How can developing countries valuate their fluid economies?

A major headache for many developing countries is developing criteria for valuating highly fluid and transitory economic activities that are now more prevalent. Employment creation in agricultural markets and informal business ecosystems is now a major domain for women and youth, most of whom are highly mobile. Economic actors in the trading business specialize on fetching commodities from scattered farming areas while others specialize on transportation, loading & off-loading as well as punneting food into diverse nutrition baskets for different consumers.


Need for an information tracking system

Valuating a fluid agricultural-driven economy cannot be done without a reliable information tracking system.  Unlike brick and mortar enterprises such as carpentry, construction and metal fabrication, many enterprises are so fluid that different valuation methods are required in order to fully account for their economic contribution and growth patterns. Unfortunately, most developing countries lack a system for tracking statistics covering all agricultural commodities. There is a tendency to capture statistics on a few colonial crops like tobacco, maize, cotton, cocoa, wheat and sugarcane. No statistics are captured for hundreds of diverse food commodities like horticulture on which the majority depend.

Failure to account for hidden costs

At the production level, the collection of statistics on a few commodities focuses on production costs (mainly cost of inputs) and land areas in hectares, then harvests are recorded in tons. The most important hidden costs that are completely ignored at the production level relate to natural resources such as soil and water. Just like machinery, land and water suffer from wear and tear. How do we compensate land for losses in nutrients, soil structure, water holding capacity and other forms of degradation? The same applies with water. Countries and communities are losing through inappropriate use of water.  Yet there is no credible assessment criteria for water versus appropriate equipment. The amount of money people pay to national water authorities for drawing water from dams and other reservoirs does not fully compensate for various ways through which water is misused.

Due to lack of proper valuation mechanisms, most farmers only realize the cost of land degradation when yields of the same crop from the same land start decreasing. These are visible consequences of not taking care of the cost component associated with land degradation. Another serious hidden cost relates to deforestation. Countries that are earning foreign currency through tobacco production and exporting are yet to factor in the cost of deforestation.

Also in need for valuation is household consumption.  There is a tendency to account for what a receipt or pay slip can be produced. Valuing losses at production level does not even adequately focus on physical losses, either through inefficient harvesting methods, pests and diseases which reduce potential yield as well as dry spells, droughts and floods, loss of pastures and many others. In a changing climate, ways of valuing all these losses in monetary terms are critical. Hidden costs could constitute more than 30% and that is too much for struggling economies.

Return on investment pathways

Where some bit of statistics are collected, the most visible statistics are often on field crops. Horticulture is neglected in terms of costs, income, potential income at harvest and other elements. This is where understanding markets at granular level becomes very important.  Farmers and traders can only know of potential income if they know market prices from various markets such as local markets, district markets, provincial markets and institutional markets like restaurants and hotels. Cost benefit analysis can reveal viable return on investment (ROI) pathways.

Exploring determinants of value addition and logistics

Markets in developing countries are becoming too broad although small. There are different values for the same commodities due to changes in tastes and preferences. A banana has low value in high production zones like Honde Valley but its value can be ten-fold in Hwange or Victoria Falls where production is low.  A related crisis is lack pricing mechanisms for value addition. For instance, African countries have not been able to assess the value of on-farming processing in monetary terms versus taking commodities for processing in up-markets like cities. Huge volumes of commodities like fruits, maize and oilseed continue to leave productions zones for processing in distant cities.  Ideally, at each value chain node, value addition should be accounted for in monetary terms. That will reveal all benefits and costs including hidden ones.

It should be possible to determine elements for coming up with the accurate cost of transporting potatoes from Nyanga to Harare. Taking into account fuel and distance is not enough. What about hidden costs like opportunity cost for the farmer in terms of time spent bringing commodities to the market and selling when such time could have been used for something more productive.  The same applies to the time spent by traders fetching commodities is scattered farming areas. All these hidden costs should be converted into monetary terms.

Fluidity versus traditional notions of business

Value chain actors like women and youths who have mastered a fluid economy are finding it incompatible to work with generic and old fashioned business plans based on brick and mortar business models. In the new fluid economy, the new cost elements and risk factors are becoming more complex and sophisticated. For instance, although open markets do not have formal insurance systems they continue to thrive for decades. No one insures the movement of tomatoes from Mutoko to Harare and fruits from Chimanimani to Bulawayo but a self-organized ecosystem ensures smooth flow of commodities and income between producers and consumers daily. Verbal contracts based on relationships quietly built over year move more commodities and transactions than formal contracts.

To the extent most conventional business models are not considering hidden costs, they remain superficial and miss a lot of value. For actors in the fluid economy, it is no longer about saving money in the bank but saving it in a commodity ecosystem. The moment a farmer puts money in the bank, s/he incurs avoidable opportunity costs. The notion of open market is not a war between farmers and traders but battles between commodities as they compete for the same consumer budget. In spite of all the hype, mobile money is lagging behind the pace at which business happens in the new economy. While it takes three to five minutes to complete a mobile transaction, it takes seconds for money and goods to exchange hands in the open food market. Most ICT-based platforms have failed to connect food producers with consumers and negotiate fair prices for farmers in ways that replace face to face negotiations between farmers, traders and the open market. These are some of the defining characteristics of a fluid economy.  / /

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The importance of closing knowledge gaps in African agriculture

Efforts to modernize African agriculture continue to focus on the supply-side at the expense of the demand side. In addition to infrastructure-driven agribusiness models, there is an unfortunate belief that agricultural extension is the only important form of knowledge in transforming the agriculture industry. Instead of embracing a holistic approach that identifies knowledge needs and gaps along entire value chains, there is an over-supply of agronomists, extension officers, agricultural engineers and other experts on the supply side.


There has not been sufficient emphasis on increasing experts specializing on transport and logistics, specialists on small livestock like indigenous poultry or rabbits, nutritionists, food scientists, economists specializing on local markets and laboratory technicians located at local markets to conduct food safety checks like pesticide residue levels, among others. As agricultural commodities travel along value chains from production to end-users, experts become less and less. From production food is handed over to transporters, traders and vendors, most of whom are not specialists in different commodities they handle.

Absence of knowledge exchange pathways along agricultural value chains

Developing countries have not cultivated mechanisms for facilitating knowledge exchange to accompany agricultural commodities as they change hands. The majority of farmers are experts in production not in marketing. From the farmer, food goes to the market where there are no market experts or auctioneers who can give different commodities proper grades and economic value in ways that enhance price negotiation. Most traders do not have adequate knowledge on the science behind food commodities or cost components for each commodity.  Knowledge gaps worsen from traders to vendors who pass on commodities to end-users.

Absence of knowledge pathways translates to lack of capacity to give commodities their true value in the market. As a result, most farmers lose out by taking commodities to distant markets when local markets could give them more value. Experts that can attach appropriate value to commodities and facilitate valuing of commodities and negotiation are badly needed. Currently, there is no one to help farmers understand the true value of their commodities beyond using price as a proxy of value. Unavailability of relevant forms of expertise along value chains is the main reason commodities suffer economic losses because no one is available to come up with a correct value of a particular commodity.

Instead of locating themselves on the market, government agricultural economists prefer to be armchair experts generating budgets at head office with no accurate contextual input from the ground.  If they were located at agricultural markets, agricultural economists would be able to do market-oriented budgeting as opposed to focusing on production-oriented budgeting. Their most relevant duties would include identifying gluts and shortages in the market as well as sharing this information with the production side. They would also identify possibilities for exporting specific commodities and advise policy makers on when and how much to export in order to fill gaps without disrupting local production.

Informing the design of market infrastructure

Designing of market infrastructure should be informed by commodity experts who know how much space should be allocated to fruits like oranges, tubers like potatoes and vegetables like pepper as well as proper handling practices in different markets.  If agricultural markets are organized in ways that reflect different forms of expertise and knowledge, several value chains will create more meaningful employment and contribute immensely to wealth creation, poverty reduction and economic growth. Instead of having an over-supply of experts on a few privileged crops like cocoa, maize, tobacco and wheat, each local commodity should have its own expert or experts, for instance, apples, oranges, ginger, garlic, yams, banana, sweet potato, sugar beans, green mealies, carrots, avocadoes, pineapples and many others.

It does not help to have a jack of all agricultural trades and master of none. Expertise should be spread along entire value chains. Although emotional intelligence is twice as important, technical expertise is necessary. The market needs people with a technical intuition, just as value addition requires different expertise from production. Developing countries that do not invest in generating appropriate expertise for different commodities in domestic markets will not become competent players in the highly competitive international market. Italy’s food industry is worth US$160 billion because the country has paid aggressive attention to expertise in different forms of agricultural commodities.  / /

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How climate change is inspiring intelligent experimentation at grassroots

During times of socio-economic stability, farmers and entrepreneurs can afford to rely on one commodity or value chain.  Not when climate change is announcing itself in unpredictable ways. That is why experimentation is no longer a preserve for schools and universities. Farming areas and markets are becoming laboratories for intelligent experimentation among farmers, consumers, traders, artisans and ordinary people in developing countries. These actors have realized that prescriptions from private seed companies and livestock enterprises are inadequate in coping with climate-induced challenges.


Informed use of available resources

Food producers are witnessing how high yielding crop varieties and livestock breeds are being rendered useless in a rapidly changing climate. Instead of knowing a lot about one commodity, farmers are being forced to experiment with a wide range of commodities ranging from crops to fruits, herbs and different classes of livestock. With rainfall patterns becoming sporadic and the cost of inputs increasing, food producers are being compelled to examine and learn from how different crops use nutrients.  Such knowledge can no longer be left to extension officers or companies selling inputs like fertilizer whose main motivation is making a profit at the expense of uninformed farmers.

Water extraction tendencies

Some of the recurring questions from farmers relate to the extent to which different commodities use water. Those conducting their own experiments are noticing that commodities like cabbage are watery and can extracts a lot of moisture to a point of drying the soil while looking for water. Also in this category are high value crops like broccoli and cauliflower. From the experimentation lessons, smallholder farmers would rather do leafy vegetables than cabbage.  If cabbage does not get enough water, the head becomes small and therefore unprofitable on the market. High quality and a big head size come from nutrients plus a lot of water. On the contrary, farmers are learning that tomatoes do not consume a lot of water. A farmer can irrigate in 10-14 day cycle depending on time of the season, which cannot be done with brassicas like cabbage. Like tomato, peppers also do not consume a lot of water.

Another high water consumer is potato according to experiments from smallholder farmers in east and southern Africa. Without abundant water you cannot produce potatoes. The level of irrigation and amount of water required by potatoes is too high for most farmers. That is why the majority of smallholder farmers in communal areas cannot produce potatoes. Most farmers end up seeking refuge in in tomatoes which you can simply irrigate with a can.  The quality and shelf life of potatoes is determined by soil type, texture and weather.  In Zimbabwe, the eastern highlands have the best weather for potatoes, especially Nyanga which is not too hot and so the soils are not too hot either.  Heat within the soil tends to affect potato shelf life on the market. A majority of consistent producers now know that commodities that need a lot of water have high water extraction capacity from the ground, high soil nutrients depletion and a heavy irrigation budget.

Nutrient uptake by different crops

Seed acquisition decisions by many farmers in developing countries are no longer just influenced by the price of input but other critical considerations that speak to a changing climate. Different classes of farmers are now paying attention to differences in nutrient uptake by diverse crops. They have become aware that some crops are heavy feeders while others are light feeders.  Heavy feeders include potatoes, cabbages and, to some extent, tomatoes depending on varieties.  Light feeders include lettuce, onion, garlic, leafy vegetables, carrots, peas and fine beans.

Heavy feeders take a lot of nutrients from the soil the whole journey from planting to maturity compared to light feeders.  This means farmers have to apply more into the soil for heavy feeders to grow better. Heavy feeders consume what is in the soil and what farmers apply and when not fed adequately, they draw more nutrients from the soil and leave the soil without nutrients. Due to quality issues, some heavy feeders like potatoes and cabbages require additional special nutrients in the form of trace elements which light feeders can do without. This means heavy feeders need more inputs, in the range of $8 – $10 000/ha compared to light feeders whose cost of inputs may be half that amount. Among field crops, heavy feeders include cotton whose deep roots can stretch wider and deeper in search of nutrients and water.

Labor-intensiveness, easy of harvesting and other trends

Farmers are also discovering that while fine beans and peas are more labor-intensive during harvesting because they need meticulous handling to avoid bruising, harvesting cabbage is merely cutting the stem and loading is more like throwing. Potatoes are also easy to harvest but very labor-intensive. You need a lot of manpower, first to arrange potatoes in small heaps, somebody to pack into bags, transporting to the main heap from where grading by size begins as well as identification of rejects.  Then somebody pockets them manually, followed by someone scaling them into 15kg pockets, then someone comes to seal the pockets.  To avoid potatoes suffering some bruises, they have to harden and mature in the field.

Some of the emerging trends

Economic hardships in several developing countries have triggered urban farming and the proliferation of technologies like water pumps, solar pumps and diesel/petrol-powered engines.  Many urban dwellers are now producing high value crops like spinach, lettuce, broccoli and leafy vegetables like covo, rape and others that are delivered to supermarkets daily. This has disrupted the wholesaling model, with farmers in distant areas being muscled from the market. However, rural farmers still have advantages in producing vegetables with a superior taste, free from impurities associated with contaminated urban soils and water.  / /

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The elusive quest for defining a business case

If defining and executing a business case was easy, many farmers and traders in developing countries would have become business people. In spite of persistent emphasis on agribusiness from development organizations and academic institutions, business schools are not producing entrepreneurs able to translate agricultural resources from ground zero into reliable jobs, incomes and better lives for poor communities.

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Missing the essence of business

Although those promoting top-down development initiatives have hijacked farming as business, they continue to miss the fact that the main essence of a business is building it around a product or service and a niche market. The more the products the more the business models.  Which means a community that produces more than 50 agricultural commodities should have diverse business enterprises as opposed to copycat businesses where everyone tries to do what everyone else is doing.

If properly thought through, some models can become separate business units, making it easy to assess the viability of each business model. Contrary to views from financial institutions, money is just a catalyst or additive like salt in relish. Without meat or vegetables, salt is useless. The salt owner should cultivate relationships with those who produce meat, potatoes, tomatoes and other products. While some commodities need salt, there is an increasing number of consumers who no longer need salt in their food for different reasons including health issues.

 Confusing a business model with a business plan

The majority of agribusinesses promoted through value chains and the notion of farming as a business lack robust models. Promoters confuse a business plan with a business model yet a plan just assists in executing a model. A model is an attempt to turn your innovation into a profit or your business into economic value. As a reminder, the following pillars are fundamental in building a business model:

  1. The owner – who will supply the product or provide the service.
  1. Value proposition – What need or solution do you want to address? Have you addressed a need? Absence of a value proposition is the main reason developing countries are awash with copycat entrepreneurs who just watch what another person is doing and try to imitate rather than focusing on the customer. A need is a value proposition.  Financial institutions tend to compete in the same sector without taking time to understand loan needs from the customer’s perspective. To what extent is a reasonable interest rate a solution to farmers?  What if loan amount is the real need?  Or the main issues could revolve around unfavorable conditions that insist on collateral that is not in line with the business.


  1. Who are you targeting? – Market segmentation. Are you targeting farmers, traders, transporters and other specific actors? Answering these questions will enable you to model in line with business behavior.  Most models, especially financial ones, are locked in bureaucratic and compliance systems that may divert from the essence of the business.  Sometimes it is important to create your own market niche that can inform what products to provide.


  1. Distribution channel – What is your distribution channel? How are you going to reach your customers cost-effectively? While some banks have put up brick and mortar structures in agricultural markets in order to establish presence, other channels like mobile money could effectively support the entire value chain. If Point of Sale (POS) machines are missing at other value chain nodes, clients get stuck. Loan disbursement will not be useful if traders cannot transact from rural agro-dealers where they stay.  Neither can loan repayment be smooth.  When clients get money, they want to use it somewhere. That is why it is critical to understand the destination where money will end up being used and main uses.  Grasping the destination enables financial institutions to build on other networks like between farmers and agro-dealers who also know what farmers need. Concentrating on the immediate client is a big mistake, particularly in the current networked economy.


  1. Have you identified niche markets? Invest in building relationships or ride on partners who have already built networks. That is how you can build more models and networks.


  1. Best use of resources – resource configuration. Should you go and rent a building or work through agents?


  1. Core competencies – What are the skills, knowledge, abilities, expertise and attitudes available for supporting all other pillars?


  1. Networks – You cannot work in isolation. Which partners are you going to collaborate with?

Concentrate on few benefits and a core message

Key aspects of business modeling include not capturing everyone.  Start with early adopters who can assist you in refining your model as you go.  Do not dream of creating wealth if you are not creating wealth for others. Starting with others provides a sustainable base for your wealth.  From early adopters you are able to refine your strategy. Most business models have too many messages which end up confusing potential clients.  Concentrate on a core message and few benefits.  Should you go the revenue route or the gross margin route (what is your pie)?  Or the operational route (how can we reduce our expenses?) or the working capital route (should we have cash all the time?) or the finance model route (what is our source of finance?).

Appropriate knowledge and skills are important in capturing opportunities offered by existing resources. In the majority of developing countries, value chain actors and government departments like extension services do not have the advanced analytical capabilities needed to get maximum value from data collected on different agricultural commodities for years. As a result collected datasets are not used to help farmers in building robust agribusiness cases.  / /

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What if big organizations no longer have monopoly on knowledge?

Unprecedented disruption affecting the food retail sector across the globe is also spilling over into the knowledge industry. For some of the world’s biggest knowledge brokering organizations, gone are the days when a logo was enough to lure funding and command brand loyalty. For example, sources of agricultural and financial knowledge have become so diverse and deeply rooted that famous organizations are now fiercely competing with new smaller knowledge brokers in churning out innovative ideas, methods, models and tools.


As the war for talent intensifies, boundaries between formal and informal knowledge ecosystems are blurring. Small and previously unknown knowledge brokers are challenging assumptions and taking bold action. Rapid changes on the knowledge landscape are forcing big traditional knowledge brokers to either adapt and innovate or lose relevance. Young knowledge seekers are now quickly switching from one brand of knowledge source to another.  Consequently, traditional knowledge brokers that sit on the fence risk getting outcompeted by aggressive, fast-moving and forward-thinking competitors. Government departments are also not immune to these trends as they are contending with patterns of community self-organization that are empowering people to seek and make sense of knowledge from diverse sources.

Brand loyalty no longer an asset

Some of the keen knowledge seekers are young researchers who tend to perceive newer knowledge brands as more innovative, transparent and approachable than traditional knowledge brokers. This young generation dislikes complicated bureaucratic processes which often hinder them from obtaining information from government departments and other traditional sources. New and fast knowledge brokers are launching themselves onto knowledge platforms and connecting directly with millions of knowledge users in ways that further reinforce the idea that traditional knowledge brokers are becoming stale.

In the agriculture sector, fast-moving knowledge brokers now have access to more operational data than ever and can conduct sophisticated analytics to inform knowledge seekers such as farmers and traders in real-time. Where a traditional knowledge broker would take more than a month to conduct a nutrition survey and release critical insights, a dynamic knowledge broker can quickly synthesize evidence before information gets stale and inform traders, farmers, processors and consumers about food demand and supply patterns in time for decision making.

Competing through partnering

Realizing the fact that knowledge is now the most powerful intangible asset, some agricultural processing companies in developing countries are joining forces with dynamic knowledge brokers to rapidly amass consumer data and insights for quick decision-making.  For instance, a number of food processing companies are waking up to the importance of accurate information on different crops – availability, pricing, volumes, competing markets, payment terms and other factors. Since a lot of useful insights are found in competing spheres like open markets, dynamic knowledge brokers assist processing companies in understanding the entire market by availing data which shows where to play, how and if to play.

Food processing companies require an intelligent system that can be used at the hour of need. Such a system can avail data for planning and educating shareholders, most of whom are far removed from the action. The companies also wants to know invisible and intangible facts like the behavior of competitors, producers, competing markets, traders and other dynamics. Besides providing real-time evidence, fast knowledge brokers build relationships between processing companies and farmers, most of whom do not want to move from pillar to post looking for markets.

In addition to making the entire market ecosystem visible to processing companies, knowledge brokers provide interpretations like why prices are behaving the way they are. Without fast-moving knowledge brokers, processing companies risk missing multi-million dollar opportunities. Due to absence of efficient knowledge brokering services in some countries, many companies condemn commodities from farmers and suppliers when the ideal thing will be investing in educating value chain actors. A quick buck mentality often sacrifices long-term profitable relationships.  / /

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How can the predatory nature of development efforts be tamed?

Many rural communities in low income countries are fed up with the predatory nature of external development initiatives. According to the WordWeb dictionary, a predatory animal is one that lives by catching and preying on other animals. Predatory tendencies also include living by or victimizing others for personal gain. When development agencies move into rural areas, local communities often have no reason to suspect that such agencies have a predatory agenda. Suspicions start rising when development agencies continue to recycle the same ideas under different names when rural people who continue to wallow in poverty in spite of millions spent in their name by development agencies.


Any development agency that has spent more than three years in one community has become a predator by becoming part of the local community furniture. A simple comparison between rural communities that have been working with NGOs for years and those that have not been working with NGOs reveals marked differences in terms of autonomy and self-determination. Very few communities have transformed from subsistence to commercial agriculture through development interventions. Instead, it is communities that rely on their own resources such as remittances that have a sustained presence in agricultural markets. Those supported by NGOs often stop producing surplus commodities for the market as soon as a development project comes to an end. To the extent development agencies use rural communities to get money and not fully develop those communities, such predatory tendencies are worse than money laundering. Unknown to development agencies is that rural people desire the good houses, health and nutrition associated with cities.

Predatory rural finance

Predatory patterns are more prevalent in rural finance initiatives. While it is said funding targeted at improving rural finance has increase, the majority of rural people remain outside formal financial ecosystems.  In fact, the majority of rural dwellers associate banks and other financial institutions with exclusion rather than inclusion. Many smallholder farmers, traders and rural entrepreneurs have nasty experiences with financial institutions. Some of the financial inclusion models have been introduced as contract farming arrangements where farmers receive inputs and other support services instead of real money.

Innocence and decency has proven fatal for most borrowers as they soon realize that private companies contractors working in cahoots with financial institutions and development agencies will have calculated their gains using tools whose underlying parameters are not made visible to farmers.  “When you think you have done what is needed, you are asked to provide more information. After signing off every document, most promises are not met and you are compelled to supplement agricultural activities with your other income sources.” The above lamentation is now common across Africa.

In several conferences and workshops, commitments to avail finance that can catalyze other sources of finance at the local level have been announced and documented for decades. There are even dozens of books and university courses on rural finance but on the ground the situation has remained the same. Local innovations like village savings and lending associations are not adequately used to anchor and stimulate local economies. Instead, such bedrocks of self-reliance and resilience are being cannibalized into mobile money through ICTs. This does not improve financial circulation in the local economy as  most of the money is drawn away to big cities, leaving the local economy resorting to traditional barter systems.

Harnessing multiple sources of evidence

If development agencies and financial institutions shunned predatory tendencies, they would be able to assist local communities in generating more income and better lives from local resources. They would realize that there is a difference between charity and transforming local communities through agriculture. They would also not waste money on policy making because they would know that policies can only go so far because they are tied to political regimes. No matter how brilliant a policy document is, a new political regime would dumb it and creates its own policies. They would learn from experiences in Mozambique where a development agency that thought mobile money was the solution was surprised. A local mobile network operator in Mozambique had even distributed 5000 mobile phones for free to a local community hoping people would automatically embrace mobile technology for financial inclusion. It soon became clear that local people preferred visiting the market and chatting to each other than just communicating through short message service, Whatsapp or calling over the phone.  Many people also changed sim cards frequently such that they could not be reachable.

Evidence should come from different scenarios and not be aligned with decision-makers’ needs. For instance, while millions of dollars have gone towards addressing post-harvest losses in Africa, food losses are said to be as high as 20% in developed countries, mainly in the form of food that is thrown away into bins and not eaten. This means all people, whether in developed or developing countries need a new attitude towards food. Perhaps the whole world does not have a food production problem but a food handling challenge. Solutions may not just be about policies but changing the way everyone looks at food through institutions, financial means and other positive practices. Post-harvest technologies are never enough because new challenges keep emerging.  Every action must be sustainable.

By treating smallholder farmers and rural people as victims or beneficiaries, most development interventions miss local people’s roles as active economic actors in their own right. Rural people are not just waiting for donations but busy analyzing their options, managing risks and making their own decisions even in the face of information asymmetries and unfavorable policies. When ordinary people finally realize that they have been preyed upon by government departments, financial institutions and development agencies, it becomes difficult to get new ideas accepted. There are limits to living by preying on unsuspecting farmers and rural people.  / /

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Of premature technology and information overload

Hundreds of mobile applications and technology platforms are launched in Africa almost every day, thanks to the promise of digital-fueled progress. Unfortunately most of the platforms (including those owned by famous mobile network providers) are trotted onto the market prematurely before sufficient pre-testing. There is also confusion between a platform, a portal, a Whatsapp group and a mere website. Instead of generating new insights badly needed for socio-economic development in many African countries, the proliferation of platforms is leading to unbearable information overload.


Long road to digital maturity

In spite of the hype surrounding platforms, technology hubs and hackathons, these are not yet able to deliver the kind of world-class digital transformation that can fuel productivity and economic growth in developing countries. For instance, digital technology is far from addressing the aspirations, concerns and fears of farmers and entrepreneurs in remote areas. Farmers in marginal communities can only imagine how digital technology can test their soils and water without them taking samples to the capital city where laboratories are concentrated. The same applies to livestock farmers who are still travelling long distances to district or provincial towns in order to get livestock movement permits in the event of selling or buying cattle. Unless digitization addresses some of these practical pain points, it doesn’t matter how many mobile network boosters are set up in rural areas or how many farmers are using mobile phones.

Fragmented value chains

Some of the main reasons for low levels of digitization in African agriculture revolve around the fragmentation of diverse value chains as demonstrated by how individual farmers, traders and other actors focus on discrete commodities. Additional enduring challenges include the long cycles of agricultural experimentation, poor connectivity in rural areas as well as complex ecosystems affected by weather—genetics, nutrition, water availability, soil composition and seasonality, among others. Digital technology development is yet to crack these intricate issues and as a result, the majority of marginalized people are yet to find advantages associated with digital technology. In fact, they remain consumers of external information than producers of local content.

ICTs and power imbalances

Those promoting ICTs are doing do so without considering power imbalances that underpin different socio-cultural contexts and could be increased through ICTs. If farmers and traders become digitally connected, it doesn’t mean knowledge gaps are closed because knowledge is influenced by deeper issues than cannot be addressed by ICTs. For instance, converting information and knowledge depends on people’s capacity to understand, interpret and absorb information that is flowing to them through social media and related processes. Information receivers must possess some cognitive filtering and structuring mechanism to sort out relevant information from irrelevant information. To the extent most farmers and rural people have a deficit in these skills, they accept whatever is sent to them through WhatsApp groups that are mushrooming everywhere.  That is why fake news is now an epidemic.

Need for nuanced reflection on what ICTs can and cannot do

While African governments and development agencies have embraced ICTs and digitization as a catalyst for development, there is need for a more nuanced reflection on the possibility that a focus on ICTs could be preventing broader discussions on authentic local challenges which cannot be solved through ICTs. The increasing faith in ICTs like mobile phones, mobile applications and the internet is an extension of the historical tendency by development agencies to privilege technology transfer as a solution to poverty. Yet in reality, developing countries have several social, political, economic and cultural barriers that cannot be solved by digitization and ICTs. In fact, there is evidence showing that ICTs are exacerbating inequalities in some communities, towns and countries as well between rural and urban areas.

Importance of defining a national digital vision and strategy

It is possible that if deployed properly, digitization can improve the quality of life for citizens by fostering greater civic participation, providing access to information, and offering new tools for health and education. Software entrepreneurs can also present solutions to complex public-policy problems, such as the creation of drought alerts through push notifications on mobile phones. However, successful national digital transformation depends on having a clear vision and defined goals, and then setting priorities. For governments, this means intimately linking digital to public-policy objectives and viewing it as a lever for achieving them. To establish a clear link between its digital vision and public value, each government should consider revisiting the country’s ICT Strategy and aligning it with the country’s current and future needs and priorities. If that is not done, the majority of people will not see the value of ICTs.  / /

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