How understanding the difference between Information and Knowledge can drive the industrial revolution in African countries

How understanding the difference between Information and Knowledge can drive the industrial revolution in African countries

In many African countries the words “information” and “knowledge are used loosely and interchangeably. But if we are to borrow and adapt knowledge intelligently,   it is important to make a clean and clear distinction between the two concepts.  Knowledge only exists in the human mind. Everything else like information in newspapers, books, radio, videos and databases is information. This means most investments into formal education, media and mobile technology generate information which only becomes knowledge when people integrate it with what they already know. When farmers attend agriculture shows and field days or read newsletters they are just acquiring fragments of information which remains useless unless they make sense of in their minds.  Knowledge is applied information and is composed of awareness, understanding, meaning, insight, creativity, ideas, intuition, judgment, and anticipating the outcome of your actions.

Why this is important for African countries

African countries such as Zimbabwe are in the throes of a new industrial revolution which has to be anchored on diverse source of knowledge. The presence of mighty corporations, numerous NGOs, formerly educated populations and sophisticated institutional frameworks is failing to address poverty, inequality and unemployment in all African countries.  While there is some level of awareness on the causes and effects of inequalities in income and technology, inequalities in knowledge are not well understood. Assessing knowledge dynamics in a particular community on the basis of existing formal institutions like schools, colleges and universities completely misses the point because knowledge sources in African communities are not limited to formal education.

Development partners and policy makers are yet to understand the cognitive diversity and knowledge patterns in many African communities. As a result, there are assumptions that pushing information to everyone will result in knowledge. This approach ends up blaming ordinary people for failing to capitalize on information that is pushed to them yet such information cannot be translated into useful knowledge. When people face the challenge of getting out of poverty or fixing their local economies, they rely on their wealth of knowledge to create viable solutions.  They don’t wait for formal science to provide answers. While it may be easy for African countries to engage with universities, research institutions and development agencies, harnessing knowledge that resides in masses of rural innovators remains an enormous challenge.  Since contextual knowledge is now more appropriate, a critical starting point is mapping local knowledge sources and discarding what is not useful. Innovation has to come from within. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) can only be effective when supported by Local Direct Investment (LDI) in building a strong cognitive base.


Welcome to the Enlightenment phase

The revival of industries in African countries like Zimbabwe will not happen without our own equivalent of enlightenment phase which drove England’s industrial revolution in the 18th century. The enlightenment phase is very important in addressing the relationship between knowledge and economic development. Doing away with antiquated machinery and resizing local agricultural industries in line with new farmers’ capacity to produce appropriate volumes of commodities is an important part of the new enlightenment. Borrowing knowledge and equipment from elsewhere should be based on this enlightenment. During the 18th century industrial revolution, innovators realized that some of the impediments to progress included: fragmentation of knowledge, high costs of accessing knowledge, limitations for adopting knowledge and conflicting theories, among other challenges. Developing countries like Zimbabwe seem to be facing the same problem where our cognitive context is still not coordinated enough to ensure organised accumulation of knowledge and accuracy of empirical knowledge.  The fragmentation of knowledge sources in all African countries is certainly getting in the way of innovation.  While some information and knowledge is held by government departments, some is with NGOs and, on the other hand, local communities such as farmers and traders are also generating their own knowledge.

A strong cognitive base in each African country will enable ordinary people and innovators to combine their own knowledge with what is coming from outside.  To the extent that fabricators and traders in African informal markets are adapting technology from the East and West to produce local products, they are examples of innovators that are taking advantage of their cognitive environment. These fabricators are observing, understanding and manipulating available resources. In this case, the informal sector has become an authentic cognitive bridge and enabler of innovation. In doing their work, these fabricators identify pieces of missing knowledge and ask questions that need answers. They also assimilate theoretical discoveries and generate new knowledge.  People’s capacity to generate new and more effective ways of producing, trading, and managing their resources and their institutions is a key part of innovation. However, the capacity of local communities to filter, combine, adapt and re-create knowledge will depend on a supportive cognitive environment like a market.

The main challenge for African countries is no longer about understanding the physical world (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) but understanding systemic problems like the ecology and the economy. Unless this knowledge gap is closed, creating new institutions and business models will remain a problem.  A related change is understanding the overwhelming diversity of information sources as well as the complexity of useful information. There are still enormous barriers to finding and selecting useful knowledge. That is why knowledge catalysts are now very important in mobilizing knowledge.

Every African country now requires knowledge catalysts whose knowledge mobilisation roles will shape cognitive habits in local innovation spaces such as industrial parks and informal markets. Unlike developed countries, African countries have no choice but to combine knowledge from the South with knowledge from the North, scientific knowledge with indigenous knowledge, local with global knowledge. All these knowledge forms can no longer be useful as abstract entities. The role of knowledge catalysts, in such a situation  include fostering effective dialogue between different knowledge sources while maintaining the diversity of perspectives.

Using data to take guessing out of agriculture practices

An example of catalysing knowledge is integrating data from diverse sources so that farmers and agriculture value chain actors are able to optimize insights from new and old data. Data can enable deep visibility into the agriculture sector, contributing to meaningful financial debate among agriculture value chain actors.  The following narrative does not only show how data becomes information and knowledge but also reveals the importance of knowledge catalysts.

Market analysis:  Mbare Farmers Market – January to June 2015

The first half of 2015 saw a total of 59 different agricultural commodities being supplied in the farmers’ market as shown in table 1 below.

Table 1: produce supplied into the market (January – June 2015)

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Table 2: Estimated revenue per produce

The following table (below) shows estimated revenue per produce in each month.  As shown in the table, close to US$10 million is not a trivial figure in any economy.  While there is extravagant attention on production, little attention is paid to the people’s market yet, as long as raising income is the main goal of most development interventions, the market is a fundamental component.

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Chart 1: Estimated revenue share per produce class

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Table 3: Estimated revenue per Province

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While data contributes to collective intelligence, many people remain passive consumers of information.  It takes time and effort to make sense of filtered information.  With capacity building, African agriculture value chain actors like farmers and traders can become knowledge catalysts able to filter, curate, think and take productive action.

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How farmers can set rules of the game in agricultural markets

Understanding market forces at a granular level will enable farmers to set rules of the marketing game. While it is important for farmers to do their budgeting and costing, the market ultimately determines prices and commodity values. Since they do not have much control over the market, coordinating production and supply to the market is a fundamental step.  They should base their decisions on market trends over the past three seasons or so. Trends from eMKambo show that for a Zimbabwean tomato farmer to break even, a box of tomatoes should fetch between $3 and $4.

On the other hand, there is a sealing beyond which traders can make a profit.  Most traders aim for at least 10 -30% profit. Normally farmers who come to the market know how much profit traders make. Rather than assuming someone is fixing prices, getting organized can empower farmers to control the marketing process. Traders and the market always react to supplies triggered by farmers. A shortage in commodities is often good for farmers because traders compete for a few commodities.

Chart 1: Top ten commodities in Estimated Revenue terms – Mbare Market (June 2015)  

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The above chart shows that tomatoes were the top earners followed by apples and onions while bananas and beans were almost at the same level. In a battle between field crops and fruits, groundnuts and oranges commanded the same respect.

All markets have a constant number of traders and corresponding capacity.  For example, Mbare has 2500 traders each with a certain capacity.  What fluctuates is the supply – one day there is a shortage, the next day there is an over-supply of vegetables or field crops.  Uncoordinated supply means farmers are competing among themselves.  Contrary to conventional myths, traders are not rigging the game nor are middlemen entirely responsible for this problem. When there is a glut farmers compete and suppress the price but when traders compete they push up prices, particularly during shortages.


Chart 2: percentage share of Estimated Revenue per produce class Mbare Market (June 2015)

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According to the above chart, vegetables dominated the market followed by fruits and field crops in that order.  With most vegetables produced by underground and surface water, farmers and policy makers have to step up water harvesting practices and methods.

Chart 3: Estimated Revenue (E R) per province – Mbare Market (June 2015)

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It is interesting to note that eight out of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces supplied commodities to Mbare Market in Harare during the month of June 2015.  This demonstrates the power of African urban centres, particularly capital cities to drive agriculture production.


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What the world can learn from African ways of valuing Agricultural Commodities

What the world can learn from African ways of valuing Agricultural Commodities

From Makola market in Accra (Ghana) to Mbare market in Harare (Zimbabwe) and then off to Nairobi in East Africa, people’s agriculture markets (informal markets) have a unique language. Typically different from that used in the formal market, this language expresses the value attached to agricultural commodities by farmers, traders, transporters and consumers. While the formal market is fond of talking in terms of kilogrammes of tomatoes, metric tons of maize or rice, people’s markets express commodity value in terms of buckets of maize, boxes of tomatoes, baskets of bananas and bundles of vegetables, to mention just a few. The table below depicts examples of the language (units) used in Mbare wholesale agriculture market in Harare in June 2015.
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According to farmers and traders, the people’s market is dynamic and fast – moving auction system, particularly in the morning.  That means attending to hundreds of customers will certainly become cumbersome if a farmer or trader has to weigh tomatoes or sugar beans for every customer. To cope with this challenge, actors have established standard ways of determining the value and prices of agricultural commodities. When dealing in horticulture commodities such as vegetables and tubers such as sweet potatoes, using kilogrammes to sell a commodity leads to loss of customers, the majority of whom are not patient. Kilogrammes work for commodities like beef in a butchery where a seller can just remove a small piece of meat to make sure a buyer gets exactly US$4/kg. For potatoes, cabbages, butternuts and other commodities it is difficult to accurately translate value into kilogrammes and relate this to price in ways that satisfy busy customers. Mbare farmers market operates from 5 am to 11:30 am and that means farmers have six hours to attend to thousands of buyers.  If each customer insists on having what s/he buys weighed and translated into kilogrammes, farmers and traders will save very few customers.

The majority of customers in the people’s market such as vendors and individual household consumers are not interested in kilogrammes but volume expressed in cups, bundles, pockets, buckets and baskets. The volume of commodities within a container can be seen but you can’t see kilogrammes which can be expressed through manipulated weighing scales.  In a butchery, a single scale can be used to sale five different types of meat and the seller is the only one who knows where to press if he wants to sell bones or stake.  The customer is not satisfied since s/he does not fully participate in the measuring process whereas a cup of beans can be seen.  In the people’s market, it is also easy to adjust volume than temper with kilogrammes. If there is a shortage of oranges, where a pocket of 10 oranges would go for a $1, the same pocket can contain eight oranges for the same price.  Customers are often put off by a price increase but do not mind a decrease in volume/quantity.

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Many customers, particularly the illiterate are not conversant with kilogrammes, grams, millilitres and other formal expressions of volume and value.  A common language like a cup, bundle, bucket, basket, pocket and a 50kg sasseka of butternuts are used on a daily basis, making transactions very smooth. This language also simplifies commodity exchanges, for instance, a box of tomatoes can easily be exchanged with a sandak of bananas. Converting tomatoes and bananas into kilogrammes will not make sense given different water content. In addition, most people’s markets do not have heavy duty weighing scales because most of the commodities are not sold in bulk to individuals but each individual buys a sizeable portion.  When selling maize, the people’s market uses buckets and everyone knows that three buckets make up a 50 kg bag and roughly 60 buckets of maize make up a ton.

Water content within different commodities is also an issue against use of kilogrammes. For example, five tubers of sweet potatoes from one farmer can weigh 3kgs while three tubers from another farmer can weigh 3kgs.  What differs here is the water content.  From the marketing side this creates problems since a farmer whose commodity has more water content becomes uncompetitive. For beans, moisture content as expressed in kilogrammes can also rip off customers. The people’s market has a smart way of rationalising all these unforeseen problems by resorting to volume – e.g., a pocket full of sweet potatoes.

Towards local ways of measuring and valuing agricultural commodities

Transactions in agricultural value chains must be smooth.  Where we don’t have technology or equipment to measure moisture content and other attributes, there is no point in complicating the market by imposing a western way of expressing the value of local commodities.  Actors in the people’s market have developed a dynamic knowledge system able to identify and characterise commodities in terms of water content, ripeness, taste, sweetness, etc.  These skills are now used to differentiate prices (value, etc.,) than using kilogrammes which do not say much about the value of a commodity.  Given that most smallholder farmers do not have weighing scales, introducing weighing  scales in the people’s market contributes to unsatisfactory deals which sometimes lead to side-marketing.

The majority of farmers who bring commodities to the people’s market understand measurements and expressions of value in this market and by the time a farmer supplies groundnuts to the market, s/he will have attached a value to his/her commodity.  Major customers such as vendors do not have scales but buy for sale to households most of whom also do not have scales.  The language has to be understood right through. Most actors in the market know how many cups of beans make up a 5 litre tin, how many 5 litre tins make up a bucket and how many buckets make up a ton of beans.  A viable farmer will also tell you, when properly managed, a single tomato plant gives you at least one and half to two boxes.

In livestock sales, the majority of smallholder farmers go back home from the market dissatisfied due to the absence of a transparent language that they can interpret. We have seen some farmers go back with their cattle after suspecting some connivance between cattle buyers who measure livestock worthy through kilogrammes. Some farmers often over-feed their livestock and give them too much water on the belief that weight matters.  Often these farmers are disappointed when buyers introduce other market parameters such as choice and super grades.

The most satisfactory market transactions are conversations where both sellers and buyers negotiate while looking at the commodity.  The people’s market has a remarkable way of carrying these values along the value chain.  Knowledge on the use of buckets, baskets, boxes, bundles, crates and other measurements in the market has come a long way.  Obtaining information from the people’s market and expressing it in dollars or cents per kilogramme may not be helpful to farmers, transporters, traders and the majority of consumers who do not speak in terms of kilogrammes. Policy makers and development partners have to recognize the way commodities are measured and valued in the people’s market.

While food security in most African countries is measured  in metric tons of maize or rice in strategic grain reserves, what about tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes whose value and quantity is expressed in a different practical language?   The value of a commodity should be determined by the market which has its own language.  The people’s market (informal market) has a rich language which can show the distinctiveness of African economies rather than continue hanging onto elite ways of valuing commodities.   The expansion of people’s markets in almost all African urban areas means more than 30% of cash circulating in indigenous commerce is exchanged through a common language not kilogrammes, millilitres and metric tons.  Understanding this language will help African countries in accurately estimating their commodity values in ways understood by the majority.  African Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measurements should incorporate ordinary people’s understanding of value.

Formal institutions like universities and research institutions, some of which have been around in Africa for more than 100 years, are still expressing knowledge in western measurements like tons and kilogrammes instead of learning and adapting from the people’s market. To show that they are true adaptive learners, actors in the people’s market have created containers and measuring systems out of existing materials rather than importing. For example, cardboard boxes and planks that other people would throw away and burn have been fashioned into boxes and crates for selling tomatoes, mangoes, bananas and other commodities. Baskets are also creatively weaved from locally abundant reeds.

Banks and other financial institutions should understand the language used in people’s markets  because these measurements are the ones translated into business growth patterns and performance.  If you are going to fund a farmer or trader, the language is in boxes not kilogrammes or hectares.  The question to a farmer should be how many boxes are you going to produce per plant not how many kilogrammes or tons per hectare.  Boxes translate to projected sales and potential to repay loans.  Since farmers, traders, transporters and the majority of consumers understand bundles, baskets, buckets, pockets and other practical ways of expressing agricultural commodity values, why should African policy makers and development partners continue foisting a foreign language in indigenous commerce?.  If the UK can still speak in terms of miles instead of kilometres and the USA still measures fuel in gallons, developing countries should also measure and expression the value of their commodities in ways that make sense to the majority.

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Why African countries should urgently start generating appropriate knowledge

Why African countries should urgently start generating appropriate knowledge


“Our young people are running away from Africa while the Chinese and Europeans are running to Africa.  It means we are not equipping our youths with the right skills to see what those coming to Africa are seeing.”  These words were said by Professor Fanuel Tagwira, the Board Chairman of the Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research & Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA) at the end of the Youth in Agriculture Summit held in Durban, South Africa from 3 to 6 August 2015.

Unemployment is becoming a time bomb in all African countries. While more than 17 million young people enter the job market every year in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of formerly educated young people do not see opportunities in African agriculture although it accounts for about 32% of GDP.  There is a strong view that the youth are shunning agriculture because they associate it with production only yet there are many opportunities along the value chain, for instance, logistics, packaging and agro-processing.

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While African countries are known for selling raw commodities, there are opportunities for young people to embark on value addition enterprises

How western influence on academia is damaging graduate employability in Africa

An inappropriate curricula is contributing to failure of African university graduates to find employment. Most of the degrees produced by African universities are not demand-driven but still based on a western notion of knowledge. African intellectuals and universities have not been able to  question the intellectual origin of some of the knowledge they impart onto their students. As a result much intellectual work is not in line with African contexts.  For instance, Communication Studies in African universities are still influenced by theories and debates such as modernization and media effect studies that originated from the United States of America decades ago. Clinging onto such theories and subjects of inquiry determined by US scholarship produces graduates who think communication is about diffusing information through newspapers, radio and television yet in the authentic African context, communication is more about dialogue than diffusion or dissemination. Knowledge sharing patterns in informal agriculture markets show that African intellectuals should not just tinker with the curricula but challenge the dominance of knowledge generation theories and ideas imported from the West. There is now enough evidence that western theories and arguments are inadequate in understanding the African context.  African intellectuals should produce knowledge that reflects local realities. The informal market is part of local conditions which offer conditions for relevant intellectual production in ways that will ensure African education system reflects African concerns.

Toward a two strands knowledge system

The informal market (indigenous commerce) indicates that the African education system requires two streams where a young person can decide to go the more “formal” education direction, or into the more “indigenous commerce” (informal) direction. That means, from the age of 13 or 14, an “indigenous commerce” inclined young person can already be making informed business decisions and starting their own businesses. This would stand them in better stead than Ordinary levels,  Advanced levels and degrees would and if they got a business going and established and then decided on formal education, then funding it would not be an issue. This kind of education will certainly enable young graduates to hold space for the current complex environment that requires smart learners able to engage with smart technologies.  Such skills will ensure they are able to see forces that are shaping the future of work.

Unlike the current formal African education system, entrepreneurship should not just be taught as general knowledge but related to specific economic drivers like agriculture. There is a difference in entrepreneurship demands between agriculture and other sectors.  There must be a way of recognising local practical wisdom.  Asking rural elders how they cope with difficult circumstances can be more revealing than speaking to a formally educated policy maker.  At the moment, because much of African education is becoming less demand-driven, graduates end up trying to force the environment to fit their courses rather than acquiring education which speaks to the environment.  On the other hand, if you ask farmers what kind of knowledge gaps they have, most likely they tell you.  So you can’t just go ahead and craft a course without taking into account the context.  Through a two strands education approach (indigenous commerce and formal education), young people who excel in indigenous commerce can stand out and even show instances where local informal education over-takes western formal education.

Another big knowledge gap is between secondary and tertiary African education.  Since there are fewer options for hands-on training, most young people from secondary school end up enrolling for courses they don’t have a passion for mainly because that is what is available at university.  Someone ends up doing agricultural economics because his academic points are pointing in that direction not because he has a passion.  Introducing indigenous commerce will address some of these issues.

An additional challenge relates to technology. There are numerous cases where western technology is foisting formats that are not compatible with local African knowledge.  For instance, why should a trader be forced to express his or business knowledge through excel spread sheet?  Some of these systems end up constraining practical knowledge application particularly in indigenous commerce.  Again, rather than putting too much emphasis on trying to improve the capacity of farmers and traders to access knowledge through new ICTs, African policy makers should interrogate the nature of knowledge, contexts and various audiences. Information alone does not constitute knowledge.  For African intellectuals, understanding the informal market can be the first step in nurturing academic sovereignty. By ignoring broader impulses from the majority of rural populations in preference for what happens in urban areas,  African intellectuals and the ‘mainstream’ media are not only becoming irrelevant but complicity in the marginalization of local knowledge.

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How longitudinal studies can be an extension of community memory in African agricultural economies

How longitudinal studies can be an extension of community memory in African agricultural economies

Many organisations conduct surveys in rural African communities where agriculture is a major socio-economic driver. Besides lacking coherence, these surveys are often short term, ranging from one to three months. In a rapidly changing economic environment, such surveys are of little value because things change before survey reports are published. This calls for a culture of longitudinal studies with the content becoming the foundation of community knowledge centres. ICTs such as computers and mobile phones can be powerful enablers of longitudinal studies in rural areas if properly harnessed. While periodic surveys are often based on respondents’ capacity to remember things and events, ICTs can leverage content generated through longitudinal studies and make it available in ways that complement human memory. Through ICT-enabled longitudinal studies, information can be gathered from farmers and other value chain actors in small incremental chunks that can be aggregated to reveal trends important for decision making.

Through longitudinal studies, farmers, traders and other local value chain actors can integrate feedback loops and their daily experiments into their knowledge sharing systems. Due to lack of organized knowledge centres where longitudinal data is stored and processed, farmers and other value chain actors are currently frustrated by confusing and cumbersome sources of information. Therefore, processes that continuously and timely inform decision making are becoming more important than flitting messages that are difficult to knit into a coherent message.  Depending on who is funding the survey and the intended use of  the generated information, some researchers conducting a survey often adopt  a thematic approach, for instance, focusing on gender. Ideally, farmers and other informants should participate in research planning, developing data gathering tools and providing feedback on findings.  A survey that focuses on gender alone as a theme may not be useful because gender goes with a certain context where there are numerous variables to be explored for decision-making.

eMKambo’s angle into longitudinal studies is from informal agriculture markets where fascinating patterns are now emerging. Information from informal agriculture markets is gathered daily, monitoring commodity performance, market performance, value chain actor participation, prices, etc.  People are looked at in relation to commodities because it makes sense to speak about gender in relation to particular commodities. An agricultural commodity in the market can tell you more about women and youth in the market. You can see commodities brought by women or youth.

While research is important, topics and themes to research on should be informed by longitudinal studies. Local schools can be empowered to conduct community longitudinal research where they capture information about their environment, agricultural trends, health and other variables.  Simple tools can be designed for schools to do longitudinal research and this can be done by school clubs.  An in-depth research on, for instance, environmental degradation at community level should be picked up from longitudinal studies where community youth or school children will have documented changes in their environment through simple tools that do not require a lot of resources.

Community participation in longitudinal studies is immensely beneficial to local people as they can see and be able to capture positive and negative changes in their own environment.  For instance, they can see their rivers drying or indigenous trees like baobab trees disappearing due to uncontrolled deforestation or over-crowding.  Witnessing such disaster in the making can jolt communities into action more than would happen if they were listening to someone presenting his or her research findings on the same issue.

Longitudinal studies are also important because, besides losing institutional knowledge through the passing on of elders, human memory has its limits. Since much of the feedback captured through periodic surveys may not be correct, longitudinal studies can be a way of verifying and providing a second or third opinion.  When gathering information through surveys, farmers who are asked to remember their yields or income in the past two to three farming seasons may have forgotten the details. If some of that information has already been captured through community longitudinal studies, it can easily be retrieved from the community knowledge centre rather than relying entirely on human memory. Communities should have simple tools for capturing rainfall patterns and the status of groundwater at community level over a long period of time. This prevents a situation where more than 30% of farmers participating in rainfall surveys may have forgotten important details.

The absence of longitudinal studies is one of the reasons why many development organisations spend a lot of resources trying to identify community ‘beneficiaries’.  Some of these challenges can be addressed by allocating resources to communities so that they are able to conduct simple longitudinal studies rather than depending on consultants from urban areas who barely understand the history of issues affecting communities. Literacy rates in African countries like Zimbabwe make it possible for ordinary people to conduct basic community-organised and driven research. If education cannot be translated into simple tools that can be used by ordinary people, its usefulness is highly questionable. Graphics below depict examples of information generated through longitudinal data gathering processes. Youth in agricultural communities should be supported to gather such intelligence at local level so that it can inform agricultural practices.

Graphic 1: Sweet potato quantities supplied to Mbare Agriculture Market in 2014 (Tons/month)

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Graphic 2: Top ten sweet potato earners by source (2014)

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This information should be available at knowledge centres in each of these districts.  Farmers in Murehwa should simply get this information from their local community knowledge centre and try to match their production with market trends. The absence of knowledge centres in farming areas currently makes it difficult to match market supply with production patterns on the ground. NGOs working in particular districts should ensure their work speaks to longitudinal studies at community level rather than phasing out projects without handing over tools that will enable communities to continue building on what has been achieved or learnt. In addition, local universities offering courses like agricultural economics, rural development and sociology can participate in longitudinal studies at community level. This way, communities become strong and realistic extensions of university outreach programmes unlike the current scenario where university students have very little contact with farming communities.

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