The evolving role of smart intermediaries in African agriculture

While digital technology is threatening to diminish the role of intermediaries in African agriculture, there are signs that smart intermediaries will be around for some time. Although it is spreading connectivity among farmers, traders, consumers and policy makers, digital technology will always need people who translate services between value chains actors, most of whom may struggle to appreciate each other’s contribution.


Digitization of agriculture and rural communities is increasing need for customized services that are too expensive or rare for farmers, traders or consumers to consolidate on their own.  For instance, very few farmers have the capacity and resources to follow their commodities along the entire value chain or ecosystem. On the other hand, digitization is accelerating the movement of commodities and information in ways that make it difficult for farmers and other value chain actors to keep pace with opportunities and threats.

Intermediaries as creators of value

As agriculture and food supply models become more complex, intermediaries that will not disappear overnight are those able to build sustainable models. Failure to do so means they will find themselves on the endangered list. The intermediaries that persevere will be those that adapt and produce unique value such as:

  • Consolidating each value chain actor’s comparative advantages in ways that prevent some value chain actors from falling into avoidable pitfalls.
  • Building relationships and providing a neutral space for competitors to share reliable information. Without such a space, competitors tend to mislead each other. There are circumstances where it makes sense for competitors to collaborate through facilitating information and knowledge exchange. Unfortunately, competitors often hide useful insights from each other because some will have incurred costs in gathering business intelligence and may not recoup such costs if such knowledge is made a public good.
  • Rationalizing the utilization of resources in order to avoid duplication of efforts. Farmers who get into a new market often require guidance from intermediaries. There are cases where traders may pretend not to have financial services when the opposite is true and they are only interested in testing financial facilities from new players in comparison to what exists. On the other hand, some farming communities may pretend they don’t have coping strategies in order to get free inputs and services when in fact they already have better ways of coping with challenges. All this requires intermediation.

Integrating ICTs into needs-based content development

ICTs are not independent of human skills and capacities in terms of efficiency.  Developing needs-based content requires an intermediary. For instance, what informs the development of a mobile application or a short message service?  The most important input is the quality of content that makes a short message service a conversational tool. ICTs can fuel the interpretation of invisible relationships into strategies that would otherwise remain locked within actors. Sometimes value chain actors preserve knowledge to their advantage in ways that hinder knowledge sharing and flow. Allowing knowledge to flow enhances competitive advantages.

For instance, Mbare agricultural market has its own knowledge which has to be consolidated and connected with knowledge from other markets, producers, consumers, processors and others. eMKambo is already using ICTs to accelerate and sustain this process. Just as commodities are pushed from producers to consumers, the same happens to knowledge. It is often difficult for knowledge to move from farmers to consumers directly. How can a rural farmer communicate with an urban consumer whose income and consumption patterns are hidden from farmers?  All these conversations have to stay fluid, instead of each of the millions of farmers trying to communicate with millions of consumers.  That is how trends become a consolidated value-added product for diverse value chain actors.

Information and knowledge are different from seed, fertilizer or other inputs. If knowledge is to be shared productively, many actors have to be involved. Some of the value is found at the extremes of value chains than in formal markets. Intermediaries become more critical in facilitating transactions between producers and consumers as well as interpreting high level patterns within the ecosystem. By monitoring and herding commodities and actors, they close gaps between disconnected value chain actors that require one another to survive. In many developing countries, most value chain actors do not have access to those they need in order to stay alive. As technology deepens connections between producers and consumers, smart and dynamic intermediaries will continue satisfying a high value function.  / /

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


When is a disadvantage actually an advantage?

If it was true that more resources always lead to better results, African communities in high rainfall areas and favorable climatic conditions would be the richest and happier than everyone else. Development organizations and policy makers are slowly awakening to the reality that dumping resources on communities does not guarantee a beneficial end. For instance, projects set up over the past decades have not moved poor people out of poverty as expected. It looks like something more is needed.

Is there advantage in disadvantage?

Evidence from several African informal food markets indicate smallholder farmers and rural communities that are beset by disadvantages have ways of becoming competitive by compensating for their weaknesses. A typical example is how resource-poor smallholder farmers tend to bring more high quality commodities to food markets than large scale farmers who have many advantages like alternative sources of income. In the absence of quick answers, African smallholders force themselves to innovate and solve their own problems. That is why free inputs, under whatever name, are not a good idea. The majority of smallholder farmers produce high quality commodities because they pay closer attention to detail, knowing that agricultural commodities are their only source of livelihood.  On the other hand, those with alternative sources of income don’t care much about producing competitive products or developing sustainable markets.


The urge to overcome weaknesses

eMKambo is not suggesting smallholder farmers and poor people should be denied resources as a way of nudging them into radical innovation. However, it seems scarcity of resources has a tendency to strengthen rather than crush smallholder farmers.  By working hard to know their disadvantages and taking action to turn them into advantages, many smallholder farmers consider disadvantages a permission to succeed. More support often paralyses African politicians who masquerade as farmers when all they need are free inputs whose outcome they do not even trace to the market.  On the other hand, farmers with disadvantages, beyond just unavailability of inputs, feel a strong need to overcome their weaknesses.

However, overwhelming disadvantages can hinder progressive growth. When rural communities fight poverty, malnutrition and socio-economic battles with less sophisticated weapons and tools, they are more likely to lose those battles. On the other hand, it is not enough to have sophisticated weapons in the form of good soils, farming equipment, good road network, access to finance and proximity to the market when one is not able to use those weapons and tools productively. Smallholder farmers can only exploit their disadvantages if basic amenities and resources are made available first.  In most African rural areas, some levels of poverty and squalor make it difficult for poor people to take advantage of their disadvantages.

 Disadvantages as a platform for creativity and innovation

Useful disadvantages like limited resources encourage competition and prevents complacency in ways that foster equitable growth and development. When farming communities clearly identify a disadvantage they will have successfully identified something they do not have that they want.  A degree of individual and collective resilience is necessary in order to take the disadvantage forward. These communities should be encouraged to further develop their strengths rather than waste time working on their weaknesses. That way, they will take stock of what they do well and cultivate critical skills and strengths for further success unlike continue believing they are poor and not able to do anything for themselves.

The power of random and informal conversations should not be underestimated.  By telling each other positive stories in the market, smallholder farmers tend to be the answer to many questions bugging their peers for decades. Some farmers hide their disadvantages until a courageous peer with the same challenges tells his/her story. Turning disadvantages to advantages enables farmers and other value chain actors to open their hearts to others.  Adverse conditions calibrate their abilities and strengths to inspire them to push against both visible and invisible barriers to success. Disadvantageous circumstances teach them to adapt and embrace flexibility with focus and tenacity. Struggling through disadvantage turns rote to reality.

So, should we continue blaming development organizations for initiating projects?

It might be unhelpful to continue blaming development organizations which start projects that become white elephants. The local community should ensure those projects succeed. Every new project is a chance for local people to succeed. When the NGO goes away, it is creating a strategic disadvantage in the form of withdrawing resources.  Rather than exploiting this strategic disadvantage and move forward, most communities go back to their original situation. Usually people outside the beneficiary group, who are naturally curious and innovative, are the ones who quietly copy and innovate. Metal fabricators are an example of people who take advantage of strategic disadvantage.  Most of them have not been trained in formal engineering but have taken that lack of training to become creative in turning those disadvantages into tangible outcomes.  Creating stumbling blocks is giving people a chance and permission to succeed.  / /

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

Using evidence to connect with a bigger purpose

In their pursuit for survival, most value chain actors in developing countries do not clarify their contribution to a big purpose like economic growth.  For instance, instead of seeing how their work contributes to national food and nutrition security, most farmers and manufacturers tend to be interested in the colour of the money. That is why their first question to the market is how much is the market offering per a given quantity of specific commodities?  Ideally, money and better incomes should be outcomes from a much larger purpose. Those motivated by money or high prices will always struggle to achieve their goals.  There will never be enough money to satisfy all wants.


The power of evidence and reflection

Everyone should ask themselves how they are contributing to socio-economic resilience and growth. For instance, those fond of importing goods into the country should demonstrate how their activities contribute to economic growth. Exporters should do the same. Why do importers of basic commodities think importing is the solution to the high cost of producing agricultural commodities like soya bean and fruits locally? It should be easy to bring farmers, processors, transporters and input providers together and explore each other’s level of effort in supporting socio-economic growth and resilience.

By taking 30% from farmers’ incomes, how do financial institutions and transporters think they are contributing to socio-economic growth? How do exorbitant interest rates charged by African financial institutions contribute to economic growth? While many African countries are full of development organizations, economic growth and resilience cannot be left to development partners. Are development organizations expected to be more patriotic than local value chain actors who seem more interested in money than long-term economic growth and future prospects?

Building a new evidence-informed mindset

For farmers who say they can’t accept low prices due to the cost of inputs, what is going to be the end?  What is the price of money that causes input providers to increase their price, leading to consumers failing to afford agricultural commodities?  Developing countries cannot continue blaming the international market for not accepting their products but focus on finding ways of making their commodities competitive on the international market.  Critical questions to be answered collectively include:

  • Who is causing our commodities to be uncompetitive on the local and international market? Is it the farmer, input provider, financier, transporter or policy makers?
  • Why are we failing to feed our people when we have abundant natural and human resources?
  • Why should consumers buy local food when imports are available and cheap?

Knowledge-intensive methods are critical in addressing these chicken and egg challenges. Instead of resorting to a blame game, every value chain actor should ask themselves whether they are contributing negatively or positively to socio-economic sustainability. When we see commodities come into the country through our borders we should ask ourselves whether we have reached such a crisis point that most consumers no longer have any choices or we just open borders willy-nilly. Naturally consumers should be allowed to adjust and exhaust all their options before resorting to imports. We would rather have temporary shortages causing local producers to innovate and benefit from that investment later on.  In most cases, when they don’t find what they want, consumers tend to adjust their preferences.  However, there are cases where compelling forces nudge consumers to go for cheaper commodities.  For instance, low disposable income can over-power the superior taste and organic nature of local products, prompting people to buy foreign food because it is affordable.  / /

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

Price as an outcome of negotiations between diverse market actors

African agriculture is one of the most misunderstood ecosystems, especially by investors and development organizations. There is a persistent tendency to force smallholder farmers into contract agreements when most of them have made up their mind about the pros and cons of such agreements. While informal markets continue to carry the day, investors, development actors and policy makers continue to cling onto out-dated contract farming models which condemn smallholder farmers into labourers.


More than just supply and demand

While formal institutions still believe in the laws of supply and demand, such laws no longer call the shots in African food systems where borders no longer exist. Although commodity supply is important, profitability and sustainability result from many elusive factors. Part of the solution is careful characterization of the market and its actors. With the majority of smallholder farmers in developing countries shunning contract arrangements, unless when blackmailed through free inputs, informal markets are setting the rules of the game at different levels.

Farmers and vendors who exchange goods and knowledge in informal markets understand each other very well to the extent of getting into win-win pre-financing arrangements. This is contrary to views from some development actors which pretend to protect farmers from ‘middlemen’ when they will be  destroying hard-earned relationships that must continue to exist when donor life-support has disappeared.

The biggest group of buyers for farmers who sell in the farmers’ market are vendors who buy in small quantities for selling further in high density areas. A second cluster of buyers are traders with permanent stalls who have invested into trading particular commodities. Traders purchase in bulk and often deal directly with farming communities.  Measurements used in farmers’ markets signify the character of the market. When commodities come into the farmers market, they are in large measurements such as cardboard boxes, large plastic boxes (sandaks), 50kg bags and 20 litre tins for commodities ranging from butternuts and groundnuts to tomatoes. These measurements define the role of the market.

The fluid nature of informal food markets

While agricultural commodities come in bulk from farming areas, most buyers do not buy in bulk but in smaller measurements. This means the market uses different measurements to break bulk. All these nuances have a bearing on financing agricultural production. Where buyers bring commodities straight from production areas into the market, such volumes are stocked in the wholesale market for other informal or formal markets like processors.

The market pulls together a food basket from diverse farming areas. As it breaks bulk it mixes and matches commodities according to diverse nutritional needs. Individual buyers come to the market looking for specific food baskets which the market brings together. However, buyers rarely spend their whole budgets on single commodities. When commodities travel in bulk from one large urban market to another, the market where they travel to is responsible for consolidating food baskets for local consumers.

This fluid role needs to be understood as it influences consumption patterns. For instance, when the consumer budget gets strained, some commodities are rejected. That is how commodities are given weights in terms of whether they are necessities or luxuries. Commodities like lettuce, carrots, peas and fine beans are normally not produced in large quantities because they are sometimes considered luxuries not necessities.  A necessity is hardly substituted fully and that is why a tomato is always in the market because it is a necessity.  It has a marked price range. For commodities that are considered necessities, when demand is high, prices also tend to be high due to a built-in tendency by consumers to acquire appetites and tastes for particular commodities.

Significance of characterizing markets

Instead of focusing entirely on price, farmers and other value chain actors can benefit from characterizing and scoring markets in terms of availability, volumes absorbed by a particular market, commodity uses and price elasticity. Farmers markets can be high on price but score low because prices can fall below contract prices.  On the other hand, while in contract arrangements the buyer and price can be known before producing, the informal market can be always available and sometimes offering better prices due to competitive pressures.

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Knowledge already exists at different value chain nodes such as producer levels and market level.  How can this knowledge be pulled together to inform agribusiness models?  Processors and SMEs have raw knowledge still to be understood. If that knowledge is supported by that from the production side, it can become a bridge for resuscitating formal processing companies. Tracking volumes into markets also provides a framework for building consumption patterns in ways that speak fluently to prices. Commodities cannot be compared in isolation but in competition with each other. For the past six months, which 11 commodities were moving together and competing in the market and which one, upon entering the market, disturbed a necessity like tomatoes?  / /

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

When data and evidence become currency

Most of the information disseminated to African smallholder farmers and rural marginalized entrepreneurs is barely enough for progressive decision making. In most cases where price information for a particular commodity is provided, critical details are missing and these include diverse sources of the commodity, levels of competition, demand cycles and the type of people who consume or use that commodity.  For instance, in Zimbabwe and other developing countries, the production and consumption of butternut squash (cucurbita moschata) is on the increase. However, due to the absence of data and evidence, reasons for this trend are often hidden from producers and policy makers.


Butternut squash belongs to the same family with the pumpkin, cucumber, gourd, watermelon and cantaloupe. These plants grow on a vine and are relatively easy to produce, especially in the right environment.  Production information is simple to find and standardize. What is often missing is the  picture for each commodity in terms of who is consuming the commodity, whether supply to the market is increasing or decreasing and reasons behind those dynamics. Data becomes currency when such details are generated and consolidated. eMKambo has made it its calling to align data with decisions.

Butternut Squash supply to Mbare market, Harare: January – October 2017

In Mbare agricultural market, the butternut squash is usually packed in bags known as Sassekas. Don’t ask what that name means, the agricultural market has its own lingua franca. A standard size of a Sasseka of butternut squash is 60kg. Traders who buy from farmers prefer to use the Sasseka as a standard unit of measurement for their transactions. It is becomes convenient to repack the butternut into smaller pockets. A total of 98 083.7 pockets of butternut squash were supplied to the market between January and October 2017. A standard pocket of butternut squash weighs 7.22kgs. Converted to sassekas, a total of 11 802.74 Sassekas were supplied to Mbare Market from January to October 2017.

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Major sources of the commodity

As shown in the chart below, Mutoko district was the biggest supplier of the butternut squash. The Harare figure is a combination of peri-urban production and volumes held by traders in Harare over a given period in which case Harare is presented as a supplier to the market. There are many cases where Harare traders buy squash butternut seed and other inputs which they extend to farmers. Such decisions are largely informed by data showing areas with potential for producing more and those that have reached their ceiling in terms of production capacity.  In the absence of such granular evidence, funding the production of butternut and other commodities is based on guess-work and wastes scarce resources.

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Price trends


Butternut squash can be stored for a period of six months or longer and the taste is often superior when it is stored for a long period as compared to being consumed just after harvesting. Research and evidence gathered by eMKambo over the past five years has shown that the demand for butternut squash is high during the festive period. If you are producer or financier, it is important to know all these economic nuances associated with squash butternut before making an investment decision. This information can easily be compared with 2015 and 2016 in order to demonstrate trends.

The law of demand and supply states that all things being equal, when supply is low there is an increase in price and that when supply is high, there is a decrease in price. Evidence provided in the above graphics show that this law applied in 2017 except in April where both supply and price went down. In 2016 the same law applied in April, May, July and October only. Price was constant from January through to March where supply was fairly high. This demonstrates the extent to which, like all other markets, agricultural markets can be unpredictable. However, mastering other factors like consumer behavior, income levels and how food commodities compete and substitute each other can generate better insights.  Given the scarcity of resources, decisions have to be based on strong evidence.  / /

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

How the market can convert agricultural commodities into career pipelines

Besides climate change and environmental degradation, a major challenge facing many African rural communities is migration of skills and talent to urban centres. There is no price for guessing who wins in the competition for talent between rural and urban communities. Building rural agricultural markets is one way of converting agricultural commodities and value chains into sustainable career pipelines for the young generation. Such a vision can be fuelled by rapid urbanization and the expansion of ICTs into formerly marginalized areas.


Raising the banner of working together

The new era of big data and machine learning is inspiring a new culture of gathering evidence that can help in redistributing agricultural talent from urban to rural communities.  Through informal agricultural markets, value chain actors are being compelled to collaborate on a new scale and to work more closely with consumers.  It no longer pays for private companies to jealously guard their secrets, for fear of being beaten in the market.  Gone are the days it made sense for academic researchers to act like sole proprietors obsessed with individual achievements. Some of the best ideas and innovations can come from rural areas if the right conditions and incentives are availed. Policy makers and development agencies cannot expect to achieve rural development when technological knowledge and progressive ideas are locked in urban areas.

The role of data in nurturing trust and shifting incentives

Creating career pipelines and economic growth opportunities in rural farming areas may not happen without a culture of collecting data and turning it into reliable insights. While data can provide the much needed reality check on a continuous basis, such data cannot be found in a single organization or institution.  There is need for new methods, talent, capabilities and infrastructure for translating data into useful evidence. Without investment in talent and important capabilities, only a few people, mostly based in urban centres, will be able to manipulate data in ways that satisfy their own career persuasions.

People as the main knowledge assets

In addition to data, the fluid expertise of traders, consumers, retired farmers and other professionals is critical in ensuring rural communities become part of knowledge societies. However, experiences from working with diverse farming communities over the past few years have confirmed to eMKambo that people have different motivations for sharing or withholding knowledge. While there is a long-held assumption that field days are the best way through which farmers can share knowledge, many farmers are interested in what knowledge means to their own contexts and competitiveness as opposed to what it means to everyone. Many value chain actors share knowledge when sharing is the best thing to do.

A small proportion of farmers and traders share knowledge because sharing is part of their nature and so they can share proactively. There is another second group of farmers, traders and consumers who share knowledge when asked to share. This group can keep knowledge to itself until there is a clear demand for it. The last group comprises those who share when benefits of sharing are clear. As the entrepreneurship spirit catches up in many rural communities, is category is increasing. Paying attention to all these issues and categories is important, especially when trying to use agriculture and natural resources in helping communities to life themselves out of poverty and become consistent economic actors who see knowledge as a commodity for the future.  / /

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

Moving decision making closer to points of impact and knowledge

In most developing countries, decisions that affect farmers and rural communities are often made by policy makers and development agencies who do not reside in those communities. However, digital technologies are revealing the benefits and possibilities of improving the quality of services by moving decision-making to where impact is felt. For instance, using mobile phones to provide information that allows informal markets to make their own decisions has created the right conditions for agricultural success unlike trying to impose formal operational and communication procedures


Toward an evidence-based local economy

Sporadic agricultural assessments and research initiatives by different organizations with no central repositories of findings and outcomes hinders informed decision making. This also leads to waste of resources and losing track of important trends, for instance from one crop harvest to another.  There is a tendency to conduct one assessment before the planting season and another assessment after harvesting. In such cases, the most important trends that are missed include consumption patterns between these two assessments as well as losses between one harvest and the other.   It seems data collection focuses on quantities of the major crops harvested with no regard for different uses and losses associated with those commodities.  Yet a community can harvest a lot of commodities like maize or sorghum but become food insecure quickly due to absence of other income sources. Households are forced to trade all their commodities to meet school fees and other critical needs.

Enabling communities to identify their priorities

African rural and farming communities are not always waiting for outsiders to come and help them. They are always innovating and coming up with solutions to their own challenges. That is why development organizations should not just bring their own ideas but start by identifying each community’s development priorities. eMKambo has realized that a critical capacity building component is assisting communities to value their own local resources before looking for external resources. A monetary value for local commodities and resources can be easily determined through a culture of gathering evidence over time.  Each community can be able to know how many tons of grain or number of livestock it is trading per month or per year.

While African national revenue authorities are more interested in private companies declaring their annual sales, a lot can be gained by compelling local communities to do the same.  If properly collated and consolidated, local data can show the extent to which some communities are much bigger than some famous private companies listed on the stock exchange.   In the new knowledge economy, a national balance of payment should not just be expressed through volumes of imports and exports at the exclusion of socio-economic activities at community levels where enormous value is exchanged. Some communities bring in more external resources than others while those which continue to lose resources or commodities may signal the need for nearer communities to assist their neighbors before selling everything to far-flung areas like urban centres.  Without a culture of data collection and analysis, it becomes difficult to pick all these trends.

Local copying strategies and new rules of engagement

Development interventions should be built around each community’s existing copying strategies. That is why a centralized community data collection system is very important. Such an important role cannot be left to national statistical agencies which, apart from taking long to process and avail data, find it difficult to disaggregate evidence down to community levels in ways that resonate with local people and their contexts.  Tracking data along value chains can make it possible for communities to see differences between volumes of commodities going to the market and those remaining in households for local consumption.  How much is consumed locally, how much is lost along the way and how else are some of the volumes being utilized?

Data and evidence can also be used to inform new rules of engagement.  Existing laws and by-laws in most African countries are no longer relevant in the new hybrid economy comprising formal and informal ways of working. On the other hand, new value chain actors are more willing to participate in the formation of new rules and legislations. This implies crafting new socio-economic legislations can no longer be a preserve of members of parliament, most of whom are far removed from the new economy and related wisdom.  If you see the majority of economic actors breaking and bending rules that signals limitations of conventional rules.

 Welcome to new literacies

Although formal education continues to receive all the attention, the new hybrid economy is demanding new literacies that include emotional intelligence, socio-economic literacy, digital literacy and bio-empathy, which involves learning the principles of nature to develop leadership styles. Nature works in cycles like seasons, not straight lines like logical frameworks. Farmers who are quickly mastering the principles of nature can cope better with a changing climate.  They can also build more reliable early warning instincts than those who depend on limited sources of knowledge. Unfortunately, policy makers and development agencies are struggling to recognize structures within the new hybrid economy characterized by unique executives and Communities of Practice.

While formal Chief Executive Officers, whose companies now constitute less than 10% of whole national economies, continue to receive training in governance and other formal practices, new executives and leaders in the new hybrid economy are not receiving any training commensurate with their new roles. In the past decades, cultural literacies used to anchor most African communities from which there was a transition to formal work-related literacies such as apprenticeship.  These taught a person one trade until s/he retired to start surviving on the proceeds of his/her pension.  Currently, most Africans are retiring into agriculture but there have not been efforts to develop literacies that can transition people from one career to another, for instance, nursing to agriculture. New literacies have to be developed based on local contexts. In addition, financial institutions in developing countries also need new literacies if they are to continuously upgrade their relevance in the new economy.  / /

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