Farmers, traders and rural communities have amazing ways of creating conversations that overcome the fragmented nature of formal knowledge systems. That is how they create an alternative future for themselves. Although most of them have not attended formal education, the informal environment has taught them to creatively read situations and facilitate knowledge sharing through group processes. Besides a capability to function much better in situations that require on-the-fly problem solving, their adaptive skills are more than 80% improvisation. Unfortunately improvising too much can get in the way of learning from good practices, where they exist. One of the challenges of too much improvisation is that new people will have to start from scratch and thus waste resources.
Dialogue rather than training
Most capacity building and training programmes for farmers tend to be about teaching rather than dialogue. There is often a training programme and trainer rather than a dialogue convenor. Informal agriculture markets have shown the importance of a dialogue approach where farmers, traders, processors, transporters, artisans, input providers and equipment manufacturers are brought together to nourish each other’s insights. This can happen at local level around community knowledge centres. It is no longer useful for farmers to talk to themselves because they have shared the same issues for more than ten years. In fact, they have solidified a certain position and tied a knot which they can’t untie on their own. From a recent research conducted by eMKambo, 84 % of farmer respondents mentioned the same challenges. This probably means five farmers representing Zimbabwe’s five agro-ecological regions can tell you everything you need to know without interviewing thousands of farmers from respective communities.
The only variable can be contextual issues where farmers from Chimanimani cannot lecture farmers from Chivi because they have different economic drivers. But a dialogue about how farmers in Honde Valley have organised themselves to successfully market their bananas can inform Chivi farmers in how they can also organise themselves to market sorghum. Look and learn visits should not be on the same practice or same value chains unless there are opportunities for value added services, one step up from production. Farmers have debated production issues to death such that for really serious farmers there is really nothing to learn from talking to each other besides actual practice or experience. Organising farmers from one irrigation scheme to visit others in a similar irrigation scheme can be total waste of resources.
How to address some of these issues
A little bit of structured training/formation, action research or methodological design can yield better results – showing the incremental nature of knowledge generation and sharing. Through methodological processes, farmers participate in better engagements and become exposed to new methods and theories although they may not know that they will be working with theories. Perhaps the most important value of formal education is exposing people to new models and ways of integrating new with old knowledge (reconstructing new ways of thinking). Real and lasting change is possible through processes that embrace all aspects of current reality with qualities like an open heart, authenticity, vision, gentleness, courage, mindfulness of body and acknowledgement of fear and imperfection. This is a domain of informal knowledge where farmers and traders thrive.
Some problems can be solved by experts using rigid plans while others require aggressive creativity. Farmers and traders now realize that the larger challenges they face are complex and full of inter-dependencies that are so intricate that nobody can predict and control them. This calls for a very different approach. Most approaches by development practitioners do not lead to lasting change because smallholder farming is more complex and cannot just be romanticized.
Financial institutions should be willing to work with all sorts of unattractive aspects of reality, such as uncoordinated production, corporate irresponsibility, carelessness and hopelessness. Real impact is in changing these into positive attributes. Farmers and traders have realized that you may not always work with everybody simultaneously but be open to any piece of reality. For instance, one piece of reality is that smallholder farmers are fond of scavenging for seed, inputs and ideas. That is probably why among farmers and rural communities gossip is more powerful than the formal media. Those who promote change have to embrace full and personal engagement in order to understand these dynamics. In these situations, corporate communication and advertising are not sufficient ways of sharing information. If you visit farming areas and informal markets as a tourist, you will never understand these deeper issues and stories behind the stories. It is important to be emotionally engaged. You cannot facilitate changes which you are personally unwilling or unable to do.
Learning from inspiring examples not blueprints
In the informal sector, there are often no blue-prints, except inspiring examples which can be a source of inspiration and continual learning. You have to engage more than the intellect and this is where dialogue becomes very important. Farmers and rural communities know that no one can move forward without mistakes. Mistakes do not prove that the way you search does not exist. It is important to embrace emergent processes that engage multiple ways of seeing and knowing the world.
The market as a dialogue
To the extent that it has enormous convening power, the informal agriculture market facilitates dialogue between commodities and sources of commodities. It is often very difficult for producers to know what volumes are coming from what source. The following graphics depict volumes and sources of commodities in Mbare wholesale market during the month of October 2015. This is an expression of dialogue between agricultural communities in the market as they position each other according to demand.
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