There are many reasons why developing countries suffer from a severe mismatch between knowledge supply and demand. Less than 20% of knowledge in African countries has been documented. Besides driving policy and economic development, such knowledge is trying to influence the 80% tacit knowledge which is undocumented. While computerisation and digital technology are expanding in many African countries, they will only go far in capturing habits, feeling and behaviours that motivate action among local people.
The whole African consciousness, empathy, intuitions and memory cannot be captured and fully expressed through machines like laptops, smartphones and other forms of social media. That is because Africans have a diverse socio-economic vocabulary which may not be captured until technology is fully domesticated. It is not clear how long that will take. Although robots and digital technology try to express emotions, machines do not have a sense of humour. Yet humour is a powerful knowledge vehicle in African communities. Machines are also not able to deal with surprises which are also a critical part of how Africans learn. We must therefore be very careful about over-hyping the power of technology in transforming African countries.
As knowledge users, African farmers and traders apply knowledge through their activities. They either apply their own personal knowledge and experiences or they look elsewhere for knowledge before they start anything. The more knowledgeable they become, the more they are able to avoid mistakes. While all this learning happens through memory, no machine can capture it fully.
As knowledge suppliers, these actors also create knowledge through reflecting on their experiences shared in the market. This is how mind-lines, rules, rituals, theories and doctrines are derived. Besides individuals and teams, knowledge is also created by experts and communities of practice such as commodity associations reflecting on the experiences of many individuals in the ecosystem.
Towards a knowledge market
In the agriculture sector as a knowledge market there is no monetary price payable for knowledge. The price that farmers and traders pay for knowledge is the degree of effort they put in getting it as well as the amount of searching, asking and filtering they do. Those not keen to put a lot of effort in searching for knowledge are trapped in poor knowledge circles. Where there is low supply and low demand, there is no knowledge market. On the other hand, where there is high supply and high demand, there is an equilibrium knowledge market. To a large extent, most informal agriculture markets are equilibrium knowledge markets.
The same notion can be extended to the African formal education system where high supply and low demand for university graduates, translates to knowledge oversupply. Many graduates are stuck with certificates they will never use, some organisations have huge databases nobody ever reads, and some development organisations have massive lessons learned systems with no lessons re-use. This oversupply introduces blockages and waste into the knowledge sharing system, thus destroying the value of knowledge. Oversupply would not be a problem if the price of the knowledge dropped to compensate. Unfortunately the opposite is happening in Africa. The more oversupply of knowledge, the more time and effort it costs to search, sift and sort through until you find the knowledge you need. In this case, oversupply increases cost and decreases demand even further.
We are dreaming of a situation where there is low supply and high demand for knowledge. This will ensure we have many people looking for knowledge with little knowledge to find. The effect of this undersupply will make knowledge seekers look harder and seek for knowledge even if it is not yet documented. They will start by asking people, talking farmers and local communities before they eventually find tacit knowledge in its richest state. When this tacit knowledge is ultimately documented, its value will increase.
In order to fully benefit from their natural and human resources, developing countries should build an equilibrium knowledge market by stimulating supply first. This can happen through encouraging capturing of knowledge, rewarding knowledge publishing among graduates and cultivating a knowledge sharing culture starting from community levels. We cannot continue stimulating supply without stimulating demand because that has led to the current oversupply of graduates whose knowledge is being devalued. It is better to have knowledge seekers outnumbering knowledge sharers since that increases the value of knowledge as seekers find what they need and apply it. Beginning by stimulating demand avoids the current pitfall of the knowledge glut and devaluation of knowledge.
Some of the scarce knowledge in developing countries
Supply and demand is at the base of much economic theory where the concept of an equilibrium market emerges when supply and demand are matched through price adjustment. Unfortunately, the African formal education system is not making sure the supply and demand of knowledge are in synch. The supply of academic knowledge continues to exceed demand. There is an over-supply of certain courses, merely because they are easier to do not because they are demanded by the market. Due to this glut, market prices for graduate skills have completely fallen down.
While there seems to be an oversupply of the wrong knowledge in African countries, a wide range of competencies are needed to address teething decision making constraints. For instance, little is understood about how farmers use their social capital to deal with wicked problems like a decrease in yields and poor market performance. Rather than continue producing graduates who are difficult to employ, universities should generate knowledge brokers who can unlock the abundant value dormant in natural resources. They should be able to recognize when deeper expertise is required and identify appropriate collaborators with that expertise.
Some of the critical missing skills include identifying interconnections, scoping ways of approaching economic challenges and discovering the best methods. We need young people able to select and use a broad range of applicable methods and multi-modal methods of data collection and interpretation. They should be able to understand the limitations of different types and sources of information. As an ecosystem, our agriculture sector is beset by diverse sources of information whose pieces are incomplete. For instance, the link between local agriculture production and international trade has not been explained in ways that make sense to farming communities.
The African education system should cultivate finely honed interpretation skills into students so that they are able to use statistical methods to evaluate alternative justifications, claims and arguments being made about African economies. Students must also be able to formulate implications and inferences from evidence as well as recognize the limitations of different forms of evidence. They also need to understand areas of ignorance and uncertainty about African economies, most of which have remained informal. The fact that African banks cannot come up with practical agricultural and rural finance models based on empirical evidence suggests a glaring absence of financial modelling skills. Some of the most important missing skills include identifying cultural and group norms, local contexts as well as their influence on how wicked problems like climate change are analyzed.
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