The merits of an effective marketplace for agricultural evidence

Discovering and maintaining agricultural commodities markets is not enough for developing countries. They have to build a culture of synthesizing and sharing evidence in real-time. Absence of a culture of synthesizing information and knowledge from diverse sources remains a big challenge among farmers, economic actors, consumers and policy makers in the majority of developing countries. Formal education is still not adequately build the capacity of students to share what they learn and integrate new knowledge within existing contexts. Farmers and other value chain actors continue to rely on information that is out of date, incomplete and biased. For instance, they end up taking everything that comes from a single seed company or livestock breeder as gospel truth.

The role of evidence in dealing with emergent situations

A critical consequence of failure to bring evidence together is lack mechanisms for rapidly drawing together evidence to inform emergent situations such as a sudden fall in market prices, an outbreak of livestock diseases and crop pests like Fall Army Worm. Advice that comes when a problem has already covered the entire community is useless and may even disrupt local coping strategies. As if that is not enough, Government departments like the Meteorological services and National Statistical agencies are still more reactive than proactive partly because they tend to ignore evidence from alternative sources like private knowledge brokers.

Instead of relying on national statistical agencies which generalize information and insights at a national level in ways that do not adequately embrace local contexts, developing countries should seriously consider promoting local evidence synthesis platforms where decision making can be built on concrete situations. Local informal markets can provide a starting point in cultivating such platforms which local farmers, traders and consumers can easily identify with.  In addition to facilitating quick trading, informal markets are bumping spaces for accidental encounters that stimulate conversations and meaningful knowledge sharing.

Need for an effective market place for synthesizing local evidence

A dynamic marketplace for evidence synthesis can enrich public debates on issues like genetic engineering, organic food and others not fully understood by the general public. To the extent that it is populated by government departments, development agencies, churches, the private sector and farmer organizations, African agriculture’s sources of evidence are as fragmented as organizations working in the same sector. An institution that will be able to create an effective marketplace for synthesized evidence will have provided a game-changing solution. Such a platform will encourage academics, researchers and other actors to synthesize evidence from their work knowing that there is demand for it.  Keeping such evidence in specialized journals or elite conferences will limit societal benefits. If local people and policy makers know where to find the best evidence, there will search for it. A local evidence synthesis platform also underpins the identification of relevant research themes for ordinary people and vocational institutes – enabling them to address real needs such as micro-climate changes and evolution of local consumption patterns.  As shown below, alternative knowledge brokers generate a lot of data that policy makers prefer to either ignore or under-utilize.

Without capacity to rapidly synthesize evidence, local authorities and governments cannot respond more tactically to emergencies like sudden dry spells or day-to-day socio-economic activities. In a rapidly globalizing economy, communities should be empowered to identify and diversify sources of evidence that can inform long-term decision-making on issues like drought, market failure, livestock diseases and dynamic post-harvest handling of agricultural commodities. Where there is no rigorous evidence synthesis, there are high chances of biased decisions, leading to costly mistakes.

Demonstrating consensus or contention

Another major role of local evidence synthesis is showing areas of consensus and contention as well as fundamental disagreements. Without a disciplined evidence market place, it is impossible to habitually synthesize evidence to provide answers to enduring questions surrounding malnutrition, poverty and unemployment.  Given that the development sector has existed for generations, by now we should be seeing consolidated models on issues such as financial inclusion. In the absence of evidence, financial institutions continue to disguise their resistance to finance new innovative projects by asking a thousand questions which have nothing to do with genuine curiosity. A knowledge platform will provide a mechanism for continuously refreshing synthesized evidence unlike leaving things fragmented.  However, collecting evidence and making it usable is a time-consuming mix of art and science.  / /

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Informal food markets as platforms for sharing aspirations and frustrations

An under-appreciated advantage of African informal food markets is how they allow farmers, traders, consumers and other actors to emotionally participate in business and change processes through sharing their aspirations and frustrations. The same cannot happen in formal markets like supermarkets and formal manufacturing industries where farmers just deliver commodities and wait to be paid after weeks if not months.


Some of the enduring frustrations among African smallholder farmers participating in formal marketing systems is absence of profit-oriented budgeting. For instance, it remains largely unknown how much a farmer should put in to earn a profit in potato production from different production zones. Such insights cannot be generic but have to be tied to specific markets like processors, food chain stores or informal markets. Due to this loophole, some buyers end up offering low prices, citing invisible costs incurred along the value chain. Ideally, all production elements should be put together and reveal different scenarios. That is why a system of managing, tracking and updating production budgets for different contexts should be put in place.

Expanding price negotiation mechanisms

In additions to issues mentioned above, the majority of African smallholder farmers do not have mechanisms for price negotiation, taking into account issues like distance, road networks and other factors. A budget for farmers in Mazowe should be different from that for farmers in Nyanga, especially when they sell to the same market. Nyanga may require different inputs from Mazowe in ways that make both places profitable in different ways. The cost benefit analysis in different production zones can provide a meaningful Return on Investment (ROI) for farmers in the different areas.

Spending time in the market enables farmers to identify and define details surrounding market dynamics and see opportunities that drive positive agricultural change. Through regular presence in the market, farmers and other value chain actors are able to anticipate challenges and opportunities coming down the pike and respond proactively. For instance, an impending drought van be picked from frequent discovery research exercises in the market. That is also how under-appreciated facts about ways in which agricultural food systems function can be surfaced. These hidden facts include how potatoes and onion are becoming staples, thanks to increasing urbanization as well as new tastes and preferences of the young generation who now patronize fast food outlets.  Exposure to the market also enables all value chain actors to realize how markets can be vital sources of wealth, prosperity and social values on a larger scale.

Opening more avenues for growth and progress

While rapid changes in consumer tastes and preferences are triggering demand for diverse foods including natural commodities, most African countries do not have proper systems for aggregating, packaging, preserving and distributing different foods. With informal markets playing a major aggregation role, developing countries are being forced to characterize and categorize food traders into:

  • Micro to small traders and food suppliers – catering for subsistence and household consumption.
  • Medium traders – catering for supermarkets, fast food outlets, small scale processors and other smaller markets.
  • Large scale traders – catering for large scale processing industries, triggering exports while also satisfying national food security aspirations. Large scale traders (big pushers) go as far as supporting production, aggregating at source and supplying other markets.

Insights from diverse agricultural markets show that this arrangement will create a graduation pathway for different classes of farmers and traders, who can be registered according to credible socio-economic criteria.  Farmers who want to work with informal markets and vendors will be able to know the required volumes as well as absorptive capacity. This will inform planning for consistency in supply and introduction of a Warehouse Receipt System (WRS). Although the transaction process for large volumes can take up to 60 days, farmers can still access inputs if their commodities are already in the market pipeline through an efficient WRS.

Towards a fluid WRS

The WRS should not be understood as merely a physical structure where commodities are piled up. It should be understood as a fluid system in which commodities are always in transit from production zones to different classes of consumers and end-users. In almost all developing countries, the cost of aggregating commodities for upstream value chain actors is very high due to pockets of disintegrated production. Being on the market, traders are strategically positioned to connect with other value chain nodes. Different categories of traders can be matched with appropriate classes of farmers. All these critical actors need to be profiled with such information informing farmer characterization as well as appropriate production zones and their capacity to meet the demand side.  That way, informal markets are empowered to promote market-oriented production as opposed to supply-driven production.

A solid system for collecting orders can be set up around traders already in the business. The whole process can be anchored on rebuilding value chains from informal markets. Currently, the playing field in informal markets is not bringing out the real potential of African agriculture.  For ease of aggregation, there should be markets for large scale farmers. Lack of a system presents risks to processing companies who are always not sure if they are going to get adequate stock for processing.  Ideally, processors and contractors should just provide their specifications to farmers and traders who can go ahead to produce and mobilize commodities accordingly. Aggregators and packagers should do what they are good at while processors also focus on their core business. Once standards for each process company are codified and shared, processing companies will not struggle to get their requirements from the agricultural ecosystem.  / /

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Searching for balance in African food ecosystems

While it may not be the mandate of development organizations to build manufacturing industries in developing countries, pouring billions of dollars in agricultural production is not lifting people out of poverty. For every $1 billion invested in agricultural production, another $1 billion should be invested in agro-processing and other value added services to reduce losses and generate sustainable employment.


Synergies between agriculture and other socio-economic systems

The structure of food systems in many African countries continues to be influenced by an enduring colonial legacy. For instance, a key feature of most sub-Saharan African countries has been a dual economy characterized by rural and urban economies, with the rural economy dominated by subsistence production. Instead of just concentrating on few staple commodities like maize, meat, milk and wheat, each country should be able to regularly map its agriculture landscape as part of a broader socio-economic context. That is how important overarching principles can be teased out from looking at the entire food ecosystem in terms of where it is coming from, current status and future direction.


For a long time, African rural areas have had their own food basket confined to basics like small grains and tubers like yams whose nutritional knowledge is rooted in local tradition. Exotic commodities like cabbages, onion and tomatoes were recent additions to traditional food systems. Tastes would only change if somebody went to a city where consumption patterns were driven by what was available in urban areas. Increasingly, cities were ( and have remained) the demand side of processed agricultural products like packaged maize meal, cooking oil, slaughtered cattle or chickens, with most products found in shops. To a large extent, the urban economy was an industrial economy focusing on processing and manufacturing of different commodities.


From a consumption perspective, rural consumers would eat processed products like bread or baked beans during the festive season like Christmas holidays. That is how rural consumers acquired new tastes for processed foods like Jam, Margarine, tinned beef and exotic fruits such as apples and oranges, brought by relatives who worked and lived in cities.


On the other hand, in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, colonialism created a  separate economy in the form of large scale farms, neither rural nor completely urban.  This economy produced huge volumes of agricultural commodities for the manufacturing industry and exports. Most commodities produced by large-scale farmers went to processing and manufacturing industries in cities from where finished products would be sold in retail shops and supermarkets.  Large farms also produced non-food commodities like flowers which were exported for foreign currency, enabling the country to trade with other countries.


Responses to a disruptive economy

Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAP), a few decades ago, triggered the birth of the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) sector as those retrenched from large manufacturing industries used their exit packages and pensions to set up new business. As employees left formal employment to start their own businesses, experience, knowledge and skills were transferred from large industries to the SME economy. Different classes of people took their passion, capabilities and skills into the SME sector – constituting a new business class.


On the other hand, the expansion of formal education in the form of schools, colleges and universities increased literacy levels. It is known that literacy plays a central role in in creating social classes and that meant formal education produced lecturers, engineers, managers, business owners and others, with different food tastes and needs. Although ESAP was blamed for destroying some African economies, it gave birth to new opportunities for people to innovate and create new enterprises. During the same period, investments in infrastructure like rural electrification supported the expansion of SMEs into previously marginalized rural areas.


Decentralization of knowledge, tastes and consumption patterns

The emergence and growth of SMEs has significantly defined consumption patterns. Some SMEs have taken the role of manufacturing, processing and value addition. There has been was marked decentralization of knowledge, skills and business activities to smaller towns, growth points and business centres. This transition has happened together with consumption patterns as food systems have followed the SME sector wherever it blossoms – integrating consumption patterns in the SME ecosystem.


Prior to the evolution of the SME sector, companies and industries used to define consumption patterns of the working class through canteens where menus were set to meet demand during working hours.  At least 90% of working class people spent much time at work where they did not have much choice in terms of food compared to SMEs where food choices are broader and flexible. In countries like Zimbabwe where land reforms have happened, there has been an unbundling of knowledge and skills previously confined to farms. Food production patterns have changed based on knowledge, skills and resource capabilities. As smallholder farmers respond to unpredictable climate change, they grow short cycle crops, most of which are part of horticulture.


Changes in food markets

Previously, food markets were dominated by supermarkets and food outlets, catering for the upper class and hotels. The working class was catered for by small shops and established markets stalls like vegetable markets set up by municipalities in high density areas.  On the other hand, the greater population of people stayed in rural areas and rarely came to cities. Following ESAP and the growth of the SME sector, there has been a marked expansion of informal markets, located close to the SME sector.  These food markets have evolved to save all classes of consumers ranging from low income to upper class.  Informal markets have become part of the new economy with a broader food basket.  Each African country has more than 50 food commodities comprising fruits, tubers, vegetables, legumes and field crops for different classes within the sector and their households.


In addition, while in the past, demand for food was defined by month-end, in the SME sector money circulates every day and that influences consumption habits.  This means production and supply have to be consistent in order to meet these new needs. The informal market has to meet the demands of 70% of the SME working class from which demand is consistent for 80% of the time.  The substitutability of commodities is no longer defined by levels of income but by consumer tastes and preferences as well as nutrition and health consciousness. Consumers are becoming aware that lacking specific nutrients can become costly in the form of family members seeking medical attention due to deficiencies in specific nutrients and vitamins.  That is why most households are now paying attention to what is in the food basket.  The market has responded consumers get something within their income. This is visible through different measurements and grades. Supply has also responded to this consistent demand for different food commodities.


Enduring gaps

Big issues in African food systems include the fact that consumption patterns remain uncodified by different emerging consumer classes, age, income, location, income, wages, work types and other determinants. Knowing the number and unique characteristics of existing consumer classes should inform each country’s nutrition basket and entire agriculture sector.  Policy makers and development agencies will also become aware of the extent to which, by continuously promoting maize in the face of changing consumption patterns, they are earning the correct Return on Investment (ROI). Addressing such issues will inform agricultural policies and practices in ways that sustain farming as a business.


In addition, requirements of the expanding SME economy should inform agricultural support in the form of hand-outs, training and infrastructure rehabilitation like irrigation schemes. Critical questions to be answered include:

  • What is the relationship between informal markets, supermarkets, hotels and regional markets?
  • Where are hotels sourcing food? Are the markets competing, complementing or duplicating each other?
  • What are the value chain nodes within markets? For instance within the processing industry, who are the micro-processors, medium processors and large processors? Are they competing or adding value to each other?
  • On the production side, what is the relationship between different classes of farmers like communal, resettled and large scale commercial farmers? Are they competing or adding value?  Who is growing what and for which market?  Production and supply patterns cannot continue to function in an ad hoc manner.

Articulating value chains within value chain nodes will enable traceability and ensure food safety, which are pre-requisites in an integrated global economy.  / /

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Unless know-how is evenly distributed, development will remain a dream

In addition to enabling the exchange of valuable commodities, African informal markets provide a remarkable environment for examining the relationship between knowledge and societal benefits. It is from that vantage point that eMKambo is beginning to see the limitations of conventional formal education systems and scientific research. An increase in the number of schools, colleges and universities in developing countries is not leading to an even distribution of know-how, which is more than knowledge. It is through know-how that knowledge is put to work in the real world. Know-how is how scientific discoveries become routine medical or veterinary treatments and how inventions like grinding mills become services that change lives in rural communities.


Uneven distribution of know-how

While digital technology is increasing the capacity of individuals to share their knowledge, it is far from reducing the uneven distribution of know-how in most developing countries. If it was easy to distribute know-how evenly, developing countries that have a world class aviation industry like Ethiopia and South Africa would easily transfer aviation innovations to other national areas like poverty and malnutrition. Why are developing countries that can manufacture vehicles and harness the enormous power of digital technology not able to address the devastating effects of basic agricultural diseases like Anthrax, Theileriosis, Fruit Fly, Army Worm and Tuta Absoluta? In spite of good intentions and exposure, why are development actors, financial institutions and governments not able to solve basic challenges?

It is difficult to understand how extraordinary geniuses who can make a plane that carries 500 people in the sky for 10 hours are not able to produce innovations that can deal with basic diseases like typhoid or decisively address drought. If know-how was evenly distributed, countries with talented geniuses who can successfully conduct complicated surgery would easily solve social problems like squatter camps, dirty water and nutrition insecurity. Know-how enables people who have not gone through formal education to come up with innovations that can defy logic.

From knowledge to know-how and how informal markets are ahead

Assessing and comparing the state of know-how between communities and countries will assist in getting to the bottom of development outcomes. When you look at knowledge without going deeper to examine know-how, you can come up with wrong assumptions and reward the wrong things. While knowledge can be measured by the number of people who attain degrees and PhDs, know-how looks at beneficial things, products, processes and services that are produced from that knowledge. Most developing countries are still stuck at knowledge and wonder why their investments in formal education is not yielding results.

On the other hand, African informal markets show the merits of working with know-how not knowledge. Brilliant artisans who can make amazing products and fix complicated problems can be found in the African informal sector, sometimes called the Small and Medium Enterprise sector. Unless developing countries focus on know-how, they will spend billions of dollars on knowledge that will never be turned into know-how. Many academic researchers are not creating new knowledge but repackaging the same old knowledge. In other words, recycling ideas from peer reviewed papers will not create relevant new knowledge.  Informal markets reveal how it makes sense to find a person who knows what you need to know rather than search volumes of uncontrolled content on corporate intranets or in academic publications. In spite of the hype surrounding digital technology, technology alone will not suffice because people prefer to connect with other people rather than with data bundles.

The magic of know-how is a core of reliable action that can be standardized and improved over time. Informal traders who have been in the market for generations have standardized their measurements, processes and vocabulary into a core of reliable actions that enable the informal market to survive any catastrophe. Know-how is about the tools and processes communities develop in order to act and think better. Once traders find a common cause in a reliable practical solution, they rally around it in ways that advance their collective interests. That is how they distribute know-how much faster than formal branded events like science symposiums, agricultural shows, training in farming as a business and other famous approaches. For a new tomato variety to be accepted in a new market, many people including farmers, traders and consumers have to cooperate and converge around the new variety.

 Science and Technology is not enough without know-how

While developing countries have embraced the notion that science and technology is a magic bullet in solving most of their problems, informal markets have good examples of know-how in action. If policy makers use the informal sector to understand human know-how, they will be able to identify new ways of generative progressive solutions where technological fixes do not exist. A better understanding of know-how can help communities, development agencies and policy makers to think more strategically about problems like reducing poverty, addressing unemployment, improving public health and reversing climate change.

Rural communities and informal traders have learnt to find ways of deploying their human know-how and effectiveness without technological solutions. Know-how is at the core of how communities approach and address most pressing issues like outbreak of crop and livestock diseases. Harnessing know-how enables the African rural population to depend on indigenous healing knowledge for their healthcare. Unfortunately, that knowledge is in danger of extinction to due lack of documentation, low life expectancy where people die before transferring it to the next generation, as well as failure or reluctance by governments to incorporate it into the mainstream health system.

Towards a know-how based economy

Actors in the African informal sector have become experts in leveraging know-how and collective knowledge as primary sources of innovation. They have become aware that innovation is about connecting ideas to other ideas. Without know-how you cannot extract value from the land, water and other natural resources. All actors in the informal sector are knowledge workers supporting a knowledge economy where know-how is a competitive advantage. Through the informal sector, know-how or implicit knowledge moves from farmer to farmer, trader to trader and consumer to consumer within one ecosystem.

Critical lessons from the informal sector include the fact that effective communities are those which grow spontaneously as people come together to grow their knowledge about specific commodities. There is also increasing awareness that transparency is necessary if the markets are to leverage collective knowledge fully from a confluence of diverse perspectives in the entire market. Sense-making is done jointly by traders, farmers and consumers who hold many perspectives. Traders have enormous respect for knowledge from consumers because customer knowledge allows them to learn what is working, what is not working, and problems to be addressed. The relationship between value chain actors in informal markets resembles a single interconnected mind through which meaning is discovered.  / /

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African informal food markets as better expressions of democracy

African countries are full of human rights interventions that focus mostly on partisan political rights ignoring the rights of local people to produce their own diverse foods in ways they want.  Human rights should not just be enabling local people to access donated food. Evidence from African informal food markets show the extent to which diverse local food production systems constitute democracy, lived reality and resilience. If local communities are persuaded to shun their diverse food systems for a narrow range of hybrids, their democratic rights to produce and consume foods of their choice is undermined.  This is worsened by formal education’s obsession with hybrids at the expense of studying existing foods.  A majority of developing countries have an over-supply of agronomists and animal scientists who have studied a few exotic hybrids at the expense of a wide range of local foods on which the majority of populations have survived for generations. Democratization of local food systems is under threat.


Achieving democracy through interdependence

By increasing access to a wide range of food types, informal markets increase choices and diversify sources of knowledge on different foods. Unlike formal monocultural food production systems, informal markets demonstrate how local food initiatives are interdependent nodes in evolving socio-economic patterns.  Farmers, traders, transporters, consumers and other actors who frequent informal food markets always explore ways of building bonds of connection within the entire informal food ecosystem.  They go on to build networks of solidarity where farmers and traders intuitively and instinctively collaborate rather than engage in cut-throat competition. By collaborating more than they compete, farmers, traders, transporters and other value chain actors co-create shared abundance and a rich food ecosystem.

The informal market as a source of collective wisdom and democracy

An additional role of informal markets is empowering the wisdom of all value chain actors in ways that leverage rather than eliminate diversity. By focusing on a few hybrids monocultural systems oversimplify the complexity of food systems. In pursuit of such a win-lose logic, commercial agricultural practices end up presenting local food systems as vying for supremacy with hybrids. That approach reduces a community’s overall collective wisdom by excluding minority foods, insights and energies, as well as evoking resistance from those who are ignored.

Although hybrids receive most of the attention from policy makers and development agencies, informal markets give space to minority commodities and related knowledge. To the extent informal markets mobilize value chain actors to engage their full diversity in creative ways that call forth greater shared understanding, they generate more democracy and collective wisdom. As part of furthering wiser forms of democracy, informal markets creatively use diversity and common ground to discover deeper and broader life-serving possibilities.

Where formal markets marginalize or dismiss minority food systems, informal markets gravitate towards holistic approaches that respect minority production systems and knowledge as critical aspects of a community’s entire food ecosystem. Malnutrition and food insecurity are not just a consequence of monoculture but also an indicator of failure by developing countries to embrace their fullest possible diverse wisdom around food. Paying attention to informal markets can enable policy makers to incorporate perspectives from minority food systems including what are often called orphaned foods yet they are a critical component of local food systems.  It is through informal markets that development agencies and governments can explore opportunities to transform minority food systems and related knowledge into deeper insight. Taping into the value of minority food systems can uncover hidden needs, leading to shared understanding and wisdom. Through the informal market, choices by actors such as farmers, consumers, traders and others are processes of inclusion as opposed to exclusion.

Respecting the limitations and strengths of local people

In addition to demonstrating socio-economic resilience, minority agricultural commodities respect the limitations and strengths of local communities. In order to build a modern agriculture-driven economy, a commitment to tracking consumer tastes and preferences cannot be over-emphasized. Such efforts will lead to the evolution of different niche markets that can sustain local economies, translating to real value for money and better Return on Investment (ROI). In the absence of market evidence like volumes of diverse commodities consumed locally per given period and the kind of consumers, it is difficult to know the return on investing in different kinds of agricultural commodities.

Besides decentralizing advantages by allowing farmers and all value chain actors to verify information and exchange value, informal markets have enormous capacity to nurture commercial confidence in local food systems. These markets also lower the cost of experimentation for farmers and other value chain actors. As informal markets expand agricultural ecosystems, they aggregate millions of customers across different cultures. The value of each informal markets as an ecosystem is closely tied to interdependent nodes that satisfy needs of diverse consumers. That is why farmers who frequent informal markets are better empowered  to navigate new cultures and anticipate obstacles.  / /

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