Formulae for valuating intangible assets long overdue in Africa

Capitalism may be accused of misleading many African countries into limiting the valuation of their resources to tangible assets such as buildings, minerals, land and wildlife. However, failure to account for intangible assets like local experiential knowledge, wisdom, trust, relationships and emotional richness cannot be blamed on capitalism or modernization. While they are ambitious to become knowledge economies, African countries have not yet developed formulae for valuating their intangible resources in ways that can get these assets recognized as collateral in the modernizing global economy.  It doesn’t help to measure knowledge and human capital in academic qualifications excluding abundant unspoken and undocumented knowledge among ordinary people. Continuous over-rating of academic and documented knowledge is preventing African countries from realizing their authentic socio-economic value.

Accounting for intangible agricultural assets

A majority of African smallholder farmers have depleted their livestock, soil nutrients, water, wood, fish and other resources in sending their children to school. However, the promise of formal education has disappointed them and their children who, after graduating, cannot find employment that would enable them replenish resources that have been depleted over decades. There should be appropriate formulae for valuating resources that have been sucked from farming communities by formal education. Due to the absence of reliable markets, graduates from agricultural colleges who have ventured into agriculture cannot earn enough from agricultural activities to repay investments into their knowledge.

Agriculture is a combination of tangible assets (seed, equipment, livestock, cash, etc.,.) and intangible assets such as experience, knowledge, relationships, passion, ambitions, emotional depth, mental strengths, negotiation skills, relationships, trust and many others.  On the other hand, agricultural markets are more about intangible collateral such as knowledge, experience, relationships, trust and less about tangible assets.  While market experience is not a tangible asset, it has more value than tangible assets because the value of agricultural commodities is added in the market.  It is through intangible assets that farmers and traders are able to earn returns on their investment. Without these factors, sustainability of the whole agricultural sector is compromised. Intangible assets held by farmers and traders at individual level can be worth more than a tractor or a house in the city. However, because there is no way of valuing and recognizing such assets, knowledgeable farmers and traders remain in the economic fringes.

How the financial sector continues to looks at these issues

Since they have not invested in understanding intangible assets, financial institutions in Africa still consider tangible assets the only worthwhile forms of collateral. In a knowledge economy where intangible assets like innovation can build something out of nothing, one assumes financial institutions should rapidly be revisiting their notions of collateral to start with intangible collateral towards tangible collateral. Agribusiness models should be built from intangible assets to inform tangible assets required for effective production such as tractors, ploughs, water, technology, crop varieties, livestock breeds and others. Where agricultural financing is informed entirely by tangible assets, it constrains possibilities for innovation and emergence of new sources of value. Innovative youths armed with intangible assets are denied opportunities because they do not have tangible collateral.

The same people with tangible assets continue to benefit from financial institutions while innovative young people languish in poverty and unemployment. As if that is not enough, Africa has an over-supply of the same value chain models due to the financial sector’s preference for similar models that have reached their ceiling.  This practice promotes a copycat syndrome where several youths end up getting into tomato and eggs value chains because they are the ones financed by banks at the expense of potentially viable models considered green field. A dire need for new valuation models is also visible in how African companies which close down are assessed. Main considerations when valuating such companies takes into account equipment and infrastructure without considering investment in knowledge and experience built during the time the company was functioning.

 Why not convert the size of a market into collateral?

There is no longer any doubt that informal markets are a critical component of Africa’s invisible economy that has to be accurately measured and included in GDP metrics. With the right formulae, policy makers should be able to convert the size of informal agricultural markets into collateral. The collective experience in many informal African markets of large African cities like Harare, Lusaka, Accra, Nairobi, Cairo and Lagos can be more than 100 years. Very few corporate companies, who are considered bankable by financial institutions, have such knowledge and experience. In informal markets, knowledge and trends are continuously adapted and perfected in ways that increase credibility and legitimacy.

If properly captured and understood, knowledge and experience in African farming communities and agricultural markets can inform investment opportunities along several value chains. Investing in particular farming districts should start from market experiences of commodities and farmers from those districts. At the moment, most surveys focus on whether respondents have gone through formal education as opposed to deep inquiry about other forms of local knowledge that keep communities resilient. Each farming community and market has its own capacity to absorb knowledge and that capacity is determined by participants’ income levels, geographical location, demography and other factors.  If you take fruits like grapes to a remote rural market, they may not find buyers because of low income levels. Some  markets can determine the levels of imports into the country based on consumer tastes, demand and other factors.

The role of evidence

Limited attention to evidence is the main reason why African countries are failing to utilize their resources optimally. For instance, market evidence should inform capability building. At the moment, most production practices follow dead data in the form of previous year’s prices and production figures. There are no formulae for supporting predictive capacity.  As a result, intangible knowledge from farmers and informal markets is not being used to inform curricular development. Relevant valuation methodologies will also prevent the current under-utilization of local knowledge and create strong conduits for harnessing such knowledge for socio-economic development. Meanwhile the whole of Africa is importing more than $40 billion of food annually in cash.  That shows Africans have money but lack the right knowledge models for putting that money into more productive uses. This situation may only change through revisiting priorities, informed by evidence generated by appropriate valuation mechanisms.  / /

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How the informal economy tackles the middle class trap

In African countries where agriculture is a major socio-economic activity, policy makers and development agencies seem determined to move economic activities from agriculture to manufacturing. The whole discourse around value addition suggests a strong desire to get rid of informal marketing of agricultural commodities and convert all commodities into manufactured products which can be bought and sold in supermarkets or exported as finished goods. While that sounds logical and sensible, there is evidence showing that such a transition will not by-pass the informal economy.


Lessons from South Africa’s middle class trap

What the South African economy is going through is an important indicator of the fact that a distinct development approach unique to African contexts should not ignore the informal economy. By embracing the Western model of economic development, South Africa has become locked into a middle class trap without realizing it. The country is now being forced to develop agriculture as a second economy because the current industrial system has no room the majority of people to participate as economic actors. Inequality, poverty and unemployment are increasing due to deep structural challenges imposed by the Western model of economic development. The domestic market is too small for the level of industrialization that has been provoked in South Africa.

You cannot be a successful manufacturing country when the domestic market cannot afford what you are producing. Due to insufficient local buying power, South Africa has reached the limits of its industrialization. It is now trying to use the supermarket model to break out of structural economic challenges. That is why South African super market chains are spreading their wings into neighboring African countries and as far as East Africa.  In an aggressive effort to broaden demand for products from its sprawling industrial sector, South African supermarkets are getting into countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and other countries where local companies cannot compete due to poor supply chains.

Besides triggering resentment in the business circles of neighboring countries, the super market model is not sustainable because the middle class in those countries is too small to sustain levels of production in South Africa. The supermarket model focuses on meeting the needs of the middle class who earn more than $4/day. On the other hand, the majority of African consumers earn less than $1/day.  That class does not go to supermarkets but resort to the informal market. No wonder the informal market is expanding in many African countries. Manufacturing is a good idea but once it puts finished products beyond the reach of the majority of consumers, it stops contributing to economic growth.  It becomes big business without growth or employment creation and that is not sustainable at all.

The importance of fully understanding domestic markets

Assuming developing countries are determined to move completely from raw commodities to manufactured agricultural products, it is critical to fully understand the domestic market before exploring foreign markets which tend to be highly competitive and antagonistic. You cannot talk of value addition without an accurate sense of how much stocks are available in domestic markets per given period.  Every country should strive to know the local demand for each of its commodities ranging from horticulture, field crops and livestock. Such intelligence should be disaggregated according to population, buying power, class, age, gender, consumer taste, consumption patterns and other important factors. Where   consumption of particular commodities is going up or down or remaining stagnant, reasons should be teased out in order to inform socio-economic decisions.

Diversifying sources of evidence

While much of the practical socio-economic wisdom is now within the informal economy, economists and financial advisors in developing countries are still reluctant or unable to learn from this important sector. They prefer sticking to text book knowledge which, unfortunately, is being borrowed from the West where the context is different.  Like all truth, knowledge from the informal economy is likely to be ridiculed first, violently opposed and then finally accepted as self-evident. One of the reasons this knowledge is being ignored is because it flies in the face of what is considered common sense in academic and policy circles.  Having invested a lot of resources into what they think is knowledge, it is difficult for formal knowledge systems to accept that reliable knowledge can be found in unexpected places like informal markets. However, developing countries do not have the luxury of letting such important knowledge languish in obscurity when it can provide the much-needed solutions.  / /

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How African Agriculture is under-rated due to narrow notions of evidence

When economists and policy makers in developing countries talk about evidence, in most cases they mean numbers or statistics. For instance in African countries, statistics dominate the language used to describe fiscal policies and budgets in monetary terms. Factors like contribution to GDP, production outputs per hectare and export earnings are all about figures. However, in real life, evidence goes beyond figures or statistics. If developing countries swallow this notion of evidence hook line and sinker, they completely undervalue their economies.


Towards a broader notion of evidence

A broader and meaningful notion of evidence can emerge from answering the following questions:

  • To what extent is information, knowledge and skills shared in the agriculture sector considered evidence and how is such evidence accounted for?
  • What are the drivers of knowledge sharing and skills development in agriculture and rural development? Who are the actors?
  • How do we account for soft skills that are passed from generation to generation?
  • How do we value knowledge and skills in agriculture markets that have sustained African agricultural sectors for decades, enabling farmers, traders and other actors to send their children to school? How do we correctly account for the contribution of such knowledge to academic education?

In African agriculture, the evidence default is to look at production statistics and productivity only. There is lack of evidence on employment creation along the value chain, covering activities like production, logistics, marketing, processing and others. Agriculture’s contribution to employment creation in related industries like input providers and equipment manufacturers is barely captured as useful evidence. Yet without diverse evidence, it is impossible to properly lure investment into the agricultural sector.

Harnessing the power of social evidence  

Beyond statistics, it is important to gather evidence of how trust and relationships are built as collateral, how business networks are forged and how all this sustains the whole agricultural sector.  Without strong relationships and trust we end up with actors working in isolation and silos, making it difficult to make a collective difference together.  Imagine what can happen if there are no relationships between farmers and traders, between informal markets and formal companies.

There should be tools and processes for assessing the value of such resources and hidden factors. Evidence on how the agricultural sector copes with shocks like floods and other unforeseen circumstances is fundamental.  Such evidence can be gleaned from how value chain actors and institutions like markets cope with challenges like climate change. Critical insights include how markets and households cope with floods and drought, before emergency activities like food aid are introduced. Ideally, households and communities should be empowered to come up with quick decisions that feed into coping mechanisms before external support comes. That means, reliable evidence should be available and properly consolidated. Households in a community may not be vulnerable to the same challenges at the same time.

Also important is the extent to which enough evidence of an agricultural sector’s coping strategies is available. Without such evidence, there is a danger of either over-rating or under-rating the entire sector’s capacity to cope with challenges.  It is possible for more than 70% of the coping strategies to be available within a particular community. Figuring that ahead of time will ensure interventions address underlying issues of which drought may just be one of the symptoms. To what extent does food aid address underlying socio-cultural and environmental issues that prevent germination of permanent solutions?

Importance of questioning conventional practices

How much evidence is there to prove that by pursuing monoculture in crops like tobacco, cocoa, coffee or cotton, African countries are not weakening their farming communities to achieve food security and nutrition?  It is easy to measure tobacco’s contribution to GDP in terms of export receipt figures but also easy to calculate the crop’s opportunity cost at household and national levels. The entry point into this issue can be finding out what could have been achieved by putting the same land to other uses such as producing nutritious food so that countries producing tobacco won’t have to use tobacco income to import food or medicine. What are the environmental and opportunity costs associated with cutting down trees to grow and burn tobacco versus putting the same land to alternative uses?

Do we have enough evidence of how our climate mitigation strategies are responding to climate change? If most causes of climate change are not in the agricultural sector but due to industrialization and other external factors, what is the point of subjecting farmers to climate smart agricultural initiatives that do not address the root causes? Farmers may do everything right but suffer from floods caused by factors beyond their control.  Due to lack of evidence, we may be very far from developing tools that can address the effects of climate change.

To what extent do we have evidence that technologies such as ICTs are addressing real issues?  What if technology may even be distorting markets and destroying established value chains.  For instance, use of mobile phones may be destroying trust between farmers and traders, built over generations by promoting side-marketing since opportunistic buyers are easy to access through mobile phones? To what extent can we say agricultural tools coming from outside are increasing agricultural productivity?  Those tools may even be leading to more losses through mismatching equipment capacity and the capacity of farmers.

 Developing appropriate evidence indicators

Indicators that try to address the above issues can be developed through participatory approaches involving diverse knowledge actors.  Working with value chain actors, it is possible to identify indicators that can track the value of trust in agribusiness. Local people can then be trained to use those indicators to embed trust in the entire agricultural ecosystem. It is by gathering evidence from the grassroots and diverse actors that we can be able to see whether we are over-rating or under- rating, over-positioning or under-position agriculture in the whole economy. A combination of qualitative and quantitative evidence can inform policy makers in terms of gaps that need policy intervention as well as opportunities for investors and development partners.

Investment is not just about dollars and cents (money).  It can in the economic or social side.  Some communities may just need someone to facilitate knowledge sharing in ways that enable them to fully exploit available resources. It may not be about Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) but Local Direct Investment (LDI) in the form of local knowledge and ambitions for progress. Most African rural communities cope with challenges because they do not think in terms of money.  They just exchange local commodities whose value has been locally agreed upon. That is why rural communities continue to thrive although there isn’t a lot of money in circulation.  People can provide labour in exchange for agricultural commodities and that minimizes the need for cash.  To a greater extent, rural communities have found ways of not being slaves of dollars and cents.  They have realized that, as merely a means of exchange, money should not control the game.  However, building resilient models based on these realities requires robust evidence.

Who says evidence should be gathered and processed by formal institutions?

In Africa, there is a wrong notion that evidence should be collected and processed by formal institutions in order to be considered reliable. Unfortunately, besides being constrained by disciplinary methods of gathering and processing evidence, such institutions tend to gather evidence in an ad hoc on and off manner. As a result there is no smooth evidence flows. Even in countries that boast of high literacy, communities are not being capacitated to collect and process their evidence longitudinally.  That way they can be able to enrich their own evidence and see opportunities for generating solutions. Data and evidence should be for the community not for formal external institutions who can keep it out of context.  Communities should be capacitated in evidence gathering, processing and utilization.  In the absence of a culture of building local evidence bases, financial institutions continue to rely on Finscope Surveys conducted more than five years ago when the situation has completely changed.

If communities are capacitated to handle evidence by inculcating an evidence and communication way of doing things, collective evidence from each community can easily be consolidated at national level to inform national policy. This will avoid numerous cases of partial policies where an agricultural policy may not speak well to the industrial policy due to lack of reliable evidence in crafting those separate policies. If women are responsible for more than 60% of agricultural labour, how much would that be translated to actual payment assuming they are formal industrial employees?  It is important to clearly evaluate their contribution.  To measure the contribution of women in agricultural markets, it is important to look at commodities they handle in the market and translate that into GDP terms.  Focusing on formal export figures may not give the total picture.  How much do women traders contribute to the amount of food that passes through African informal markets?

Pitfalls of ignoring opportunity costs

The most unfortunate thing is that economic planners in developing countries have not been able to develop appropriate formulae for determining opportunity costs relevant to their contexts. By ignoring this issue, they continue either over-rating or under-rating the value of different agricultural commodities and other resources.  Such formulae would make it possible for value chain actors to answer questions like: How else would the land put to cotton be used?  If such land is left fallow and used as pastures, how many beef cattle would be produced in two years?  Comparing income from cotton and beef would give farmers their opportunity cost. It does not help to continue looking at straight markets without factoring in opportunity costs. Due to lack of alternative evidence every farmer is compelled to produce common commodities like maize.  If enough evidence is available to the effect that a certain number of farmers are going to produce maize, farmers would focus on other crops in which they have competitive advantage.  That would prevent maize gluts.  Since that evidence is either lacking or ignored, most African farmers continue to suffer from perennial gluts and shortages.  / /

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