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


2 thoughts on “Revisiting and reconciling differences between literacy and knowledge

  1. Dear Charles Dhewa,

    I agree with you 100% the knowledge outcomes and output divide is a significant contributor to unemployment levels we experience , for example a student who has gone to a university of agriculture and natural resources has the whole world of potential business enterprises, but the graduates are amongst the unemployed. One then asks themselves can they really put to action what they have learnt and produce tangible outcomes in the form of enterprises? The issues of disaggregated learning is indeed of great concern there is no seamless learning transition from one level to the other, repetitive and practical exposure is inadequate to effectively equip leaners, actually the best learning process with clear objectives is not well laid out to achieve the desired outcomes. The wealth of knowledge and experience lie untapped from community leaders and agricultural practitioners. We definitely need to introspect and map a better way forward.


    Milly Monkhei


    • Dear Milly,

      Thanks for your feedback and happy 2018! We have a lot of work to do in order to change vested interests and incentives surrounding the current education system in many developing countries.




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