If agriculture was an Olympics competition, many African farmers would certainly be gold medalists. Zephaniah Phiri, the late world class water harvester of Zvishavane in Zimbabwe would have collected dozens of gold medals. There are many such farmers from Cape to Cairo and Senegal to Somalia. While modernization is trying to present standards of excellence as being uniform across the globe, measures of excellence are determined by norms and values of a particular society. From a socio-economic perspective, each community has knitted its own measures of excellence.
Excellence is more than yield
Unfortunately, African policy makers have not done much to develop national measures of excellence along agricultural value chains. Current measures of excellence focus on productivity at the expense of other factors. This is seen in how value chain actors over-emphasize yield per hectare or amount of meat per amount feed, number of eggs per feed and other related parameters. It seems excellence is more to do with yield than anything else.
While this is not entirely bad, it is important to consider market-informed measures of excellence along the value chain. To what extent do African food producers understand taste, market preferences and costs that determine pricing, timing, consistency, production varieties and others? This is a major knowledge gap inhibiting some farmers from becoming excellent commercial players. Unless we cultivate such information and knowledge the performance of farmers and other value chain actors will remain below average.
To what extent is the market good at setting standards and specifications?
In most farming arrangements, markets and contract companies are often responsible for establishing measures of excellence and standards. They determine what constitutes grades A, B, C, etc. With African informal agriculture markets becoming an absorber of more than 70% of agricultural commodities, a lot still needs to be done in setting up and formalizing measures of excellence. That will ensure farmers are not always surprised by market dynamics resulting in low returns. Although it is known that markets are not always perfect, at the moment market forces seem to determine standards. With appropriate knowledge, an excellent farmer should dominate the whole value chain. The farmer should be able to produce for household food security and remain with surplus for value chain industries as well as for the fresh markets. Focusing on household food security is not enough.
There is a strong relationship between specialization and excellence
Many farmers try to do everything along the value chain – producing, trading, processing, transporting, consuming, etc. It is difficult to achieve excellence when you want to be everything. It is like a marathon runner trying to be a soccer player. Along every agricultural value chain, there is a trade-off which influences return on investment. You can have a good yield but being bad marketer can make you an average or below average performer. You may want to be a processor but lacking the right expertise can work against you. Producers should get as much information as possible about the value chain as to be able to aggregate and consolidate their production. Who are you producing for (own consumption, fresh market, processors or food chain store)?
Excellence is also about concentrating on relevant knowledge. Spreading too widely can get in the way of achieving best results. It is also about innovation. Instead of being pro-active and take matters into their own hands, most farmers wait to be told what to produce, when and how? Sometimes it is important to take commodities to the market just for the purpose of learning first. This will prevent a situation where farmers become perpetual price-takers instead of moderate risk-takers. A bad experience with cabbages in one season is not enough for one to quit. Specialization has to be promoted according to natural farming regions to avoid cases where farmers try to do everything. For instance, it is no use promoting small grains when the market is dying. It is very difficult to compete on the basis of inadequate knowledge.
Excellence in a competitive environment
Just like those competing in the Olympics, as a farmer you can’t be excellent on your own. At production level, excellence is about properly using available resources which tend to have competing uses and opportunity costs. As a smallholder farmer you may be operating at the lowest opportunity cost. Where you produce one crop, for example tomato instead of onion, you may have lost 30% of potential income. That is why it is important to know the potential of every farming area including details like soil testing, budgeting and volume of commodities per area.
Different levels of excellence
Since it is impossible to have all farmers being excellent in the same things, the market can facilitate characterization of farmers. That can inform different levels of excellence followed by smart assessments to figure the type of knowledge required at each level. Different models can then be built around areas of excellence. When farmers are not specializing, it is very difficult to develop viable models. By trying to do everything, farmers shoot themselves in the economic foot. You can be all over the place in terms of your own food security but the market requires specialization. Haphazard production locks farmers in unsustainable production patterns.
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