Rainy seasons show how developing countries struggle with preserving food

While rainfall can easily be associated with high agricultural production, in many African countries abundant rains also come with enormous damage to food that has already been produced. At least 30% of food in Africa is said to be lost before it is consumed. Too much rainfall accounts for a significant proportion of such post-harvest losses. Major efforts to address post-harvest losses have focused on maize grain with metal silos and chemicals being introduced in many farming communities.  This is in spite of the fact that maize grain is just one component of local food baskets.


A comprehensive post-harvest strategy should look beyond maize grain and embrace the whole basket of commodities that have to be preserved, especially against rainfall-related damages. Unfortunately, as soon as the rainy season begins, African policy makers and inputs providers tend to be pre-occupied with moving inputs to farmers without commensurate attention to preserving what has already been produced.  With little attention paid to market infrastructure, rainfall also damages food in informal markets.

Why most smallholder farmers do not invest in storage facilities

Low volumes of commodities produced by individual smallholder farmers make it less cost effective for them to invest in storage or incur costs in taking the few commodities to the market. As a result, the majority of smallholder farmers keep their food and harvests in their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. Commodities kept that way may not be ideal for the market. There is also a limit to the quantity of commodities a farmer can store in the house. Unavailability of appropriate or sufficient storage facilities also limits production levels as available storage influences production decisions. Even where conditions are suitable for doubling productivity, farmers hesitate to increase production because their storage capacity cannot be equally doubled.

Opportunities for collective storage

Containerization of agricultural commodities at community level is one innovation that eMKambo has started exploring together with new partners. Through this innovation, solar powered containers will be set up in production zones.  This will help farmers to collectively aggregate their commodities, providing a sense of the collective volume of commodities from one area.  Containerization will also help farmers to hold onto their commodities and sell profitably rather than be pushed to get rid of commodities due to lack of storage and preservation capacity.  Below are some of the commodities to be preserved in containers:

Onions – Apart from drying, storage is one of the main challenges facing onion farmers, leading inconsistent market supply in countries like Zimbabwe.  Drying and storing in containers will address problems like loss of quality and reduced shelf life.

Squash butternuts – In food markets across Zimbabwe, during gluts, butternuts can sell for 22c/kg and the price can go up to 72c/kg during periods of scarcity.  This variation is not good for the consumer and the market although it may be good for a few farmers who may have butternuts during scarcity periods.  Containerization and warehousing will solve some of these supply and demand mismatches.

High value commodities (red, yellow & green peppers) – These commodities cannot be produced in winter.  During off-season their price can be as high as $2/kg.  Containerization and storage will ensure an even flow of these commodities into the market, avoiding wild price variability.

Fruits (apples, oranges and peaches) – These tend to run out completely and can be stored when in season for release when out of season.

Dry crops (groundnuts, sugar beans, etc.,) – These can also be stored for release as and when the market is ready to pay a better price.  Prices of sugar beans also tend to go up towards the rainy season as most people purchase for seed.

Sweet potatoes – These can also be stored in containers. Given that most farmers store this crop in the field, storage facilities can quickly release land for other uses or for preparation processes so that the next crop is planted on time.

Small grains – These can also be stored for both human and livestock consumption. An increase in the production of indigenous chickens has started driving the demand for small grains in Zimbabwe. This is likely to stimulate small grains production. A critical look at preservation and storage will give agriculture a complete picture.  It is should not be just about addressing insects and rushing commodities to the market.  Investment in post-harvest and market infrastructure will help all value chain actors such as producers and consumers.  In most cases, commodities are produced when the market is not ready.  Besides protecting agricultural commodities from rainfall, containerization is a critical stage in enabling market readiness.

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

Overcoming misconceptions about involving users in creating knowledge

One of the most enduring misconceptions in developing countries is the notion that if farmers and rural people are not involved in creating knowledge they will not adopt what comes from outside. As a result, billions of US dollars have gone into diverse versions of participatory development approaches. Unfortunately, as soon as donor funding dries up, most communities either go back to their original practices or they become more confused about what course of action to take.

Development agencies have not invested in understanding the main reasons why some approaches and technologies are adopted effortlessly while others are rejected even though they seem to make sense. While involving users in creating knowledge is considered a key component of ensuring adoption, many African countries have several technologies that have been developed and adopted without involving users. Experts who understand human psychology have gone ahead to successfully create machines and frame works without consulting users. For example, rural African communities are teeming with grinding mills, oil expelling machines, tractors, water pumps, solar panels, cultivators, planters, ploughs and many other tools that have shaped livelihoods. No farmer or rural artisan was consulted in designing, pre-testing and rolling out all these gadgets yet they have spread like wild fire.


Experts should not under-estimate themselves

The world is a better place because of experts and gifted geniuses who can accurately see what is hidden to the majority of human beings. While it makes sense to consult or involve communities in generating knowledge and technologies that affect their lives, what if you are introducing something entirely new that a particular community has never seen it work anywhere before? How can you expect people to have an opinion about what they do not know they need to know? If you do not know what you need to know, everything new is acceptable. There are many situations where an outsider can clearly see the big picture in ways that local communities may never see even in 100 years of participatory engagement.

In addition, many people do not take too long to be convinced about something.  If, as an expert, you are cork-sure about what you want to introduce, why waste resources trying to convince everyone?  For instance, why would a monetary specialist waste time and money trying to get ordinary people to understand the intricacies of financial dynamics in the economy?  If you have done your homework as an expert why look for non-experts to tell you what to do?  There are issues that are better left to experts with the majority happy to be consumers and adopters.  If those who designed WhatsApp had tried to involve everyone from conception up to rolling out, do you think the technology could have seen the light of day?

Participatory approaches should not be embraced uncritically. As long as experts and promoters are confident about what they are introducing, communities can put their faith in something new and eventually adopt it without doubt. The world is what it is due to numerous top-down approaches and imposed technologies that have been massively adopted because they answered and continue to answer a need.  Experts and designers are better off conceiving technologies in isolation and bringing them to users when the time is right.  Many people do not have the time, patience and temperament to be involved in the whole journey through which a knowledge product travels from being an idea to reality. There is a place for the wisdom of the crowd and a place for experts.

 Not everyone cares about nutrition research

Given the complexity of nutrition knowledge, it is rather far-fetched to expect every consumer to be knowledgeable about carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamin B6, etc.  It is the role of experts to package all these important food attributes without bothering ordinary people with all the details.  It is like expecting every car driver to have intimate knowledge about the engine – how pistons work inside the engine, electrical issues in the car, etc.  Experts and those who have made it their mission to promote these technologies should do so without causing unnecessary cognitive over-load in ordinary people.

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

Lessons from how informal markets keep agricultural knowledge fresh

Just as agriculture markets prefer fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and other commodities, knowledge on all these commodities should also be kept fresh. It is through regular visits to the market that farmers are able to keep their knowledge fresh.  Farmers who extend loans to traders in the form of commodities also extend knowledge about those commodities so that traders are able to fully explain the value of each commodity to consumers.  However, because knowledge has a way of sticking just as it also leaks, some of the crucial feedback from consumers sticks with the trader and does not go back to the farmer. It means farmers have to find ways of accessing such knowledge. That role is often played by the market as a whole.

Lessons from how informal markets keep agricultural knowledge fresh
Just as agriculture markets prefer fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and other commodities, knowledge on all these commodities should also be kept fresh. It is through regular visits to the market that farmers are able to keep their knowledge fresh. Farmers who extend loans to traders in the form of commodities also extend knowledge about those commodities so that traders are able to fully explain the value of each commodity to consumers. However, because knowledge has a way of sticking just as it also leaks, some of the crucial feedback from consumers sticks with the trader and does not go back to the farmer. It means farmers have to find ways of accessing such knowledge. That role is often played by the market as a whole.

Ideally, customer feedback should reach the farmer so that s/he is able to improve production methods and fulfil market demands. For that to happen, there has to be a smooth flow of knowledge from the market back to farmers and vice versa, not just a trickle of knowledge. To ensure there is a genuine knowledge flow, farmers have to create relationships in the market. That way, they keep their knowledge fresh rather than rely on stale knowledge that may not be in line with market dynamics. On the other hand, when farmers outsource their commodities to traders, transporters and other actors they are also out-sourcing knowledge about those commodities. That is why most traders and transporters end up knowing more about tomatoes and fruits than producers.

Challenges of replacing old with new agricultural knowledge
A critical part of keeping knowledge fresh is unlearning old habits and practices. Many capacity building and training programmes introduced in rural communities by development partners are failing to make a difference because they are not enabling farmers to unlearn old knowledge so that space for fresh knowledge is created. As if that is not enough, the African formal education system continues to promote learning new things rather than start with developing methods of unlearning what has been learnt over generations that is preventing new ways of doing things from taking root.

The situation has been worsened by how most of the old knowledge has been institutionalized. For instance, land preparation using ploughs has been deeply ingrained and institutionalized in African farming communities since the 1950s. Private companies have been established to produce ploughs, cultivators and hoes towards reinforcing conventional agriculture and associated habits. A few decades ago, government extension departments were at the fore-front of promoting ploughs and cultivators. But suddenly, some of them have started sermonizing about the importance of conservation farming which prefers zero tillage and discourages ploughing. Since the majority of farmers have not forgotten what they were taught a few decades ago, we now have a dilemma where extension agents are facing a hard time trying to reverse practices they once advocated.

It is like breaking concrete with drawing pins
The way conventional farming methods have been rammed into farmers’ consciousness over the past decades is such that getting them to unlearn those methods is like trying to break concrete with drawing pins. It is difficult to change age-old habits that have been institutionalized through training programmes such as farming as a business. It has taken generations for some of the habits to stick and these cannot be reversed through two to five year NGO programmes. Unlearning may take probably much longer than it has taken farmers to acquire all the knowledge currently in use. It is easier to keep doing the same thing than to embrace new ways of thinking, farming and marketing.

In most cases, farmers blame buyers of agricultural commodities rather than take responsibility for acquiring new knowledge. As a business, African agriculture will not be transformed through finding faults but seeking solutions. Informal markets are trying to provide some of the solutions. These markets have a way of building the capacity of farmers and other value chain actors to unlearn slowly but surely. Commodities that have been produced using old knowledge can be identified in the market. The poor performance of those commodities on the market forces farmers to dump old practices and embrace new knowledge which produces superior commodities.

Without active learning and experimentation, the agriculture sector will become an echo chamber where the same ideas are echoed all the time. Informal markets address these challenges by ensuring that famers and other value chain actors unlearn old ways and acquire fresh knowledge through extending their awareness outside their spheres of influence. For those farmers who are curious enough to seek new peers who bring fresh perspectives, informal markets provide the necessary diversity that increases the potential for serendipitous discoveries. Each informal market has structures and processes that enable farmers and traders to discern when and with whom to share knowledge. That is how farmers test alternative perspectives, generate competitive knowledge and go back home to put new lessons into practice. However, this kind of learning and unlearning fostered by the market does not happen where there is no memory. To a large extent informal markets function as the conscience and memory of the agricultural economy. The markets are always updating mental models of value chain actors and freshening up their memory.

Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com
Website: http://www.emkambo.co.zw / http://www.knowledgetransafrica.com
eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

Some of the reasons why small grains continue to resist winner take all commercialization

From Mali to Zimbabwe and South Africa to Southern Sudan, small grains remain an integral part of mainstream local food systems.  There are many reasons why small grains continue to pack a huge socio-economic punch in many countries.  To revisit and stimulate a frank discussion on the power of small grains, eMKambo has just completed an informative survey in eight districts of Zimbabwe.  Besides a longitudinal assessment of how small grains perform in the market, the survey (whose results will be released soon) tried to surface production trends and some of the telling value chain patterns. Although the survey focused on Zimbabwe, its findings seem to resonate with the situation many African countries.


Part of slow but resilient tribal traditions

While small grains are being promoted from a climate change perspective, what makes them special is that they have become a key component of many tribal traditions. Very few farmers grow small grains for money but for other benefits whose value is impossible to quantify. In African food markets, small grains are considered slow moving commodities whose income is rarely consistent. But there are traders more comfortable with this slow nature than fast-moving horticulture commodities.

The eMKambo survey mentioned above tries to also answer the following question: Why is small grains commercialization not picking up more speed in African food markets that are being contaminated by a fast-food chain culture?  Efforts to modernize African agriculture seem to be pushing local and global versions of the green revolution. On the other hand, small grains are quietly resisting commercialization due to their unique capacity to reflect the diversity of food systems, gender, lifestyles and other invisible strengths.  For many farming communities confronting climate change, small grains are at the centre of purpose-driven and sustainable agricultural practices. Most smallholder farmers are not motivated by incremental improvements such as high yields from high inputs.  They are more satisfied with getting best outcomes from a holistic agriculture system.

As seen through contract farming models, it seems commercial agriculture creates additional financial and socio-economic uncertainties which push farmers to side-market as they realize that income from contract arrangements can barely meet all important needs.  Production and utilization of small grains and other marginal crops has empowered farming communities to establish traditional governance systems and standards that ensure sustainability for the whole agricultural ecosystem. Where commercial efforts are obsessed with supply chains, smallholder farmers whose decisions are driven by small grains take an ecosystems approach.  There is hard-earned awareness among farmers that preserving and rebuilding small grains seed systems is a proven insurance against hunger and starvation.

Harnessing shared knowledge

While ICTs and globalization seem to be transforming human relationships, small grains-based food systems continue to influence how many African communities function. Although, western diets are infiltrating African food systems, mostly in urban areas, social media is also strengthening local and traditional food systems through spreading consumer awareness about the benefits of small grains and other marginalized foods. Farmers and rural communities have started using social media to retrieve and revive some of the knowledge around small grains and local food that was on the verge of getting lost permanently. Africans in the diaspora are receiving small grains and other foods sent by their relatives based in Africa. While it may appear forces of globalization are destroying local food systems, they are in fact also rejuvenating them and providing a buffer against wholesale commercialization.

Armed with fine-grained insights from agricultural markets and smallholder farming areas, it is possible to increase small grains production, marketing and consumption in ways that can change the fortunes of many farmers and consumers.  However, a lot will happen if there is an overhaul of current agribusiness models that are over-promoting industrial agriculture at the expense of local food systems.


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