing models.

Helping farmers to connect with their purpose

One of the reasons African farmers are tossed from one model to another is because they have not fully connected with their purposes. Farming for subsistence is not a solid purpose because we have seen some food crops become cash crops depending on circumstances. Purpose will give farmers the power to eliminate distracting options from many directions. Assuming finding purpose is like finding fire, igniting fire in African agriculture will help farmers find purpose. Their purposes peak out in the stories they tell each other in the market and field days.  Finding a purpose is a gradual process rather than a bolt of lightning. The majority of farmers have absorbed enough knowledge about how to produce certain crops and keep certain livestock. A missing link has remained the purpose of doing all these noble things. With a clear purpose, they would not be caught completely off-guard by drought, market collapse and other calamities.

Due to the absence of purposeful knowledge, many farmers sleep-walk through opportunities. Feeling powerful is necessary for farmers to view their challenges as opportunities. On the other hand, dependency on hand outs leads to hesitation, anxiety and discouragement. Without power and self-confidence, the ability to get things done is minimized. Instead of continuing to give farmers hand outs and treating them like irresponsible children, it is important to let them control their outcomes since they have received many kinds of agricultural training. It is important to establish mutually designed accountabilities and let farmers to live up to their abilities as competent food producers. 

Rejecting assumptions that have outlived their usefulness

Besides the mistaken notion that a farmer’s ambition levels corresponds to the size of his or her land, some of challenges for young Africans keen to get into agribusiness relate to capacity building for accessing funding. Many challenge funds being launched for African youths have borrowed the Big Brother African model where one pitches an idea in front of a panel of judges who then decide whether it makes business sense or not. Unfortunately, most of the judges know very little about the dynamics of African agriculture and business. The whole thing is reduced into a meaningless competition that does not help youths to make their visions of exploiting natural resources a reality.

The majority of SMEs who are driving African economies did not start their businesses through pitching their ideas in front of some judges. A serious and sustainable agribusiness idea cannot be judged within a few minutes and the judge is able to know everything about it, including its potential. Most successful SMEs in agribusiness started by making their ideas near enough to be attainable and distant enough to be meaningful.  If an idea can be completely painted and understood with all numbers visible, it means the vision is too small.  In dynamic African contexts where information and opportunities are very fluid, you can’t claim to see all viability angles at once.  Numbers, plans and metrics are not enough.  You need other elements such as intuition and empathy.

African agribusiness is also about focusing on the pain points, including facts and breathing into aspirations as well as leveraging engagement. This can only be done by disruptive thinkers who can see agribusiness as an intuitive process where actors should have enough awareness to block distractions and focus on what matters. Trying to summarize the whole business development journey into a pitch undermines the evolution of diverse businesses.  Like every important undertaking, agribusiness is characterised by high energy moments, behaviours that come naturally and unique ways that add the most value. That is why some businesses have been conceived by accident.

The power of data and gut feelings

Embracing disruptive thinking means combining data and gut feelings to drive the new agricultural renaissance that is confronting African countries.  Farmers and all value chain actors need content that can help them deepen and sustain their positive ideas and attitudes.  Local institutions have to ditch rudimentary approaches to gathering information.  Focusing too much on tools is leading to large chunks of knowledge to be missed.  A toolbox is not enough partly because most toolboxes are not embedded into the work practices of farmers and supporting organisations. With most value chains and niches rapidly becoming over –crowded and hyper-competitive, farmers and other value chain actors will have to engage their customers at both emotional and logical levels.


charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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


How informal agricultural traders capture and preserve customer loyalty

They may not advertise their products in the formal media, but informal agricultural traders have results-driven ways of capturing customer loyalty. Most of their skills have been honed over generations into unwritten intuitive laws that almost every trader is aware of. They understand customers more than customers know about themselves.  According to traders in Harare and Bulawayo markets of Zimbabwe, there are many categories of customers. “There are customers who come to learn about commodities and those who do not hesitate to flaunt their knowledge and power by voicing their concerns.  Some can even tell you that the way you are packing your fruits is not ideal for female customers,” said one trader.


Informal agriculture markets as knowledge centres

If marketing is about human interaction, informal agriculture markets provide superior experiences.  While ‘the customer is king’ suggests the customer knows everything, the majority of customers who frequent the informal agriculture market are lured by its functions as a learning space. Traders ensure these markets have sufficient convenience and personalisation than can be found in other modern markets. Younger middle class consumers who have not been exposed to the tricks of cooking traditional vegetables visit the market for the purposes of acquiring new skills.

Each market has gatekeepers whose roles include continuously tweaking and perfecting knowledge in line with consumer habits. Besides availing knowledge regarding the complexity of transactions in informal agriculture markets, traders facilitate different levels of human interaction.  Although technology has a supportive role in informal agriculture markets, most customers are influenced by personal experiences. Mobile phones come in to cement relationships that will have been created through face to face interaction.  As an institution, each informal market has a collective way of managing and enhancing customer experience in ways that stick with each customer. The more they interact with customers, the more their customer-satisfaction capabilities improve.  They don’t have to go to school for such skills that are entirely practical.

Insights into income levels and personality

Traders have also become very good at segmenting customers by their needs and income levels.  For instance, they can acquire stocks in line middle class pay dates.  While automation is transforming traditional marketing in supermarkets, it is difficult to imagine a time when technology will meet all customer requirements in agriculture markets without human interaction. Machines will never become aware of the competitive advantages of superior customer experiences. It takes a certain level of humanity to facilitate meaningful transactions.

As an example, where eMKambo uses its call centre to facilitate marketing of agricultural commodities, voice recognition has become very important. A farmer can call and if she does not here Tenjiwe’s voice in the person answering the call, she demands to speak to Tenjiwe. Such farmers have built a particular relationship with Tenjiwe through speaking to her over the phone on several occasions. Trying to substitute Tenjiwe with a machine will de-humanize the marketing process, leading to loss of confidence in eMKambo services and the market.

Handing down knowledge to the young generation

The majority of traders train their children in the art of customer care and retention. Such knowledge is not found in any text book or classroom.  It may seem a pervasive form of training but it builds the most useful capabilities needed by the younger generation. The ability to Google or play computer games will not prepare children for a purposeful future in economies dominated by agriculture. The most important problem-solving skills can be acquired in dynamic informal markets where one has to connect with diverse customers, leading to lasting customer loyalty.

As consumers become more sophisticated, traders are also updating their customer care knowledge with full awareness that it is no longer one-size-fits-all.  It is more about taking time to understand customers in order to satisfy their needs.  That is why traders are honing a unique way of anticipating customer expectations in order to come up with the right level of human interaction.  They are also becoming aware of niche commodities for specific customers such as those suffering from High Blood Pressure or other ailments that demand specific types of food.  Traders are convinced that human interaction will always remain important in validating commodities and explaining benefits.  No machine can fulfil such critical roles.  To gain a competitive advantage in agriculture markets, farmers and other value chain actors will have to balance the evolving value of digital technology and the power of human interaction.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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

How much should farmers and consumers know about something?

The formal education system in many developing countries is organised in such a way that the depth and breadth of knowledge imparted determines grades and qualification levels. Unfortunately, it is difficult to translate this arrangement into real life where societies do not function according to grades and degree qualifications. For instance, farmers and rural communities do not approach knowledge in terms of geography, history, mathematics, religious studies commerce, science and other subjects.

This partly explains why graduates from formal education systems are failing to make a difference in African communities. It is not even clear what level of geography, mathematics, science and commerce should be introduced to a group of farmers in a rural farming community. Many awareness programmes through the media and participatory methods, do not clarify levels of awareness and participation among those involved. The onus is on whoever is bringing a new programme to decide where to start. By the time a starting point has been figured out, the programme has come to an end. The cycle of inadequate participation and awareness continues.

clever mukove.PNG

How much should farmers know about soil analysis?

One of the reasons crop yields in African countries have drastically gone down over the past decade is that soils have become sick and tired. The majority of farmers do not understand their soils at a granular, scientific level. They may know about Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus (NPK) but getting them to understand soil pH and the role of trace elements such as Boron, Zinc and Manangese is beyond their cognitive capacity. There are also no vernacular words or descriptions for these trace elements.

On the other hand, do they really need to know all that?  Can’t they be competent food producers without knowing all those minute details? In a rural community, whose role is it to advise development partners that some of the knowledge they bring is beyond the capacity or priorities of the local people? There are many African communities where farmers have been taught about Artificial Insemination. While democratising science is a very noble thing, how much of usable Artificial Insemination knowledge can communities acquire without diluting the underlying science?

Importance of trust and institutionalizing knowledge

Setting up institutions for making sense and scaffolding knowledge will provide answers to most of the above questions and issues. It is critical to separate knowledge that can be held at an individual level from that which should be institutionalized into practices and organisations where it can be continuously updated. Institutions help in building trusted institutions that can produce trusted knowledge. If farmers know that there is a trusted institution that can handle soil analyses and animal science issues, they will concentrate on what they are good at and leave that role to the institution.  That serves time and money. It takes more than four years for someone to become a full-blown veterinary scientist.  How many farmers will be able and willing to go through the whole veterinary knowledge acquisition journey? Specialized knowledge should be left to specialists.

Trust increases the value of knowledge

Trust does not just reduce the cost of doing business. It also increases the value of knowledge. The main reason you can drink fruit juice and eat bread without asking who produced those food items is because you trust the good intentions of the producers even if you don’t know them by name or origin. Without trust consumers would insist on identifying and knowing the actual person who produced that food, how they produced it and the ingredients they used. Trust enables you to believe in what is being put forward as food. Every consumer has to trust someone they don’t know.  Otherwise each person would only eat what they produce with their own hands.   If people were to insist on participating in the production of everything they use or consume, we wouldn’t have many people owning cars and flying in aeroplanes. You don’t have to know why a motor car drinks both oil and water for you to use one.  You trust that whoever produced that car did so in good faith and you will be able to use it for many years without knowing how the pistons work inside the engine. You don’t have to know the pilot or aircraft engineer to fly in a plane.  You trust that the pilot and engineers are gifted enough to take care of your interests. Knowledge comes with responsibility.

The importance of institutions

Institutions in the form of rules, regulations and organizations are important in embedding knowledge and trust. The fact that there are standards associations and other compliance bodies gives people the much needed confidence to use or buy goods and services. Rather than focusing on large measurable impact in short timeframes that push people to tell familiar and obvious stories about impact resulting from the adoption of new technology, development organisations should take time to understand knowledge needs and build appropriate institutions.  Due to lack of strong, evidence-informed institutions, many developing countries remain stuck in low productivity and widespread poverty.

Without institutions, the capability of governments to implement activities is severely limited because knowledge cannot be adequately harnessed and deployed. Many young African graduates who study abroad and come back home are frustrated when they don’t find supportive institutions that can anchor their knowledge acquired abroad. What is the point of studying robotics in the West when back home there is no institution to support robotics as a practice?  In the absence of institutions, sustainable development will remain wishful thinking.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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

How to move from ordinary to best agricultural practices

‘Best practice’ is not even a mouthful but what it means in practice remains unclear to many people who use the phrase. In African agriculture, it takes a lot for a farmer or trader to become a best practitioner.  Most value chain actors face challenges in identifying sufficient quality evidence that can be translated into best practice.  In the absence of consensus, they either rely on what is effective locally or depend on external extension agents, most of who lack contextual knowledge. While look and learn visits have become prominent ways through which farmers are expected to acquire best practices, there is lack of empirical evidence. Contextual differences make it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of conservation agriculture, contract farming and other practices.

 Season-informed best practices

In the majority of African farming communities, seasons have a much larger influence on the evolution of best practices. It takes a minimum of three farming seasons of producing a particular crop for a new farmer to attain best practice status.  This three year experience pulls farmers closer to best practice, with a farmer using particular crops to move through summer, autumn, winter and spring. Crop behaviour is different during each of these seasons.  The hot season, commonly called Spring stretches from late August to December in Southern Africa and has its own features which impact crops and livestock in different ways.   Summer is characterised by fungal diseases due to excessive moisture and too much rainfall triggers extreme crop growth patterns.  On the other hand, winter is characterised by low temperatures which limit crop growth.  While there are fewer diseases, all crops do not grow fast in winter.  During Spring, crops are exposed to excessive heat and low moisture levels.  Pests like aphids, leaf minor and white fly are common in this period.


Growth patterns, quality and yields are different in each season, irrespective of inputs. That is why curiosity is very important among farmers. Farmers who are not curious may not notice the difference between spring and summer. Curiosity will enables thorough understanding of crop and livestock behaviour in response to different seasons.

The next learning curve

Having gone through three cycles of each season, a competent farmer begins to focus on monitoring the changing characteristics of the seasons. One summer season is too wet with floods being experienced while the next can have less rain and less moisture.  One winter is too cold and frosty while the other has wild frost, with yet another experiencing no frost at all.  One spring is too dry with heat waves. After less than an hour of irrigation the soil becomes completely dry as moisture evaporates.  Another spring can have normal heat.  Sometimes winter over-stretches into Spring. Late onset of Spring or summer is another characteristic worth monitoring. A three to five year cycle of monitoring seasons is very important depending on area.

 The market can only go so far

As demonstrated above, every season has its lessons.  If a farmer decides to grow tomatoes only when the price is good, s/he may not have acquired enough knowledge to understand diseases and pests that occur at different stages of the growing period.  The market can only tell you what to produce and when.  It can also give you a price guide.  However, it may not tell you everything you needed to achieve best practices.  Best practice does not come from text books or lectures. You have to practically engage and get your hands dirty.

A major handicap is that farmers do not document what they see during each season in order to improve.  With documentation it should become possible to translate the knowledge into a ‘Farming Bible’ which the future generation can read and learn from.  Due to lack of a documentation culture, most of the existing knowledge is too general to be useful in attaining best practice standards.  Farmers who do not record what they see on their farms are vulnerable to wrong advice.  Documentation ensures they are able to correct wrong information through comparison as well as mixing and matching what they know with what is coming from outside.

The mindset is more important than the toolbox

It is through the right mindset that farming communities can leverage the strengths of complementary agricultural programmes. For instance, they can see the connection between livestock and crop programmes that are implemented separately by separate programmes in a one community. That means, as frontline value chain actors, farmers are best placed to identify and explain linkages between different agricultural programmes.  Getting a mentor is not enough if a new farmer or trader does not have the right mindset and beliefs because these can limit the application of new skills.  In addition, the wrong advice can become a mental obstacle to be overcome first before acquiring skills that lead to best practice.  Ultimately farmers and traders should focus on getting more buyers interested in their commodities than building larger toolboxes.   Without such capacity and knowledge it is difficult to sustainably implement proven agricultural practices.

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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