In spite of promises surrounding mobile technology, African communities still face enormous barriers to accessing reliable, relevant and usable information and knowledge. Over the past decades, international organisations like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) have generated and shared remarkable knowledge. While these institutions have done commendable work, for how long are they going to continue influencing agriculture research and development in developing countries? When are they going to build local institutions to be able to demand and absorb knowledge? Rather than continue coming up with this and that new methodology and tool, how about the FAO and CGIAR stimulating knowledge and research uptake among local institutions in developing countries?
Invisible barriers and issues
Although international institutions continue to use knowledge supply-driven models, there are enormous limitations around pushing information to extension officers, lead farmers and ordinary farmers. Most supply-driven approaches are not supported by empirical evidence. For instance, in Zimbabwe there is a growing urgency for Zimbabwean institutions such as government departments, chambers of commerce and development agencies to make better use of data in informing their decisions and evaluating their performance. Lack of an evidence-based culture is impeding the collection of meaningful data.
Besides having a potentially large membership from which useful economic development data can be gathered, institutions such as the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce and Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries seem interested in annual business awards than thorough economic trends analysis. Without a culture of data and evidence, it is very easy to reward mediocre performance. For most organisations, data collection is still considered a domain of national statistical agencies like ZIMSTAT yet everyone should collect data in order to make sensible decisions.
A growing body of evidence suggests that access to information is necessary but not sufficient to change practice. Some of the barriers to using information in practice include: lack of awareness of what is available; lack of relevance of available information; lack of time and incentives to use information; and lack of interpretation skills. Attempts to overcome these barriers should be based on good research into the nature of the barriers and evaluations of planned interventions.
As the amount of information increases, agricultural professionals and farmers need critical appraisal skills to be able to distinguish unreliable from reliable sources of information. Librarians and producers of agricultural materials such as local champions need searching, critical appraisal and computer skills. Researchers and systematic reviewers need to understand research design and to have skills in searching, critical appraisal, writing and editing. Software and interface designers need to empower users so that they can exploit technologies to combine and mediate information and knowledge.
The importance of investing in local institutions and communities
More initiatives are showing the wisdom of acting locally and investing in local institutions. For instance, building local markets makes more sense than trying to grapple with the export market where the stakes are too high for many local people. A critical solution is building local information cycles or communities of practice. These have great potential to increase the relevance and reliability of information as well as enhance skills and ownership.
Creating reliable, relevant, and usable information for socio-economic progress requires a series of activities. Unfortunately, there is lack of understanding about how various actors can work together more effectively. There is need for business models that distribute revenue more evenly along agricultural value chains. Supporting local information cycles would bring greater understanding of how to make the knowledge system work better in different settings and for different groups of people, and so improve the quality of information reaching farmers and other value chain actors.
The role of ICTs and how the radio has lost its feathers
The explosion of ICT platforms such as WhatsApp and other social networks is yet to translate into advancement of human knowledge. At the moment most platforms focus on the lowest common denominator such as rumour, innuendo, entertainment and prurient topics that distract people from more considered concerns. In the same vein, in many African countries, radio stations are failing to become meaningful sources of socio-economic development knowledge. From a content point of view, radio focuses mainly on music, news, sports, weather and many other conveniences.
In a recent survey conducted in Zimbabwe by eMKambo, the majority of farmers and traders said they had stopped listening to radio the way they used to. The main reason cited was lack of appropriate content. “Most radio stations have become an extension of prosperity gospel prophets. Economic hardships in Zimbabwe have resulted in radio stations selling their souls to Pentecostal churches. A few years back, more farmers listened to radio than those who read newspapers,” said one farmer leader.
“There is now too much religious noise. You don’t hear anything related to agriculture yet we are an agro-based economy,” lamented one horticulture farmer. “We wish policy makers could do something about this pollution. No country has ever developed or moved out of poverty through religion or false prophets. No miracle or prophecy will create a market for our agricultural commodities if we do not go out and create relationships with the outside world,” added one trader.
To make it worse, many poor Zimbabweans are losing their hard earned money and resources such as livestock to unscrupulous prophets, most of them based in urban areas. By encouraging and allowing this to happen under their nose, radio stations and policy makers are complicit in the impoverishment of poor people. By not putting a disclaimer on religious messages, radio stations are actually endorsing false prophecy, thus misleading masses of people to part with their hard-earned cash for salvation.
Riding on smart use of ICTs
The ubiquity of smartphones in African countries is poised to make data collection much easier, quicker, more reliable and less expensive than ever before. Data collection for evaluation purposes will soon stop being an activity done at the end of a multi-year project. The ability to collect data digitally, instead of on paper, is one benefit made possible by digital devices like the smartphone.
Institutions in developing countries should be supported to change the way they think and operate in order to become data-driven. Besides collecting data they never collected before, they need new sets of skills. For example, institutions which used to collect production information only will have to see sense in collecting geographic and location-specific details because all this has a bearing on successful outcomes. Ironically, many funders are demanding evidence of impact without a willingness to invest in the costly and time-consuming work of gathering that evidence. For instance, financial institutions want to understand their clients without paying for baseline information. If they really want to take advantage of the data revolution, they have to pay for data.
Every serious institution has to invest in obtaining better data for action. Chambers of commerce and farmer organizations will have to collect data that respond to the urgent needs of their members. They cannot continue guessing. Without data they cannot ask better questions or provide informed answers. Rather than generalized information at national level, communities are beginning to ask for data that speak to their context. The graphic below shows some of the information that farmers in different districts of Zimbabwe are asking eMKambo to provide on a regular basis. Knowing the position of their districts in terms of market participation reveals opportunities for improving production and marketing as well as situations where available resources are being under-utilized.
eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6