People’s food markets as sources of multiple knowledges

One of the benefits of continuously observing and learning from informal African food markets is an opportunity to update knowledge and see inevitable trends before everyone sees them. In a recent interaction with informal markets in Zambia and Zimbabwe, eMKambo discovered that these markets do not just classify agricultural commodities into luxuries and necessities. There are more than 15 classifications including the following:

  1. Perishables: These are highly perishable commodities and have to be handled gently. Related knowledge is also perishable in ways that mimic the commodities. Examples include leafy vegetables, tomatoes, milk and beef. Unfortunately, informal markets lack appropriate infrastructure for handling perishables.


  1. Non-perishables: These can stay longer before getting bad and examples include small grains.
  2. Fast movers: These are quickly sold in the market and examples include some of the perishables.
  3. Slow movers: As the name suggests, these stay a bit longer in the market due to various reasons including the fact that they might be considered luxuries from a household budget perspective.
  4. 5. Value-based commodities from an economic perspective: This category includes high value low volume commodities like peas which are sold in kilograms as compared to high volume commodities that are sold in other measurements like buckets, pockets, baskets and crates.
  5. 6. Value-based commodities from a nutritional perspective: Due to their nutritional benefits, commodities like garlic and ginger fall in this category.
  6. Volume-based commodities: This group includes potatoes where volume determines profitability.
  7. Multi-purpose commodities: These have several uses including value addition options. Examples include tomatoes that can be processed into tomato sauce, be used in burgers and fast foods.
  8. Mono-use commodities: These commodities are difficult to translate into several uses. Examples include wild fruits which are yet to be value added as well as sweet potatoes and some legumes like peas whose value addition options are still limited. Such commodities are often quickly out-competed in the market due to lack of multi-purpose uses. A tomato tends to dominate the market because it touches most forms of relish and can be processed into other products. On the other hand, while peas is a high value commodity from an economic and consumer class perspective, it does not present many value addition prospects. Same with butternuts which may have nutritional value but lack value addition opportunities.
  9. Micro climate-driven commodities: These are found in specific micro climates and are unique to that area. There are areas where avocados grow naturally and others like Taveta in Kenya where tropical fruits like mango are produced when other areas do not have such commodities.
  10. Religion-influenced commodities: Examples include pork or piggery. Some religious sects do not want to be associated with pigs while some communities associate pearl millet with witchcraft. This affects market penetration for these commodities unlike a tomato which is consumed by 99% of the people irrespective of religion. Some consumers insist on getting halal meat which means farmers have to fulfil those requirements for such customers.
  11. Social class-driven commodities: Examples are cauliflower, lettuce and baby marrow which are often associated with the high income, westernized consumers. Ordinary low income consumers cannot use cauliflower as vegetable relish as they consider it a luxury.
  12. Seasonal commodities – These can only be available in a particular season.

Seasonality of commodities and the human body

Farmers, traders and consumers also mentioned that the seasonal availability of most local foods is tied to the needs of the human body. Vegetables and fruits that grow in summer are linked to the human body’s nutritional requirements in summer. The human body also requires specific foods in Autumn, Winter and Spring. Chillies, sugarcane and fruits that do well in winter are consumed in winter to keep the human body warm.  The respondents concurred that, perhaps the main reason why some diseases like cancer, diabetes and others are becoming common in African communities is that local people’s bodies are revolting against a new tendency to feed them with food irrespective of seasons. When a food is provided during the time it is out of season, it becomes a poison to the body, according to one elderly farmer in Chimanimani district of Zimbabwe. While some diseases are being attributed to climate change, availing food out of season might be the reason for unexplained itching, fever and wounds which take long to heal.

Food security should not just be about availing nutrition in a pack or refrigerating food so that it is available throughout the year.  Every food has its season when it is supposed to save a purpose. The majority of African smallholder farmers and herbalists are still convinced that the best way of preserving local crops and herbs is preserving forests and ecosystems where they are naturally found. Trying to uproot and grow herbs everywhere ignores a lot of hidden natural factors that connect with roles of each food or herb in the human body.  In a rapidly changing climate, it is critical to explore different ways in which crop varieties and livestock breeds can be preserved.  It doesn’t help to improve crop varieties and livestock breeds for the market at the expense of seasonal connectedness and nutritional benefits.

How informal markets contribute to the preservation of biodiversity

By pulling commodities from diverse areas, informal markets provide a barometer on the agro biodiversity in different communities.  Building a community gene bank assumes all varieties can be kept in buildings yet some are better off in the wild. Through showing where particular crops, fish, herbs and livestock are coming from per season, informal markets signal environments that should be preserved if nutritional supply is to match demand in a sustainable manner per season.  Focusing on a few selected commodities like maize, tobacco, sugarcane, coffee, wheat, dairy and beef ignores the entire ecosystem that is fundamental for the future of food and bringing humanity back to nature.

While artificial structures like modern gene banks are getting all the resources and attention, informal markets that are fulfilling a much wider nutrition role are not being supported. Many local African commodities lose their value when stored in artificial environment like gene banks.  Natural environments are more ideal for most foods which provide natural remedies.  Crop and medicinal genebanks can store some crops and wild varieties but not all of them. Directing most of the resources to a few food security crops like maize is meaningless if a nutritional imbalance results in the majority of people frequenting hospitals due to ill-health that could be avoided by prioritizing different kinds of foods that form a local nutritional balance. Doing agriculture well will reduce the health bill for most developing countries.  When a country has a big budget for the ministry of health that is not a good sign as it means the majority of the people are not productive due to ill-health, which might be averted by smart and curious investment in a balanced food system.  / /

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

Carving and sustaining economic identities in evolving agricultural ecosystems

While billions of dollars have gone into African agriculture, smallholder farmers and other food producers are yet to be characterized and structured in ways that give them a recognizable economic identity. Unless value chain actors have a clear economic identity, it will remain difficult for them to participate in a fast-moving global agricultural market where traditional advantages are being eroded. Carving an economic identity includes understanding local markets and accounting for surplus at farm gate. That way it becomes possible to see how much surplus is available for processing and regulate the entire agriculture industry.


Optimizing data capture, standards and integration

African agricultural policy makers have to invest in different avenues of generating and interpreting data in order to optimize data capture and integration.  For instance, a single smallholder farmer generates thousands of data points daily beyond basic details like size of household and farming category.  Integrating disparate data such as hundreds of decisions made by each farmer daily is very important.  Besides lack of standardization of data so that it becomes easy to share, data sharing is hampered by numerous factors, including inadequate financial and nonfinancial incentives. For example, regular data capturing and sharing has not been adequately written into job descriptions of government extension officers. These officers are only invited to participate in ad hoc crop and livestock assessments. As a result, it is impossible to introduce new and novel ways of gathering evidence in real time if potential data collectors are not equipped with the basics. Extension officers are not paid on the basis of data collection efforts, encouraging farmers to participate in research or conducting experiments but on high yields by farmers.

In addition to providing adequate data collection infrastructure and financial incentives, policy makers should improve data governance and introduce approaches that enable farmers and other value chain actors to participate directly in data gathering and sharing.  As if that is not enough, much of the data currently being collected by government departments, contract companies, mobile service providers and development organizations from farmers and rural communities lack some critical nuances that can pinpoint real solutions.

Aligning crop and livestock assessments with the market

Continuous data flow should be an integral part of the decision-making hygiene in agricultural value chains. It is not enough to assess crops and livestock in farming areas without extending such efforts to what is in the market and household food storage. Assessing food security among farmers and rural dwellers is not enough without considering deficit and surplus situations in urban populations. In most African countries, urban populations consume more than 50% of the food produced in each country. Most farmers do not consume as much as they produce due to post-harvest losses and a desire to earn income from selling to urban markets where buying power is concentrated.  Ideally, each community should have statistics showing how much is produced, sold and consumed locally.

Establishing a robust farmer characterization criteria

Trying to flesh economic identities for farmers by looking at the availability of resources like access to loans, soil, water, irrigation and pack shades is a common mistake by policy makers and financiers in African countries. A more complete economic identity can come from taking into account intangible attributes such as knowledge, attitudes, risk appetite, patience and other hidden factors. Due to absence of robust characterization, it is difficult to identify farmers who specialize in specific commodities who can then be upgraded to participate in export markets. Sampling 50 farmers from a total of more than five million to participate in exports is not a viable initiative.  The majority of farmers engage in trial and error by trying potatoes one season, cabbages next season and peas the following season, based on short-term incentives.

Informal markets as toll gates for food

Given the extent to which informal markets dominate the supply of food to urban consumers in most developing countries, an effective data collection system can turn these markets into a food toll gate that can efficiently inform the entire agricultural sector.  Introducing plastic money continues to be a challenge due to lack of a system that can enable the introduction of plastic money at the local farmers’ market and link it with other local actors before connecting with national institutions. In the absence of a system, a few informed actors continue to prey on the system and deprive farmers of benefits that should accrue to them. Collecting statistics for one commodity like tobacco and ignoring more than 50 other commodities translates to unbalanced economic decision-making. Strengthening the system starting from local farmers markets will make it easy to introduce an export facility directly to farmers. Farmers able to produce for export can be assessed from their participation in the local market.  / /

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

Revisiting and reconciling differences between literacy and knowledge

It is now known that African graduates are not able to exploit abundant natural resources because the academic education system focuses too much on literacy at the expense of capacity to absorb and apply knowledge. In fact, education policy makers continue to confuse knowledge acquisition and transfer with literacy, which is basically the ability to read, write and recall some alphabets and numbers. After being immersed in such a system, most people are not able to convert knowledge into goods and services. Part of the problem is the disjointed nature of the academic system. For instance, when children move from grade one to two they completely forget what they learnt in grade one. Same when moving from Form one to Form two. All the way to Form 6 and tertiary level, there is no seamless connection between levels. When you move to the next level you forget previous content in order to create space for the new content.

The curse of time lag between absorption and application

In the formal academic system, from grade one to university level, the time lag between knowledge absorption and application is too long such that a lot of useful knowledge is lost before being applied. We are not suggesting that children in primary school go for industrial attachment. Each community has knowledge acquisition and transfer systems that run parallel to the academic system. The academic route should be linked to these existing alternative knowledge flow systems through which communities generate solutions and cope with difficult circumstances like drought or outbreak of diseases. Almost every African community has multiple knowledge traditions such as individual knowledge, community knowledge, specialist knowledge, organizational knowledge and holistic knowledge.

Absence of repetitive processes is one of the biggest drawbacks in academic systems and this is often visible at tertiary level when students who go for industrial attachment struggle to apply what they will have learnt along their educational journeys. On the contrary, the notion of knowledge transfer takes into account people’s personal traits and recognizes that some people are not good at learning through copying but through observation and applying their imagination. Natural traits like the ability to sing or play soccer cannot be acquired through literacy but can be passed on or transferred in other ways other than conventional literacy.  Knowledge transfer pathways also demonstrate how knowledge acquisition and transfer happens better through repetitive patterns and practices which combine learning by doing. For instance, acquiring farming knowledge is enhanced by repetitive practices and processes through which learners adjust and become perfectionists.  Farmers who specialize in one or two crops and livestock become experts through repetitive processes and re-using best practices. Those who jump from one crop to another do not become experts but remain generalists.

Benefits of linking academia with informal knowledge transfer systems

At the moment, the academic system in most developing countries is completely divorced from community knowledge systems.  The academic system is based on the assumption that teachers and lecturers are the only conveyors of knowledge, yet every community has various mentors who produce a lot of goods and services. A key benefit of the local knowledge systems that are currently ignored by formal education systems is a shorter time lag between absorption and application. Diverse mentors can empower students to quickly use observations, ceremonies, rituals and other ways through which knowledge is applied unlike waiting to start applying knowledge after obtaining a university degree.

 The rapid growth of the Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) sector is fundamental indicator of the extent to which local knowledge systems are the biggest sources of innovation in African countries. It is important to note that the proliferation of SMEs has happened without a school or university of SMEs, compared to the school of business, school of law, school of engineering, school of medicine and others. It has mainly been driven by a calling, ambition, attitude and passion within individuals. An agro-dealer is not the most learned individual in a community. If entrepreneurship was based entirely on literacy, agro-dealership would be dominated by those with MBAs and PhDs in business. By emphasizing the capacity to produce a business plan, financial institutions seem to misunderstand the most important attributes in entrepreneurship. Agro-dealers and traders who have survived economic turbulences of all kinds do not operate through rigid business plans and other forms of modern financial literacy packages.

Through experience and learning by doing, agro-dealers and SMEs have become aware that entrepreneurship is about managing and containing external factors, keeping business going in spite of external factors as well as speculating around external factors. Forcing every aspiring business person or potential borrower into the same entrepreneurship training is not only a meaningless academic exercise but ignores people’s different personal traits, passions, ambition levels, attitudes and calling. Financial institutions who are reluctant to fund new business ideas which they refer to as green field are yet to understand how knowledge is acquired and transferred in practice. There are many examples where green field entrepreneurs out-perform those who have been in business for more than 20 years.

Lessons from traditional African communities

Many African communities have survived on knowledge transfer within household and communities for generations. For instance, knowledge on carpentry, basketry, pottery, leather tanning and blacksmithing has traditionally been transferred within families. That is why in some communities you still find a family of carpenters, basket weavers and different kinds of craftsmanship. Such knowledge continues to be passed on from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, instead of enhancing knowledge systems, the introduction of literacy-focused education systems has undermined important culturally-rooted knowledge transfer systems.

Instead of copying from traditional knowledge transfer which focuses mainly on outcomes, the new education system focuses on inputs and outputs like achieving five As at ordinary level and 15 points at advanced level, which is meaningless without tangible outcomes. Examples of outcomes in African traditional knowledge systems included the ability of young people, after being mentored, to milk cows, domesticate animals, skin animals, grow crops, treat injured cattle and build small bridges across local streams. Very few young people with ordinary level or advanced level passes can do similar things today. Digital technology is doing its part in distracting young people from acquiring relevant knowledge. What is the point of digitizing poor decision-making processes due to absence of useful content? Given the amount of work that needs to be done, African academic systems should stop measuring knowledge in terms of outputs like diplomas, degrees, Masters degrees and PhDs that are currently difficult to translate into goods and services. A rigid curriculum is not able to navigate its way around economic hurdles the ways SMEs and farmers translate challenges into solutions and copying strategies.

Building on what exists in communities

By exploring different ways through which knowledge is produced in communities, eMKambo has discovered that each community has knowledgeable people who are denied space and recognition, by the conventional education system, to demonstrate what they know and can be used to satisfy community needs. We have to build the capacity of policy makers and development agencies to notice and recognize parallel knowledge production systems. They may not be called teachers but local livestock breeders, intermediaries, retired nurses, herbalists and those from other professions play critical but unrecognized roles in communities where they live. While the formal education system treats knowledge generation as competition between knowledge sources, knowledge transfer is about harnessing collective learning among decision-makers living together in one community. All community members such as individual farmers, traders, agro-dealers, artisans, traditional leaders and many others are decision makers who thrive on collective learning towards creativity, imagination and resilience.  / /

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

The hidden cost of the time lag between marketing and consumption of commodities

One of the most misunderstood aspects of agricultural value chains in most developing countries is the time lag between marketing and consumption of agricultural commodities. While for farmers, supplying commodities and getting paid immediately is the most important thing, a lot happens between marketing and consumption. The way middlemen are blamed as if they stand in the way of farmers accessing predictable profit pools shows how little is understood about the movement of commodities from farm to fork. People who do not want to invest in understanding agricultural markets at a granular level are often quick to convey the myth that middlemen control the movement of agricultural commodities to the disadvantage of farmers and consumers. This article will reveal some of the issues that farmers, consumers, development agencies and policy makers should strive to know and contribute in solving.


Time lag between marketing and consumption

While the absence of mechanisms for linking farmers directly with consumers is seen as the main challenge in smallholder farming systems, the time lag between marketing and consumption is the real McCoy.  Some commodities need a week of marketing. Others need to reach consumers still fresh and some go to specific niches. Grading of different commodities in line with the needs of different buyers and niches is done by the market, mostly traders or middlemen who have taken time to understand consumers and the entire ecosystem.  Traders know what is needed by different classes of consumers and try to correct mistakes made by farmers and other actors on a continuous basis. Many consumers are not even sure about their needs until they see what is available in the market.

By blaming middlemen, farmers shield issues that should be addressed by policy makers and development agencies. If processing and manufacturing was a better solution, the majority of smallholder farmers would have stopped going to informal markets where they blame traders who are trying to provide a solution using their limited means. Nothing stops farmers from taking their commodities to food chain stores, restaurants and hotels expect that those are not sustainable and viable markets. Traders and middlemen do not prevent farmers from by-passing informal markets and selling their commodities door to door in residential areas. The main reason farmers do not take that root is because it’s more costly and time-consuming.  Consumers do not eat as fast and predictable as farmers would want them to.

Challenges surrounding aggregation

It has been proven that most smallholder farmers do not have capacity to aggregate. Although it is known that travelling 150km with a bucket of groundnuts or a crate of tomatoes is not profitable for a single farmer, such knowledge has not been translated into corrective action. Farmers continue to frequent agricultural markets in a haphazard fashion. Disorganized supply from farmers invites many traders and middlemen into the game as they try to pool resources together so that they are able to sweep commodities from scattered farmers. When traders pool their meagre resources to go and buy commodities from farming areas, each trader who will have contributed his/her money has ownership of the same consignment. If 15 traders aggregate their money to go and purchase a 30-toner truck of potatoes, it means the consignment is owned by 15 people who have to monitor marketing until the consignment is sold.  That is why we end up with many traders in the market. This can be reduced if development agencies and policy makers put in place a system for purchasing commodities in bulk from farmers and handing over the commodities to traders who should mostly be salespersons. When this happens, traders will not go out looking for commodities in farming areas. Consistent supply of diverse commodities in a nutrition-sensitive fashion will stem the proliferation of traders. Each commodity has a minimum number of traders that can be involved before farmers and everyone starts incurring losses.

Traders as aggregators of money from consumers

When agricultural commodities get into the market, traders are responsible for redistributing to end-users such as individuals and households scattered in many areas. As they sell to, traders aggregate money from consumers and end-users so that farmers get paid. The time lag, beginning with pooling money from consumers and then going to buy from farmers can take a least a week.  How many farmers have the patience and time to wait that long? Some traders also operate like contractors who extend inputs to farmers for production of specific commodities. Rather than condemn such a relationship, financial institutions and policy makers can learn from it and generate better models.

What has happened to the retailing of agricultural commodities?

In many African countries, the retail part of agricultural commodity trading has gone closer to the consumer’s door step, mainly in high density areas. Runners who used to take commodities from urban informal markets to high density markets are no longer active. The absence of runners is the main reason why vendors with baskets, mostly women, are now going to markets like Mbare in Harare every morning to buy commodities. There should be runners delivering complete food baskets to vendors in high density market stalls. Having built relationships over time, it is possible for traders in Mbare to know the requirements of vendors in high density areas. Vendors can stop coming to Mbare and wait for their supplies which can be confirmed via mobile technology. The same way bread is delivered to high density tuck shops should be the way fresh commodities are delivered to high density market stalls. It becomes possible to accurately and constantly inform producers about consumption patterns.

Giving grades and standards a new face

Local grades and standards for horticulture and other commodities are becoming too broad, reducing the majority of African consumers into a junk consumption population. For instance, tomatoes that fetch less than $1/crate should be left on-farm or given to livestock instead of incurring the costs of bringing them to the market. Potatoes should also not have more than three grades. The more the grades, the more losses because the same resources like water, labor, energy and time are spent in producing poor grades as in producing good grades. Using appropriate knowledge can reduce the diversity of grades and standards. Poor knowledge translates to high loses and increase costs for farmers.  If a farmer sales one grade for 50c a crate, another for 70c, another for $1 and another for $2, aggregating all those prices can translate to a huge loss.

An improvement in local grades and standards is a big step towards meeting export standards.  It does not help developing countries to focus on export standards when local grades are in disarray. Foreign consumers judge developing countries by the standards they set for themselves, not by how they satisfy foreign standards. Unfortunately, many African countries are importing standards which do not relate to what is available locally. For instance, most farmers are not aware about chemical and water residues in commodities, soil pH and other science-based parameters that are important in global markets.  They do not even know how much water is required to produce a particular commodity until maturity. In most irrigation schemes, emphasis is more on flood irrigation with no isolation of water usage by crop. Such knowledge is critical for decision making, especially in a changing climate.  / /

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