What we can learn from the way farmers relate with nature

What we can learn from the way farmers relate with nature

The majority of smallholder farmers in developing countries treasure their relationship with the natural environment. When top down scientific ‘truths’ offer unsatisfactory answers, the farmers resort to what they know best.  In a recent conversation with eMKambo, many farmers expressed a strong view that a teacher-pupil relationship between extension officers and farmers has outlived its usefulness.   Sadly, even in cases where the farmer has more practical knowledge than the extension officer, very few extension officers are willing to learn from the ‘pupil’ (farmer).  With the way markets and ICTs are exposing farmers to many best practices than before, agricultural extension is no longer about putting ideas into the heads of farmers but enabling them to show what they know and use that knowledge in identifying and solving problems.  Some farmers told eMKambo that they learn more from doing the opposite of what extension officers recommend. 

Notions around soil

For some farmers, fertilizer recommendations from extension services, fertilizer companies and agriculture-related NGOs suggest that sandy soils are inferior to red or black clay soils.  As if to confirm this notion, during Zimbabwe’s land reform, some farmers who were allocated land on sandy soils were given more hectares than those on black and red soils.   Yet, according to the farmers, depending on crop, sandy soils can actually be superior than red soils.  While soya bean production is being promoted in many areas, farmers say trying to produce the crop in sandy  soils is a waste of resources because yields will certainly be much lower than in black and red clay soils.






A lot can be learnt from the way farmers connect with the natural world than in the classrooms


There has been information to the effect that Zimbabwean soils are 65% sandy and 15 – 20% red and clay. According to the farmers most former white commercial farmers didn’t want to farm in red or clay soils because they associated these soils with too much wear and tear of agricultural implements such as tractor disks and tillers, leading to high overheads. Red and black soils are also said to attract more weeds than sandy soils. In addition, it can be practically impossible to work in red and clay soils during the rainy season.  Where farmers in black or red clay soils can wait for three days to get into the land after heavy rains, those in sandy soils can work on their land the next morning.  On the other hand, black and red soils are said to have many properties that make them better for moisture conservation.  These soils also do not leach nutrients such as Nitrogen compared to sandy soils.  The nematode problem is also said to be high in sandy soils. 


The farmers also mentioned that it is difficult to apply the relevant nutrients in the soil against uptake by some plants. While legumes leave more nutrients in the soil, cotton and other crops take out more nutrients than most farmers can replenish.  Increasing proof that inorganic fertilizer destroys the soils is resulting to many farmers turning to compost.  Unfortunately, most farmers are not able to know what is lacking in their soil before they decide to grow crops.  A few farmers know that lack of particular trace elements influence the growth, yield and quality of produce. Some of the challenges facing farmers include estimating the amount of moisture in their soils, how long to wait after rainfall before planting, time taken by crops to germinate and planting depth of different crops in line with specific amounts of moisture.  These issues can only be addressed through localised context – specific advice as soon as rain touches the ground. 


Combining science with farmer knowledge

Experienced farmers continue to express their suspicion that scientific knowledge sticks to those who produce it as shown by how it is difficult for most agricultural scientists to share their knowledge with non-scientists. Scientists end up sharing their knowledge with people like them.  Rather than moving wholly from research stations to farmers via extension officers, most of the useful and un-diluted knowledge remains at agricultural research stations.  On the other hand, although farmers generate their own useful knowledge, very few are able to document and develop basic data like crop histories. This is a huge knowledge gap which results in most farmers relying on their intuition. As a result, they miss lessons acquired through documentation that influence the quality of agricultural products.  One farmer said he had challenges with producing quality onion seedlings for 4 years because he did not record his lessons.  When a farmer achieves 85% germination yield but does not record his practices, the next farmer cannot know how to achieve the same. 


Once farmers develop a strong discipline of recording their activities, their interpretation and analytical capabilities will improve.  At the moment, it looks like the fewer the crops the more a farmer is likely to use his or her memory rather than record information.  While this may be a cognitive management strategy, documenting enhances incremental performance and builds up a reliable reference base.  In most cases farmers don’t know where to start with record keeping.  There used to be a standard template/structure on what to record but there are now numerous confusing templates from many organisations.  Farmers need to compare information with other farmers and this means there has to be a standard way of recording.  If a neighbouring farmer does not record basic details like planting date, the other farmer has no basis for comparison.



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

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


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


Agriculture in the Knowledge Economy

Agriculture in the Knowledge Economy

Although most developing countries are investing in formal education, the biggest challenge remains translating that investment into a key driver of the knowledge economy.  The major component of a knowledge economy is a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities than on natural resources. Given how developing countries still lag behind on the knowledge exploitation front, unlocking people’s intellectual capacity should go beyond formal education. If African countries continue confusing formal education with knowledge, they will not fully benefit from all forms of learning that happen outside formal education systems.

While the knowledge economy is being associated with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and closing the digital divide, little attention has gone into understanding people as the major generators and holders of knowledge. In as much as developing countries are worried about the digital divide, a fundamental issue is the cognitive divide because inequalities are often reproduced in the cognitive dimension (how people think and make decisions). Changing farmers’ mind sets implies understanding their thinking patterns and their notions of knowledge.  This is important if farmers can be enabled to participate in the knowledge economy.  Climate change is already showing the limit beyond which African smallholder farmers can continue depending on natural resources.

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Towards a Personal Knowledge Index

Realizing the importance of knowledge in the knowledge economy,  eMKambo has designed a Personal Knowledge Index (PKI) which can help farmers to determine where they are in terms of knowledge and its exploitation in the agriculture sector.  The PKI is a matrix or scorecard with parameters against which an individual farmer can rate himself or herself. Focusing on an individual is important because how an individual farmer seeks knowledge, makes sense of it and shares it has a bearing on participation in the knowledge economy. The PKI is a valuation matrix that looks at the person, making it possible to answer a question like: Who is a farmer?  Currently, such a question is rarely answered in an informative way.  Is a farmer anyone with a piece of land or someone with knowledge about farming or someone with a passion for farming? Like any other career, farming can be a calling.  If a farmer is to stay on the land all the time, which additional attributes contribute to his/her success?   Approaching the issue from a knowledge perspective, the PKI looks at the following set of factors:

Education – This aspect looks at the formal/academic education level of a farmer to figure out the relevance of formal education in agriculture and other value chain stages such as processing, preservation and marketing. Some of the questions to be answered here include: How does your ability or inability to document your activities influence your agriculture production?  How relevant is formal education, for example a marketing degree, to agriculture?  How relevant is the same qualification in agriculture markets?

Skills – How have you acquired your skills?  Is it through hands –on, on the job, courses attended, etc..?

Knowledge and experience – Here the emphasis is on skills transfer outside formal learning where learning takes place through practice and from others.   It goes with some inventions as well as both good and bad practices.  How have you been able to cope with drought and other challenges like the outbreak of diseases for either crops or livestock?  This question speaks to mitigation strategies. How you resolve farming challenges is an important risk factor. Have you ever applied for a loan?  If not, why?  If yes, what were the results?  What collateral did you use?  What were the repayments?  What else followed?  This is also an important risk factor which goes with your own investment – how much you have invested and how much do you plan to invest?  What is the opportunity cost of selling your vehicle to buy an irrigation unit including a pump and pipes?

Networks – How networked are you?  What are your agriculture-related networks?  What about other networks?  How do you think these networks are relevant to your line of business?  The network revolution is already reshaping farmers’ basic common sense expectations of the world around them. Networks show that farmers are a social species linked to one another by a far-reaching network. These networks constitute direct and indirect links.

Diversity in the agricultural enterprise – How diverse is your agricultural activities? There are pros and cons of diversity just as a single line of business has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Although often influenced by natural resources, some of these are personal decision traits.

Succession plan – Is your succession plan within the family or along business lines.  There are pros and cons of each choice.  You can’t just leave a farming business in the hands of people you don’t know. On the other hand, leaving your business in the hands of unwilling or unable relatives can be the end of your dream.




Personal Knowledge Index Scoring

The scoring process takes into account Capital and Land as the two most important factors of production with personal entrepreneurship being the third factor completing the loop in a knowledge economy. To avoid coming up with a flat score, scoring looks at both the pros and cons of each parameter.   If someone is average in resources (land) but strong on experience, s/he gets a different score from someone with abundant resources but weak on experience. A farmer can score 100% on labour  if he is available on the farm to provide labour.  The one who is away can score 30% of labour but 70% on capital. Someone with knowledge and experience but no formal education gets a score which recognizes his/her expertise.  Someone using a marketing degree to trade commodities on the informal market also gets an appropriate score on that parameter.   This methodology comes up with three categories of farmers.  No one will be a worst case because even if s/he can lack capital, at least s/he can be available as labour.

Assessing a farmer against the above factors generates a score card which can tell whether a farmer is in category A, B or C with respect to capacity to participate in the agriculture-driven knowledge economy.  If all this information is properly packaged, it can constitute a powerful form of collateral in the knowledge economy particularly when combined with valuation of all other assets such as land, capital and labour. This information makes much more sense when linked to commodities.  For instance, it can assist in answering a question like:  How does knowledge and skills result in you breaking away from being a mono-cropping farmer?

While valuating land can be easily tied with on-farm labour, valuating an individual through the PKI tries to figure out the entrepreneurial traits or flair of a farmer/producer.  There is often a very thin line between the owner and the business.  Integrating a person’s behaviour and the business’s behaviour should give us greater commonality. However, more commonality increases risk unless it is for the better.  On the other hand, the far away your attributes are from your business the higher the risk. Commodities can be assessed separately from the farmer. Here we look at factors like adaptation to climate change, yields, complexity, cost of production, return on investment, profit margins (is it just about high margins or small margins big volumes?).

Why this is important

This kind of knowledge assessment framework should inform interventions in agricultural and rural development. If you are going to work with farmers, do not assume every farmer needs training in farming as a business.  Also, try not to depend too much on self-assessment because it is difficult for one to assess himself or herself.  You need a third eye that can make recommendations for career development.  All this information provides a strong basis for decision making.  Having assessed and come up with a scoring matrix, you can determine a farmer’s ability to manage high value, low volume crops like broccoli, etc..,.  One can decide to start on low hanging fruits type of businesses. If you are a self-starter with little capital but good land and water, what kind of advice do you expect regarding crops to produce and livestock to keep? From a crops perspective, you can start with easier crops like green mealies, cabbages and onions. On the livestock side you can begin with poultry and goats before shifting to complex animals as you gain more knowledge.

There is a lot of undocumented knowledge different from learning.  Communities should be enabled to document their local knowledge so that it can contribute to the knowledge economy. Most importantly, there are pros and cons in everything.  While the pros for youth are that they still have time to grow, learn and implement farming projects, lack of experience can be a disadvantage against their success.  On the other hand, while old people have knowledge and experience, investing in them may be risky because their adaptive capacity may be low, making it difficult to change their mind sets.  The PKI can draw pros from youth and pros from old people and link these together into comparative advantages for a particular community.   Planning for production should go beyond individual farmers but every farmer in a community. Exchanging notes about production and standards ends up with knowledge as a public good.  If you secretize knowledge, it might not give you the best results because it will not have been filtered and value-added through communities of practice.

Role of youth in knowledge and skills transfer

A fundamental question in the knowledge economy is: To what extent do the old generation in most communities have an opportunity to transfer skills to the younger generation?  If youths are not available, elders will have no one to transfer their skills and knowledge to.  In most African countries, skills like pounding crops, drying vegetables and meat, animal skin processing, hand-crafting and home milk processing are becoming extinct  because grandmothers and grandfathers have no one to transfer their valuable knowledge to since most youth have migrated to urban areas.  Those remaining in rural areas do not think elders have skills or knowledge worth learning.  In addition, there seems to be competition between local practical skills and formal education systems which currently do not have space for local and contextual knowledge in the syllabi. Many farmers have a lot of knowledge but cannot share it through written documents. This would be different if they had writing skills. Youth have an important role in capturing all this knowledge and making it relevant to the knowledge economy.

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

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

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

Do you really have to stay on the land to be considered a farmer?

Do you really have to stay on the land to be considered a farmer?

There is widespread consensus that passionate farmers should stay on the land. Some of the advantages being that you can connect with your land and commodities. You can also cultivate strong relationships with fellow farmers and make prompt decisions on what needs to be done. However, an increase in the number of Africans living in the diaspora and urban centres who are now investing in agriculture, presents a new agribusiness model. The way technology is transforming communication and relationships can be extended to promote remote farming.

In Zimbabwe, people who own farms or pieces of land while also working in urban areas have been derogatorily referred to as ‘cell phone farmers’. Former white commercial farmers were able to stay on the farm almost full time because they had strong support services in the form of banks and inheritance.  On the other hand, most black guys who have moved onto farms have had to start from scratch due to lack of support services.  Those formally employed have had to hold onto their jobs as a fall-back position while also trying to finance agricultural operations.  The fact that a big number of them have succeeded in juggling formal employment and farming shows anything is possible.

Separating the business from the owner

Absentee land ownership and use has become a good example of how a business can be separated from its owner for its own good.  One can be an employee somewhere and a shareholder in his farming business at the same time. As long as the business has a strong market, the owner can just coordinate resource mobilization and implement plans.  De-linking the farm from the owner gives the business an opportunity to stand on its own legs. In fact, your presence can be a potential burden to the business.

Like any other business, you don’t have to be an expert agriculturalist to exploit opportunities in the agriculture sector.  The way you structure your farming business will make the difference.  With proper management systems and riding on ICTs you can receive real time feedback from your farming activities.  Your major role becomes that of identifying markets and relevant information for your agricultural products. If you become inseparable from your business there is high risk of total collapse when something happens to you.  The business should create its own networks just as you create your own networks.  There is an inter-section between you and your business but different spheres of influence.

A farmer in the current knowledge economy should be able to farm from anywhere just as someone can have shares in a Zambian company while staying in the United Kingdom or in South Africa. Business is no longer about physical location.  Many African business people do not stay in countries where they have invested but their businesses continue to function in their absence. Given a choice between being on the farm or on the market, in a competitive world, you would rather be on the market side from where you inform your farming business through monitoring market dynamics and advertising your products.  It is on the market where you are fighting for space. On the production side you already have land, water, livestock and other assets.  The market is where you can get income to invest in labour, appropriate transportation as well as an appreciation of standards and market calendars.  Most smallholder farmers remain in subsistence agriculture because they are stuck on the farm.  Their movement is mostly from point A to B as opposed to exploring markets C, D and other unfamiliar markets.  They only travel from Mutoko to Mbare and back.  This does not give them a wide market perspective.  On the other hand, livestock farmers only know the local abattoir or mobile cattle sales. You can’t build a viable business on such limited market knowledge.

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Leveraging networks

As an absent farmer, you can use your networks to manage your employees and introduce your managers to food chain stores and other market segments while you concentrate on following up. Your absence on the farm can positively create room for innovation.  As long as you are there, the business will behave the way you want to.  In your absence workers are forced to innovate.  Over the past few decades, most smallholder households who had a husband working in town and the wife doing agriculture in rural areas were able to lead a middle class life by taking advantage of their situation.  When visiting her husband, the wife would bring peanut butter for sale and the husband would use his networks to sell all the peanut butter for her. Income from the farming business was separated from employment wages and this went back to support farming operations.

The following tables show market activities at Lusaka-Highfield agriculture market in Harare from January to October 2015.  A significant portion of these commodities were produced through absentee land use.

Produce supplied to Lusaka – Highfiled market: January – October 2015

42 produce types were supplied to the market from January to October 2015 as shown below:

Table 1

Avocadoes Garlic Mapudzi Popcorn
Bananas Green Beans Masawu Potatoes
Butternuts Green maize Matamba Pumpkins
Cabbages Green pepper Muboora Rapoko
Carrots Groundnuts (unshelled) Mutsaviro Roundnuts
Cassava Guava Naartjies Sugar Beans
Chilli Horned cucumber Okra Sugar cane
Cow peas Leaf vegetables Onions Sweet potatoes
Cucumber Lemons Oranges Sweet reed
Dried maize Mango Peas Tomatoes
Tsubvu Yams    

Among the 42 produce types supplied, tomatoes, leaf vegetables, onions and unshelled groundnuts were the only produce types that were supplied consistently. The rest where supplied inconsistently because they are seasonal.

Graphic 1: Estimated revenue per produce class

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The vegetables class earned 90.78% of the total estimated revenue. Tubers, field crops, gourds, fruits, wild fruits and other took up 6.15%, 1.78%, 0.67%, 0.54%, 0.08% and 0.001% of the total estimated revenue respectively.

Graphic 2: Total estimated revenue share per produce class

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Graphic 3: Estimated revenue per province

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Graphic 4: District estimated revenue

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eMKambo is now  developing business models and mentorship programmes for farmers who want to farm from afar.   More information can be found below:

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

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

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

Moving from conferences to meaningful conversations

Moving from conferences to meaningful conversations

All over the world, thousands of workshops, seminars and conferences were convened in 2015 from grassroots all the way to global events like the climate conference held in France. More such events are obviously lined up for 2016. While all these events show the importance of face to face engagements, assessing their impact remains a huge challenge. Filling evaluation forms at the end of a conference or workshop ignores the fact that impact does not happen immediately but after outcomes from the conference or workshop are implemented.

While some people have dismissed workshops as being more about who shouts the loudest, others have found them useful mainly for meeting new people and networking, particularly during tea and lunch breaks. Some participants do not enjoy the formal conference itself but informal networking which tends to be more personal and productive. Unfortunately, during conferences most question and answer sessions are too short for meaningful dialogue.  Where facilitators fail to manage their time and spill into lunch or tea breaks, questions from the audience are often hurried and cut short yet these can yield useful insights.  It also makes sense for organisers to follow up after a year or two to find out the impact of these events.

Conferences and workshops as feedback mechanisms

To the extent that they often target experts and institutions, most conferences and workshops are not demand-driven.  If discussions and deliberations are designed to benefit the majority, they should be built from the bottom.  For example, a conference on climate change should be built on mini-dialogues at ward, district and provincial levels where issues and coping strategies are raised.  A national conference should then consolidate insights from different contexts.  Experts can try to make sense of all emerging issues and consolidate them into policy.  Unfortunately most conferences seem to focus on generating reports that are not directly linked to final implementers such as farmers.

Over the past two years, some conferences and workshops have become fundraising platforms, exclusive for those able to pay.  Participation has become a question of who can afford rather than who has knowledge.  As a result, we have ended up with individuals not representing any community participating on their own behalf.  Academics have also dominated the participants as a way of furthering their studies. Development organisations and NGOs have also become the main participants for the sake of writing reports.  On the other hand, the mainstream media has participated for the purposes of gathering news from a trapped audience.  Most outcomes from the majority of conferences have not been translatable to farmers and other people at the grassroots who are often excluded although they are directly impacted by issues under discussion.

In addition, most workshops and conferences do not generate concrete action plans targeting the under-represented lower classes. Yet generating and implementing action plans would create a pathway for assessing impact.  Some conferences produce proceedings whose audiences are limited and cannot be down-scaled to ordinary people.  Again, many conference presentations lack evidence and case studies built from the grassroots.  These presentations tend to be more of prepared speeches than consolidated facts.

The majority of agricultural and climate change conferences are pitched at policy and international audiences yet there should be issues coming from the grassroots.  At the end of conferences, most organisations find it difficult to assess impact because there are often no resources and specific individuals with the responsibility of implement conference outcomes.  Usually resources only cover the conference with no budget for implementing outcomes and action plans.  As a result it becomes difficult to assess impact after a year or two of the conference being held.

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To what extent do conferences and workshops about farmers involve farmers?

Lack of contextualized evidence in thematic areas is often a major issue making it difficult to move from words to action. More critical questions that have remained unanswered include: What informs conference thematic areas? Who is going to implement action plans and what resources are available for implementation?

Translating conferences into meaningful conversations

Conferences should be informed by grassroots events because the main purpose should be bringing together issues and proposed solutions for synchronisation into policy development.  Through the conference, pertinent issues should be consolidated and taken back to communities for implementation.  If we can have teleconferences, twitter, skype and other modern interfaces with international audiences, why can’t we do the same with our communities who are now digitally-enabled?   We have to use the ubiquitous ICT gadgets to stimulate dialogue at community level and farming communities into conferences.  A national conference should start with community conversations.  The same theme can be sent to communities for discussion ahead of the conference with facilitators engaged to facilitate conversations at grassroots level.  Ultimately, the conference becomes more of a platform for consolidation as opposed to just bringing out solutions.

Organisations should utilize ICTs to distil conference outcomes and share outcomes with communities through partnerships with mobile service providers.  Rather than sending unsolicited advertisements, mobile service providers can get traction by associating themselves with important agricultural and climate change events through using their bulk subscriber databases.  Farmers and other people in rural areas can receive distilled information even as the conference is underway so that they can identify with what is going on.

Improving learning through field days and agriculture shows

If a few farmers continue to host field days and collect all the awards, it means field days are not an effective mechanism for transferring knowledge.  Rather than focus on positions 1, 2 and 3, etc. there is need to develop standards which depict a growth pattern as a knowledge transfer mechanism from winners to other farmers.  Based on set standards, prizes can be offered as a result of a graduation mechanism.  Those who graduate from 3rd to 2nd or 1st should be supported so that they inspire those left behind.  This will avoid a situation where some farmers, because they know each other’s capacity and resources, will say, “Obviously I won’t win”.  Two years after a field day, we should be able to see an increase in the number of farmers reaching a certain standard and graduating (e.g. the five ton club) into a certain category.  This will move the competition from just being a popularity contest.

When different categories of farmers receive different support services it becomes an authentic knowledge based exercise. Field days can then feed into agricultural shows showing champions, middle farmers, much improved, innovators, youth, etc.,. At the moment, some of the farmers who win awards do so because they are supported by seed companies.  It is therefore difficult to know whether they win because they are naturally good or it is because of the seed company.  Those who struggle on their own and defeat odds should be more rewarded because it shows they dig into themselves.  This is a measure of resilience.  Farmers who are supported with demonstration plots from seed companies should compete in their own categories.  The same should happen with those into organic production.

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

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

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