African agriculture requires serious disruptive thinkers

If African agriculture is to be truly transformative, there is need for disruptive thinkers who can  revisit boundaries between smallholder and large scale farmers. These boundaries have extended from physical (size of land) to the mind-set, creating unsustainable mental blockages.  Most smallholder farmers have bought the myth that they cannot think big and challenge conventional mental chains. Yet when you compare commodities from smallholder farmers with those from large scale farmers in the market, those from smallholder farmers tend to be superior in quality and appearance.


A culture of disruptive thinking that seems to dominate innovation around communication technology is not rapidly finding its way into African agriculture where most methods remain traditional. Rather than looking at agriculture as a holistic ecosystem, actors are busy compartmentalizing producers in line with land holdings instead of the size of their brains. Disruptive thinking should see more innovative models based on changing consumer patterns. Contract farming models have hogged the agricultural landscape for too long without much creativity. Some of the disruptive thinking should come via agricultural financing models.

Helping farmers to connect with their purpose

One of the reasons African farmers are tossed from one model to another is because they have not fully connected with their purposes. Farming for subsistence is not a solid purpose because we have seen some food crops become cash crops depending on circumstances. Purpose will give farmers the power to eliminate distracting options from many directions. Assuming finding purpose is like finding fire, igniting fire in African agriculture will help farmers find purpose. Their purposes peak out in the stories they tell each other in the market and field days.  Finding a purpose is a gradual process rather than a bolt of lightning. The majority of farmers have absorbed enough knowledge about how to produce certain crops and keep certain livestock. A missing link has remained the purpose of doing all these noble things. With a clear purpose, they would not be caught completely off-guard by drought, market collapse and other calamities.

Due to the absence of purposeful knowledge, many farmers sleep-walk through opportunities. Feeling powerful is necessary for farmers to view their challenges as opportunities. On the other hand, dependency on hand outs leads to hesitation, anxiety and discouragement. Without power and self-confidence, the ability to get things done is minimized. Instead of continuing to give farmers hand outs and treating them like irresponsible children, it is important to let them control their outcomes since they have received many kinds of agricultural training. It is important to establish mutually designed accountabilities and let farmers to live up to their abilities as competent food producers. 

Rejecting assumptions that have outlived their usefulness

Besides the mistaken notion that a farmer’s ambition levels corresponds to the size of his or her land, some of challenges for young Africans keen to get into agribusiness relate to capacity building for accessing funding. Many challenge funds being launched for African youths have borrowed the Big Brother African model where one pitches an idea in front of a panel of judges who then decide whether it makes business sense or not. Unfortunately, most of the judges know very little about the dynamics of African agriculture and business. The whole thing is reduced into a meaningless competition that does not help youths to make their visions of exploiting natural resources a reality.

The majority of SMEs who are driving African economies did not start their businesses through pitching their ideas in front of some judges. A serious and sustainable agribusiness idea cannot be judged within a few minutes and the judge is able to know everything about it, including its potential. Most successful SMEs in agribusiness started by making their ideas near enough to be attainable and distant enough to be meaningful.  If an idea can be completely painted and understood with all numbers visible, it means the vision is too small.  In dynamic African contexts where information and opportunities are very fluid, you can’t claim to see all viability angles at once.  Numbers, plans and metrics are not enough.  You need other elements such as intuition and empathy.

African agribusiness is also about focusing on the pain points, including facts and breathing into aspirations as well as leveraging engagement. This can only be done by disruptive thinkers who can see agribusiness as an intuitive process where actors should have enough awareness to block distractions and focus on what matters. Trying to summarize the whole business development journey into a pitch undermines the evolution of diverse businesses.  Like every important undertaking, agribusiness is characterised by high energy moments, behaviours that come naturally and unique ways that add the most value. That is why some businesses have been conceived by accident.

The power of data and gut feelings

Embracing disruptive thinking means combining data and gut feelings to drive the new agricultural renaissance that is confronting African countries.  Farmers and all value chain actors need content that can help them deepen and sustain their positive ideas and attitudes.  Local institutions have to ditch rudimentary approaches to gathering information.  Focusing too much on tools is leading to large chunks of knowledge to be missed.  A toolbox is not enough partly because most toolboxes are not embedded into the work practices of farmers and supporting organisations. With most value chains and niches rapidly becoming over –crowded and hyper-competitive, farmers and other value chain actors will have to engage their customers at both emotional and logical levels.  / /

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


How informal agricultural traders capture and preserve customer loyalty

They may not advertise their products in the formal media, but informal agricultural traders have results-driven ways of capturing customer loyalty. Most of their skills have been honed over generations into unwritten intuitive laws that almost every trader is aware of. They understand customers more than customers know about themselves.  According to traders in Harare and Bulawayo markets of Zimbabwe, there are many categories of customers. “There are customers who come to learn about commodities and those who do not hesitate to flaunt their knowledge and power by voicing their concerns.  Some can even tell you that the way you are packing your fruits is not ideal for female customers,” said one trader.


Informal agriculture markets as knowledge centres

If marketing is about human interaction, informal agriculture markets provide superior experiences.  While ‘the customer is king’ suggests the customer knows everything, the majority of customers who frequent the informal agriculture market are lured by its functions as a learning space. Traders ensure these markets have sufficient convenience and personalisation than can be found in other modern markets. Younger middle class consumers who have not been exposed to the tricks of cooking traditional vegetables visit the market for the purposes of acquiring new skills.

Each market has gatekeepers whose roles include continuously tweaking and perfecting knowledge in line with consumer habits. Besides availing knowledge regarding the complexity of transactions in informal agriculture markets, traders facilitate different levels of human interaction.  Although technology has a supportive role in informal agriculture markets, most customers are influenced by personal experiences. Mobile phones come in to cement relationships that will have been created through face to face interaction.  As an institution, each informal market has a collective way of managing and enhancing customer experience in ways that stick with each customer. The more they interact with customers, the more their customer-satisfaction capabilities improve.  They don’t have to go to school for such skills that are entirely practical.

Insights into income levels and personality

Traders have also become very good at segmenting customers by their needs and income levels.  For instance, they can acquire stocks in line middle class pay dates.  While automation is transforming traditional marketing in supermarkets, it is difficult to imagine a time when technology will meet all customer requirements in agriculture markets without human interaction. Machines will never become aware of the competitive advantages of superior customer experiences. It takes a certain level of humanity to facilitate meaningful transactions.

As an example, where eMKambo uses its call centre to facilitate marketing of agricultural commodities, voice recognition has become very important. A farmer can call and if she does not here Tenjiwe’s voice in the person answering the call, she demands to speak to Tenjiwe. Such farmers have built a particular relationship with Tenjiwe through speaking to her over the phone on several occasions. Trying to substitute Tenjiwe with a machine will de-humanize the marketing process, leading to loss of confidence in eMKambo services and the market.

Handing down knowledge to the young generation

The majority of traders train their children in the art of customer care and retention. Such knowledge is not found in any text book or classroom.  It may seem a pervasive form of training but it builds the most useful capabilities needed by the younger generation. The ability to Google or play computer games will not prepare children for a purposeful future in economies dominated by agriculture. The most important problem-solving skills can be acquired in dynamic informal markets where one has to connect with diverse customers, leading to lasting customer loyalty.

As consumers become more sophisticated, traders are also updating their customer care knowledge with full awareness that it is no longer one-size-fits-all.  It is more about taking time to understand customers in order to satisfy their needs.  That is why traders are honing a unique way of anticipating customer expectations in order to come up with the right level of human interaction.  They are also becoming aware of niche commodities for specific customers such as those suffering from High Blood Pressure or other ailments that demand specific types of food.  Traders are convinced that human interaction will always remain important in validating commodities and explaining benefits.  No machine can fulfil such critical roles.  To gain a competitive advantage in agriculture markets, farmers and other value chain actors will have to balance the evolving value of digital technology and the power of human interaction.  / /

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

How much should farmers and consumers know about something?

The formal education system in many developing countries is organised in such a way that the depth and breadth of knowledge imparted determines grades and qualification levels. Unfortunately, it is difficult to translate this arrangement into real life where societies do not function according to grades and degree qualifications. For instance, farmers and rural communities do not approach knowledge in terms of geography, history, mathematics, religious studies commerce, science and other subjects.

This partly explains why graduates from formal education systems are failing to make a difference in African communities. It is not even clear what level of geography, mathematics, science and commerce should be introduced to a group of farmers in a rural farming community. Many awareness programmes through the media and participatory methods, do not clarify levels of awareness and participation among those involved. The onus is on whoever is bringing a new programme to decide where to start. By the time a starting point has been figured out, the programme has come to an end. The cycle of inadequate participation and awareness continues.

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How much should farmers know about soil analysis?

One of the reasons crop yields in African countries have drastically gone down over the past decade is that soils have become sick and tired. The majority of farmers do not understand their soils at a granular, scientific level. They may know about Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus (NPK) but getting them to understand soil pH and the role of trace elements such as Boron, Zinc and Manangese is beyond their cognitive capacity. There are also no vernacular words or descriptions for these trace elements.

On the other hand, do they really need to know all that?  Can’t they be competent food producers without knowing all those minute details? In a rural community, whose role is it to advise development partners that some of the knowledge they bring is beyond the capacity or priorities of the local people? There are many African communities where farmers have been taught about Artificial Insemination. While democratising science is a very noble thing, how much of usable Artificial Insemination knowledge can communities acquire without diluting the underlying science?

Importance of trust and institutionalizing knowledge

Setting up institutions for making sense and scaffolding knowledge will provide answers to most of the above questions and issues. It is critical to separate knowledge that can be held at an individual level from that which should be institutionalized into practices and organisations where it can be continuously updated. Institutions help in building trusted institutions that can produce trusted knowledge. If farmers know that there is a trusted institution that can handle soil analyses and animal science issues, they will concentrate on what they are good at and leave that role to the institution.  That serves time and money. It takes more than four years for someone to become a full-blown veterinary scientist.  How many farmers will be able and willing to go through the whole veterinary knowledge acquisition journey? Specialized knowledge should be left to specialists.

Trust increases the value of knowledge

Trust does not just reduce the cost of doing business. It also increases the value of knowledge. The main reason you can drink fruit juice and eat bread without asking who produced those food items is because you trust the good intentions of the producers even if you don’t know them by name or origin. Without trust consumers would insist on identifying and knowing the actual person who produced that food, how they produced it and the ingredients they used. Trust enables you to believe in what is being put forward as food. Every consumer has to trust someone they don’t know.  Otherwise each person would only eat what they produce with their own hands.   If people were to insist on participating in the production of everything they use or consume, we wouldn’t have many people owning cars and flying in aeroplanes. You don’t have to know why a motor car drinks both oil and water for you to use one.  You trust that whoever produced that car did so in good faith and you will be able to use it for many years without knowing how the pistons work inside the engine. You don’t have to know the pilot or aircraft engineer to fly in a plane.  You trust that the pilot and engineers are gifted enough to take care of your interests. Knowledge comes with responsibility.

The importance of institutions

Institutions in the form of rules, regulations and organizations are important in embedding knowledge and trust. The fact that there are standards associations and other compliance bodies gives people the much needed confidence to use or buy goods and services. Rather than focusing on large measurable impact in short timeframes that push people to tell familiar and obvious stories about impact resulting from the adoption of new technology, development organisations should take time to understand knowledge needs and build appropriate institutions.  Due to lack of strong, evidence-informed institutions, many developing countries remain stuck in low productivity and widespread poverty.

Without institutions, the capability of governments to implement activities is severely limited because knowledge cannot be adequately harnessed and deployed. Many young African graduates who study abroad and come back home are frustrated when they don’t find supportive institutions that can anchor their knowledge acquired abroad. What is the point of studying robotics in the West when back home there is no institution to support robotics as a practice?  In the absence of institutions, sustainable development will remain wishful thinking.  / /

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

How to move from ordinary to best agricultural practices

‘Best practice’ is not even a mouthful but what it means in practice remains unclear to many people who use the phrase. In African agriculture, it takes a lot for a farmer or trader to become a best practitioner.  Most value chain actors face challenges in identifying sufficient quality evidence that can be translated into best practice.  In the absence of consensus, they either rely on what is effective locally or depend on external extension agents, most of who lack contextual knowledge. While look and learn visits have become prominent ways through which farmers are expected to acquire best practices, there is lack of empirical evidence. Contextual differences make it difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of conservation agriculture, contract farming and other practices.

 Season-informed best practices

In the majority of African farming communities, seasons have a much larger influence on the evolution of best practices. It takes a minimum of three farming seasons of producing a particular crop for a new farmer to attain best practice status.  This three year experience pulls farmers closer to best practice, with a farmer using particular crops to move through summer, autumn, winter and spring. Crop behaviour is different during each of these seasons.  The hot season, commonly called Spring stretches from late August to December in Southern Africa and has its own features which impact crops and livestock in different ways.   Summer is characterised by fungal diseases due to excessive moisture and too much rainfall triggers extreme crop growth patterns.  On the other hand, winter is characterised by low temperatures which limit crop growth.  While there are fewer diseases, all crops do not grow fast in winter.  During Spring, crops are exposed to excessive heat and low moisture levels.  Pests like aphids, leaf minor and white fly are common in this period.


Growth patterns, quality and yields are different in each season, irrespective of inputs. That is why curiosity is very important among farmers. Farmers who are not curious may not notice the difference between spring and summer. Curiosity will enables thorough understanding of crop and livestock behaviour in response to different seasons.

The next learning curve

Having gone through three cycles of each season, a competent farmer begins to focus on monitoring the changing characteristics of the seasons. One summer season is too wet with floods being experienced while the next can have less rain and less moisture.  One winter is too cold and frosty while the other has wild frost, with yet another experiencing no frost at all.  One spring is too dry with heat waves. After less than an hour of irrigation the soil becomes completely dry as moisture evaporates.  Another spring can have normal heat.  Sometimes winter over-stretches into Spring. Late onset of Spring or summer is another characteristic worth monitoring. A three to five year cycle of monitoring seasons is very important depending on area.

 The market can only go so far

As demonstrated above, every season has its lessons.  If a farmer decides to grow tomatoes only when the price is good, s/he may not have acquired enough knowledge to understand diseases and pests that occur at different stages of the growing period.  The market can only tell you what to produce and when.  It can also give you a price guide.  However, it may not tell you everything you needed to achieve best practices.  Best practice does not come from text books or lectures. You have to practically engage and get your hands dirty.

A major handicap is that farmers do not document what they see during each season in order to improve.  With documentation it should become possible to translate the knowledge into a ‘Farming Bible’ which the future generation can read and learn from.  Due to lack of a documentation culture, most of the existing knowledge is too general to be useful in attaining best practice standards.  Farmers who do not record what they see on their farms are vulnerable to wrong advice.  Documentation ensures they are able to correct wrong information through comparison as well as mixing and matching what they know with what is coming from outside.

The mindset is more important than the toolbox

It is through the right mindset that farming communities can leverage the strengths of complementary agricultural programmes. For instance, they can see the connection between livestock and crop programmes that are implemented separately by separate programmes in a one community. That means, as frontline value chain actors, farmers are best placed to identify and explain linkages between different agricultural programmes.  Getting a mentor is not enough if a new farmer or trader does not have the right mindset and beliefs because these can limit the application of new skills.  In addition, the wrong advice can become a mental obstacle to be overcome first before acquiring skills that lead to best practice.  Ultimately farmers and traders should focus on getting more buyers interested in their commodities than building larger toolboxes.   Without such capacity and knowledge it is difficult to sustainably implement proven agricultural practices.  / /

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