How baseline data can inform agriculture development and community empowerment

Almost 70% of districts in Zimbabwe are subjected to baseline studies from different organizations every year. Most rural people have become fatigued because organizations and institutions are not building on previous baselines, preferring to compete in producing disjointed information. As if this is not enough, baseline surveys and project evaluations by development partners are not shared with communities so that they can see how to continue doing things for themselves. When baseline data is shared with communities they can contribute to longitudinal assessments and periodic improvement of their own context. Through baseline data, communities should be able to tell if the concept of field days is contributing to poverty alleviation and wealth creation. Without data it is impossible for communities to translate field days into agribusiness. At one point someone is a master farmer and in a few years the same person cannot harvest a ton of maize.

Where the department of Agricultural Extension (AREX) is active and capacitated, there is no point for organizations doing their own separate baseline studies when AREX can provide valuable status quo information.   Alternatively, development partners can pay AREX for baseline information as a way of empowering this important local institution towards sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, most development partners hurriedly conduct baseline surveys for their interventions hoping to see trends in two to three years. Two years is too short to see important agricultural trends. Tools used by most Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E ) systems designed by development partners do not impart skills to local resource persons so that they continue gathering data and monitoring their progress following the phasing out of projects. M&E remains a highly technical field whose knowledge doesn’t spill-over into communities in visible and practical ways.

Had they capacitated farmers and local champions, government institutions and development partners should by now be doing less crop and livestock assessment work. The process would actually be happening much quicker. Due to failure by these institutions to craft appropriate information gathering tools that take advantage of Zimbabweans’ high literacy levels, the burden for crop and livestock assessment falls on one or two institutions every season. A lot of the skills around baseline studies as well as crop and livestock assessments can be broken down into small chunks that can be effectively carried out by local people with minimum guidance. Rather than focusing on crop and livestock assessments only, some of these activities should be holistic enough to cover what makes a total household, village or ward (income inflows, outflows; basic livelihood, remittances, etc). Knowledge has to be stepped down and up & digested before farmers can apply it to their context. Otherwise we end up with technical reports that ordinary farmers can’t use because they are notstatisticians. For instance, very few farmers access weather information shared through television, newspapers and radio whose target audiences are mostly based in urban areas.

Towards community knowledge centres

Given the proliferation of ICTs each village or ward can gather, digitize and store its own baseline data. Knowledge Transfer Africa (KTA) recently walked with people in four wards of Gokwe South district, gathering and interpreting baseline data which is now part of critical local content for the wards. Without local content, ICTs are just gadgets which will not benefit many people. The four wards who participated in and owned the whole baseline study process are:- Njelele 1:– Ward 16; Njelele 2:- Ward 15 and Njelele 3:- Ward 14 and the furthest being Ward 19 – Dhlalambi 1. Below are examples of baseline knowledge that now informs decision making in the wards:


This information is critical for planning and resource allocation in each ward.


It is important to know gender dynamics in each ward so that decisions about issues that affect men and women differently can be addressed.


The level of education speaks to many issues such as local people’s capacity to understand and absorb knowledge. Introducing a project without understanding people’s level of education results in poor implementation and low adoption of new ideas. Collectively, the percentage of respondents who have been to school in all the four wards is 95.02 % inclusive of primary to higher tertiary level.


On average 14.285 % of the households interviewed had received training on various projects. New interventions often assume that communities have never been training and continue introducing and duplicating training programmes that waste people’s time and leave them more confused. The table below shows different kinds of training received by people in the four wards.



For 95% of the respondents, agriculture is a major source of income. Sources of income indicate business opportunities and people’s capacity to afford certain services.


Generally the majority of people in all the wards have income streams below $200. This has a bearing on rural finance modelling.


The majority of people in all the four wards have monthly expenses below$50.00.




Using data to see what is hidden

Institutions like AREX and development organisations can introduce knowledge on conducting baseline studies and then build the capacity of local people to do longitudinal studies while gathering and monitoring changes according to the baselines. Now with the proliferation of ICTs this should be easy and fast. Information about drought cannot just be generalized. Information should be broken down by household, village, ward, district, province and then national. Each community should be able to hold this kind of information in its knowledge centre. Communities have their own structures ready to receive and integrate knowledge. If you ride on existing structures, you don’t need to continue building the capacity of people to do the same thing. More local experiences will emerge from sharing information at local levels on a daily basis. Rain gauges can be interpreted through social learning without a need for highly technical interpretation. Through community knowledge centres, communities can be exposed to the importance of soil sampling in ways that prompt them to acquire their own soil sampling kits. When soil sampling becomes common knowledge more farmers will be motivated to acquire their own kits and develop enterprises around soil sampling for other farmers.


Using baselines can help in distinguishing factors that affect pockets of communities from those affecting whole communities. It’s wrong to conclude that all communities are affected by climate change the same way when some farmers in the same area are harvesting ten tons per hectare. Without baseline data you can’t figure out what makes these exceptional cases stand out. Even in Chivi district, some wards close to natural features like mountains, forests and streams are affected differently by climate change than those dominated by bare ground. Baseline data can show the effects of climate change right from villages, wards, districts and provinces before generalizing at national level. A baseline can also show differences in the intensity of climate change and this can inform mitigation strategies. It is not helpful to embark on a blanket national climate change awareness programme, in most case through television, radio and newspapers. All these channels are not accessible to local farmers where everyday sense-making and communication is more meaningful. If communities are encouraged to measure the width of their streams annually, experts can be roped in to interpret the meaning of any changes. You can’t just start a gulley reclamation programme without solid information on the history of the gulley. Every gulley, stream and forest has its history ensconced in local people’s collective memory.

Most baseline survey reports as well as crop & livestock assessment reports lack ordinary farmers’ analytical views. The final reports are usually a string of numbers and graphs and shaded maps which mean nothing to non- statisticians such as farmers. More useful knowledge can be co-created during baseline studies and agricultural assessments than from reading final reports. In a changing climate, crop and livestock assessments should be based on continuous dialogue rather than technical reports full of figures. People at all levels (household, village, ward and district) should be empowered to gather baseline information and knowledge. Information on water and sanitation should be gathered at local level rather than waiting for different development partners to come and introduce their own baseline studies in line with their proposed interventions and number of years. For communities, a baseline should be done once and then information fed continuously in line with new findings and fresh evidence. At the moment in Zimbabwe, a company wanting to introduce tobacco farming does its own baseline. An NGO interesting in introducing a food aid programme does its own baseline based on a two or five year programme. The ministry of health does its own baseline to justify a 6 month immunization programme. An NGO interested in water and sanitation also does its own thing.  When a community is capacitated, all this information should be found at one community knowledge centre.

From informants to Knowledge Workers

Development organisations and academics should stop looking at communities as Informants but Knowledge Workers. Building community knowledge centres is a sure way of harnessing community knowledge for development. Government should have a solid template for such information so that not much time is wasted on baseline after baseline by different organisations in the same community. Due to lack of community knowledge centres where community baseline knowledge can be found easily, it takes time to start and implement a project in Zimbabwe. In a three year project, implementation can only happen in six months with much of the time consumed in activities like pre-planning, training, stakeholder engagement, launching, database creation, baseline survey, training and procurement, followed by evaluation. Moreover, starting, evaluating and designing an exit strategy all happen without hand-over of knowledge gained to local people. That is why there is so much frustration in development organisations with officers desperate to get more money to continueor start a new phase of the same project. They write a good case study which they want to replicate or scale up in other districts, starting with (guess what?) a baseline again. There is no moving forward since everything and everyone is trapped in this cycle of processes. You move from A to B to C and repeat the process again. Important lessons are not shared with communities which need them most. Even in districts with almost the same characteristics, new projects often start with a new baseline. Using baseline data, each community is able to take a long term view and decide its level of effort in each project that comes along.

Ways to involve local people in baseline surveys include tools like mapping, training, poverty ranking, issues affecting communities, coping mechanisms and areas where support is really needed. Youth, women, men, traditional leaders and many other groups can all contribute to the baseline. A simple tool can be designed for the community so that it can input data. An exercise book from where information can be transferred into a computer can be a good starting point for a knowledge based community where tacit knowledge is made explicit step by step. Local young people can enthusiastically enter, process and keep this data.

Aligning baseline data with market intelligence

Working from the agriculture markets has made eMKambo realize that no organisation has ever carried out a baseline survey in any of the people’s markets. eMKambo decided to conduct a baseline of each market starting with Mbare in 2013 to map the whole market ecosystem including actors and sources of commodities. If someone comes 10 years from now, they should be able to see what the situation was like in 2013 and then see if any changes are happening. Data from the market should be linked with production in various areas so that we can see gaps before deciding to import food. Without data you cannot effectively align agricultural activities with local people’s nutritional needs. Local data should be linked with market data, showing the volume of commodities from particular areas to particular markets. The information below shows how different communities exchanged food with Mbare farmers’ market in February 2015.

Feb 2015 Mbare farmers’ market analysis

A total of 2251 farmers supplied 40 different commodities to Mbare farmers’ market during the month of February 2015 generating a collective Expected Revenue (ER) of $ 1,364,441.93, an increase from January’s figure by 2 %. The vegetable class had the highest number of produce supplied and ER for the month of February 2015.


The above table shows all the produce supplied to the market, quantity (in respective units of measurement and tonnage) and ER for each product type.


Table 15: E R by District


Although far from Harare, Gokwe South managed to contribute commodities to Harare in February 2015 with the bulk of commodities from the district going to Bulawayo, Gweru and Kwekwe. The bigger the town the more volume of commodities farmers take to the town on the assumption that there are more buyers in bigger towns. By participating in baseline studies, communities become more empowered to use evidence in their production and marketing decisions. Communities can learn more from the process of creating a report than from implementing recommendations from a report in whose codification they didn’t participate. They can remember how the process of codifying their experiences felt than reading someone’s explanation of their circumstances.

Experts (like agronomists and animal scientists) have deep knowledge on a subject but many lack the skills to synthesize what they know in order to share it with a broader audience. As a result they end up sharing knowledge with like-minded people. In an increasingly complex world where climate is changing unpredictably, it is critical that experts share their knowledge so organizations, institutions and local communities can make better decisions. Unfortunately, most experts are very deep into their field and may be less interested in the general trends. Involving communities in baseline studies and ensuring some information remains at community level is a powerful way of developing a new knowledge sharing culture that is badly needed in African countries like Zimbabwe.

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