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

African food systems: a dance between luxuries and necessities

eMKambo has been in African food markets long enough to notice some invisible patterns that should be known to farmers, financiers, development agencies and policy makers. The new generation of consumers’ tastes and preferences are increasingly defining the extent to which a commodity remains a luxury or becomes a necessity. While tomatoes and leafy vegetables have always been necessities, soft drinks like Coke were a luxury. Mazoe orange crush was mainly for sick people so that they regain strengths. However, these are some of the commodities that have become necessities consumed together with fresh potato chips and chicken, almost daily.


The potato and how it has transitioned into a staple

In several African countries, the Irish potato has become a staple with many consumers now demanding consistent supply at affordable prices.  Consumers are also demanding opportunities to taste different varieties. For instance, Zimbabwe now has diverse potato varieties such as BP1, Mondial, Valor, Mnandi, Amatheyst and others.  The transition of potato from a luxury to a necessity has been driven first by consumer tastes and preferences.  An increase in demand, mostly from the new generation of consumers who frequent fast food outlets, lured more farmers into producing the crop. The increase in demand also pushed up prices which became an incentive for more farmers to join the bandwagon. In the past five years, the price of a 15kg pocket of potatoes in Zimbabwe reached $13 with the lowest price being $6.

From special events to households

The potato has also moved from being a special events commodity to household consumption.  As more farmers were attracted to potato as a lucrative commodity, the knowledge around potato production also increased. However, as with any other commodity, demand does not always continue to increase but reaches a ceiling before it starts to go down and eventually stabilize. For instance, over the past season in Zimbabwe, there have been signs of potato reaching a stagnant price (average of $3/pocket) while production has continued to increase.  As a result there has been an outcry as farmers wanted to sell small grades at $5, medium grades $6 and large grades $7, prices which the market was resisting.

Since potato has become a staple necessity, consumers want to buy enough for a whole month and that means it has to have its own market where it can be found all the time. Farmers also expect prices to stabilize so that almost everyone can afford it. This is compelling farmers to think of making profit on volume and consistent supply as opposed to increasing prices. When the market sets demand and quantities required, farmers have to adjust and align their production and operational costs with demand trends.  Unfortunately, having acquired knowledge and invested in the entire system, farmers struggle to quickly adjust their costs of production.

The main advantage when a commodity becoming a staple is that farmers are assured of a ready market that supports sustainable production. That means they have to focus on managing their costs and quality instead of continuing to chase high prices. It becomes easy to plan. For instance, a farmer can aim for $2 profit per 15kg pocket.  To remain in the game, farmers have to maintain a certain level of production in line with demand.  That is why data collection from the entire market is critical. Fortunately, potato is not highly perishable and requires less intensive levels of knowledge, attention and work load.

Sweet potato

With the right support, sweet potato could go hand in hand with potato with which it has almost the same benefits. Unfortunately, its value addition options like chips, flour or drinks have not been developed.  African countries have not invested in the science that would enable profitable value adding of sweet potato into a profitable commodity. African researchers have been trying to adopt chips making technology from the West. Lack of value addition prospects means sweet potato remains a seasonal commodity. A broader market for other uses that would trigger demand all year round is yet to be cultivated. When processed or value added, sweet potato can offer more value and create employment as well as ensure more income for the economy. Where there is no value addition, government does not get value added tax while raw consumption shortens the chain. A commodity should exhaust is full potential along the value chain unlike removing it before it passes through all stages of the chain.

 Luxuries like peas, peppers, carrots and others

A luxury like peas has a niche market and tries to maximize its profit through high prices whereas a staple like maize grain or potato maximizes its profits through high volumes. On the other hand, price elasticity is very high for luxuries. When a box of peas is going for $10, a 50% price increase drives the price to $15/box which can trigger a 50% reduction in demand.  However, for a pocket of potatoes costing $3, a 50% price increase pushes the cost to just $4/pocket which may not induce a high reduction in demand. Consumers may not mind a $1 increase.  Farmers can also plan their production accordingly.

Most luxuries tend to be on the side plate because their main role is to add flavor to food whereas a staple like potato is a whole meal and can constitute 90% of the meal.  Luxuries like cucumber, chilli pepper, ginger and garlic are additives bought in small quantities. That is why farmers cannot do a lucrative business growing chilli pepper. A family can spent more than three months consuming 50c worth of chilli pepper. In some households only the father or mother may consume ginger or garlic while the whole household consumes potatoes and tomatoes. Given available land and other resources in African countries, it is uneconomic to specialize on luxuries like carrots, beetroot and pepper. For sustainability, farmers have to consider green mealies, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes, onions and other necessities that are demanded in large volumes.

Multipurpose influence

Multipurpose use also influences the classification of commodities into luxuries or necessities. For instance potato has diverse by-products like crisps, fresh chips, mashed potatoes, potato salad and potato seed while high value crops like carrots and garlic have no meaningful by-products. While necessities are always in demand, consumers can shift away from luxuries when there are challenges like loss of income. Just as farmers prioritize household food security before thinking about surplus for the market, urban households prioritize necessities like cooking oil, salt, sugar, mealie meal or potatoes.  Everything else is a luxury.

In a changing climate characterized by drought and unreliable rainfall patterns, luxury commodities tend to be pushed out.  There is often more demand than supply of basic necessities like maize, triggering price increase and forcing households to forego luxuries.  If maize prices increase, spaghetti is sacrificed for rice and other closer necessities.  Some commodities will be pushed to luxuries due to pressure on the budget.  For instance, meat consumption may become spaced, replaced by Kapenta, for instance.

The production of necessities tends to be negatively affected by high cost of inputs. Famers have to produce in large volumes in order to enjoy economies of scale. Ideally, smallholder farmers on small pieces of land ranging from 0.5 to 6ha should not produce potatoes but leave it to those with bigger pieces of land while they try a mix of some staples and high value crops like okra and others. However, when they produce potatoes for their own consumption, they help in controlling the price of potatoes on the market by becoming consumers. They can complement volumes produced by large farmers. The only reason some farmers are producing additives like cucumber is because production costs tend to be low.

Squash butternut

This crop has not yet become a necessity but is somewhere in the middle. Its production knowledge is still slightly specialized and varieties are still fewer.  It is not yet grown in all areas and has fewer uses. In the market, it can rarely be in gluts to a point of being sold at $5/60kg bag called a Sasseka in Zimbabwe. There are also times when butternut can be out-maneuvered by gourds and pumpkins which do not have high production costs and are not highly knowledge intensive. These commodities tend to keep butternuts on the periphery.  Butternut is also more of an additive consumed with rice, usually at special events.

Meat and eggs

Most of the meats like beef and chicken have become necessities in many African countries. Initially prices were very high to the extent of luring more farmers into producing beef, chicken and piggery.  In Zimbabwe, a broiler was at one time going for $10 but can now be found at $4 – $6 because producers have adjusted their production costs. This has stabilized and balanced demand and production at affordable prices. In addition, some farmers are now making their own feed and have devised other ways of managing costs. Producers have also realized that consistency in production and huge supply volumes guarantee benefits related to economies of scale.  Another lesson is that farmers cannot pay the same salary to employees taking care of 200 chickens and 1000 chickens.

Eggs re still more of a luxury.  Margarine, Jam or peanut butter can substitute eggs for breakfast. Eggs can also be used as additives in baking cakes.  A whole family cannot boil eggs and consume them for dinner. They are more of ingredients in producing beggars and other foods.  That means another commodity has to be bought first for eggs to be bought.

Yawning opportunity surrounding indigenous poultry

The African indigenous poultry industry is taking too long to develop to a point of enjoying economies of scale. Everyone knows numerous advantages of indigenous chickens but efforts to unlock opportunities seem to be facing many barriers. In a changing climate, small stock like indigenous chickens which do not consume a lot of resources are being promoted.  But a major question is why is an indigenous bird whose costs of production are very low being sold for $10 when a broiler, which requires a lot of feed, water, energy and other resources is going for $4 to $6?  It seems broilers have pushed indigenous chickens into luxury commodities for niche markets.  When times are hard, urban households can afford to spare $5 for a broiler or broiler cutlets at $1/packet and forego expensive indigenous chickens.  Why don’t we have cutlets of indigenous chickens in the majority of African supermarkets?

charles dhewa

Indigenous chickens have several advantages like low production costs, resistance to diseases and self-reproduction (they can lay their eggs and produce chicks with minimum input).  However, due to poor economies of scale, by producing smaller quantities, farmers demand high prices. For a bird with fewer inputs, $2.50 to $3/bird is not a bad price.  When farmers maximize volume they can make more than be trapped in low volume high price business. From 100 chicken sold at $3, a 50c profit per bird is better than trying to sell 20 birds at $10 each.

Nothing stops African farmers from being innovative in using their resources and devoting whole farms to indigenous chickens. Indigenous poultry has been genderized and left to women who are struggling to commercialize it on their own. We now see many men getting into trading indigenous chicken, traditionally considered a women’s commodity.  A luxury is often men’s business.

Same with small grains

Small grains have also been pushed into the luxury commodity class because farmers have failed to produce at scale.  A related challenge is lack of investment in technologies that ensure good quality. Most consumers still complain about finding soil in rapoko and pearl millet.  Why should a bucket of finger millet be sold at $10 when maize grain is at $4 a bucket?  Rapoko should be $3/bucket.  Production at scale will enable economies of scale. Small grains and indigenous chickens can complement each other in sustainable ways. They can present an opportunity for organic production where poultry manure can be used in horticulture, giving African horticulture an authentic indigenous face.  / /

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

How informal markets increase access to natural food and natural remedies

Rising demand for wild foods and local herbs in most African informal markets demonstrate the desire for the public to return to natural remedies. In addition to food, all kinds of natural herbs and medicines are an integral part of the people’s food market ecosystem. This means African scientists have a lot of work in researching local food systems and medicinal herbs for integration into global food and health systems. To the extent that food and medicine go together, African scientists should ensure traditional herbal medicine is developed to be integrated into the national nutrition and health delivery systems.


Why herbal medicine deserves a new lease of life

While herbal medicine has now been accepted as a critical component of global health, it is sad to note that in most African countries where over 80% of the population relies on herbs for daily health needs, only few such herbs have been validated using research. In the United Kingdom, Germany and other western countries, herbal medicine has been well integrated into the nation’s health system. Rather than continue to witness poverty through over-prescription of medicinal products from other countries, it is the responsibility of African scientists to use evidence – based science in developing herbal products that are  relevant to the majority of local people.

The diversity of local herbal products is often visible through people’s food markets. It is from this evidence base that African scientists can begin properly defining what traditional medicine is, where it starts and stops as well as codifying the huge spectrum of herbs and medicines. They should then be able to determine how traditional herbs and medicines relate to new terminologies like ‘alternative medicine’, ‘complementary medicine’ and ‘herbal medicine.  This effort can feed into further work on characterizing and building genetic banks in ways that enhance herbal genetic conservation and prevent bio-piracy. Regulators should play a leading role in this work to ensure African countries do not lose on royalties which are normally generated when genetic material gets improved into global brands.

Importance of verifying existing knowledge

Knowledge on traditional medicine continue to be shared through oral and learning by doing without comparison with modern scientific medicine. For instance, depending on African community, almost every indigenous tree is said to be medicinal.

  • How can science like biotechnology be used to verify such claims?
  • How can science show the pros and cons of commercializing traditional medicine and indigenous food systems?
  • How can regulatory platforms create molecular signatures (biobanks) of medicinal importance so that a data base will forever exist and anyone would seek permission to mine from it for research and other purposes?

Regulatory intervention will strengthen access to global benefit sharing agreements which curbs bio-piracy of such genetic resources. Like any other knowledge systems, indigenous knowledge systems have a ceiling beyond which some improvements or additions will be required.  For instance, while herbs can cure some ailments, it is not possible to scan a fractured leg using traditional medicine.  Some of the knowledge dies with its generation.

  • To what extent can absence of science account for low productivity and new disease outbreaks and crop diseases that are being passed on from one crop to another?
  • Since most crops and herbs are seasonal, how can biotechnology help in preserving them without losing nutrients and medicinal properties?

These are some of the key questions waiting to be answered by African scientists and policy makers.  / /

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

Informal food markets as pathways for bringing science closer to society

Food demand and supply systems like informal markets can be powerful pathways for bringing science closer to local communities in developing countries. More than 70% of food consumed in African countries passes through informal markets. While food processing companies may have their own laboratories, there is no laboratory for food that gets to consumers through informal markets. This is an important food safety and regulation concern that farmers and ordinary consumers are waiting for educated scientists to solve.  Scientists should not wait for communities to demand such knowledge.


In Zimbabwe, for instance, informal markets like Mbare, Malaleni, Sakubva, Mucheke and Kudzanayi handle more than 50 different crops and food varieties from around the country every day. These pull together many value chain actors such as farmers, traders, processors, transporters and consumers. If each of these actors understands some level of science within agricultural commodities, it becomes easy to embed biotechnology and other brands of scientific knowledge along value chains.  There is no reason why simple laboratories cannot be set up at each informal market, enabling farmers, traders and other actors to bring samples of their commodities for testing and receive advice on how they can improve their products.

Toward science-based characterization

Just as cooling facilities and warehousing facilities are critical at agricultural markets, so is establishing  laboratories that can be part of market knowledge systems. This can simplify characterization of commodities and levels of knowledge in each market as an ecosystem.  Such insights can empower   extension officers so that they can advise farmers on appropriate use of chemicals, fertilizer and other inputs in ways that minimize pesticides residues and improve varieties for better storage, handling, tasting and shelf life via feedback from consumers.

Laboratories at agricultural markets can also support awareness raising and tasting of fruits and vegetables on chemical residues and related food safety issues.  Producers can also be empowered with appropriate knowledge on classifying commodities by grade from a scientific perspective. At the moment grading is not informed by science but based on observation and physical outlook.  Many local livestock breeds, grains, tubers, fruits and vegetables remain orphaned due to lack of science in agricultural market.

The western world has been able to embed science into its food like GMOs which are flowing into African countries. Yet African scientists have not been able to use biotechnology to understand and improve local foods for both the domestic and foreign market.  Doing so will not only unlock new sources of innovation but make African food competitive in the knowledge economy characterized by healthy conscious consumers.  In the absence of scientific knowledge, African communities continue to rely on indigenous knowledge systems and human senses like touch, smell, taste, feel and sight which are very subjective. African science cannot afford to remain abstract and not harness local practical intelligence.

Limited value addition due to lack of science

Traditional drying of vegetables and fruits has its own limits. You can only go so far with drying vegetables and fruits. Commodities that are being value added have come from the West with their embedded science, for instance, tomatoes, beans and some exotic fruits. African science cannot remain in classrooms, academics, research institutions and patents which do not solve local challenges.  It should inform production zones and speak to climate issues, especially micro-climates. When established at agricultural markets, a science laboratory can work daily with markets and become a key knowledge component for the agricultural markets.

The scale of knowledge fragmentation

The fragmentation of technological interventions which characterize most African economies has to be addressed urgently. It is clear that there are two technological worlds in African countries. One side comprise academics and researchers in their silos while the other side is made up of communities with their local indigenous knowledge.  People’s agricultural markets can offer better ways of integrating the two.  Within indigenous knowledge systems, technological inventions have traditionally evolved from oral communication, moving to experimentation and learning by doing, for example, producing and tasting food. This is still happening in many rural African communities. Once approved through social confirmation, the emerging knowledge is shared through relationships, networks, clans, tribes and the larger society.  That is how knowledge around seed systems and livestock breeds is still spreading today. As was the case in the past, some technological inventions are still being inspired by coping strategies, for instance communities coping with a drought or outbreak of livestock diseases.

In the academic world, most of the technology is still being imported. There is still over-reliance on western knowledge, with African scientists doing some bit of adaptation and improvement.  Experimentation takes place in classrooms or lecture theatres and then prototypes are produced, some leading to patents.  Technologies produced are usually not directed at benefiting communities.  Instead, if successful, the knowledge is patented and can only be used by other researchers to advance their learning towards achieving PhDs. Such knowledge does not have end-users or consumers whose feedback should ideally demonstrate which technologies are getting traction.

Where products from scientific research eventually reach communities, application is through written instructions such as labels on, for instance, how to apply a certain type of fertilizer or chemicals or how to assemble a certain piece of equipment. No explanation is provided on why the chemical, fertilizer or new piece of machinery will provide a superior remedy to what already exists in the community.  Farmers are left with unanswered questions on the difference between manure from their cattle and inorganic fertilizer being promoted.  They also continue to wonder why science is not helping them improve cattle manure to a level where it matches imported inorganic fertilizers.

Situation of African food systems 

With regard to food science, nutrition and issues like tissue culture, African farmers continue to depend on what they know. Science is completely absent in good agricultural practices and farming as a business training to which many farmers are subjected by extension departments and development organizations. These interventions focus on production, harvesting, storage and record keeping but do not go an extra scientific mile to focus on soil science, food science, tissue culture and artificial insemination. The promotion of cassava, small grains and indigenous livestock does not consider science-based merits of these commodities but consider external issues like resilience to climate variability. Instead of considering climate issues like prevalence of dry areas and low rainfall, it is important for science to be used in articulating scientific benefits of cassava, sweet potatoes, indigenous livestock and other commodities.

An important starting point for science like biotechnology should be commodities and practices that already exist in communities. Where farmers have mastered farming as a business, the quality of their commodities remains sub-standard due to lack of science. Their commodities are uncompetitive on the export market due to aflatoxins, chemical residues and many other impurities that cannot be identified by a naked eye.  A majority of farming communities do not have simple modern scientific technologies for pre-testing the quality of commodities before going to the market. The domestic market is too small for the production capacity of most African farmers. If African countries are to be serious participants on the export market, mastering food science beyond just describing carbohydrates, proteins, fats and vitamins is fundamental. If African scientists remain in their silos, people will continue associating technology with ICTs yet s lot of technologies with potential to improve lives should come from science.  / /

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A dozen shades of middlemenship in African agribusiness

Although it has existed for more than 100 years, middlemenship or intermediation continues to be misunderstood in agro-based African countries. Contrary to what most farmers and policy makers think, it’s not about people acting as middlemen but middlemenship as a practice whose features range from excellent to bad. Depending on type of commodity, market integration and many other factors, there are more than a dozen shades of middlemenship in African agriculture.


Making sense of middlemenship/intermediation

As a practice, intermediation or middlemenship is a meeting point for demand and supply where expectations of consumers and producers are consolidated. Each side brings a lot of lot onto the table. The supply side is concerned about commodity volumes and prices while the demand side brings consumer tastes and preferences into the conversation. In this situation, middlemenship or intermediation is like presiding over a heated soccer match.  What makes this a tough call is that consumers blame the trader if prices rise while farmers blame the trader if prices go down.  Yet when the two groups meet on their own without an intermediary, progress is often stalled.

Importance of understanding different shades of middlemenship

Every agricultural value chain actor has an element of middlemenship, depending on situations.  For instance, owning a ripening facility enables a big company to reap more rewards from banana farmers than producers. Unless push and pull factors surrounding middlemenship are clearly understood, it is easy for farmers to blame everyone except themselves.  In most cases, smallholder farmers do not have enough volumes or capacity to bring commodities to the market.  This prompts traders to leave their market stalls in urban markets and go to farming areas where they aggregate commodities before bringing to the market.  At what point is this kind of middlemenship bad for farmers and consumers? Is it better for the trader to leave commodities rotting in farming areas because farmers are not able to bring to the market?

Now that almost every farmers has access to information which enables access to diverse buyers, why are farmers and farmer organizations not stamping out middlemenship if they see it as a bad practice? Trading of agricultural commodities is characterized by a couple of risky elements. For instance, most traders speculatively buy commodities early in the morning just as the market opens. Given that the market will not have settled, this is risky because prices can fall a few hours later when the market settles down such that some traders end up selling commodities at much lower prices than anticipated.  By that time, the farmer will have gone.

Who determines supply which is a major determinant of price?

Is it the trader or the farmer?  Since supply is firmly in the hands of farmers, it is difficult for traders to control supply. When commodities flood the market and drive prices down, farmers blame the trader as if the trader is the supplier. On the other hand, when there is a deficit, traders scramble for produce and prices rise in favor of the farmer.  To a greater extent, farmers compete with each other.  The market is just an intermediary.  Poor prices are due to mismatches between supply and demand.  Unfortunately, most farmers do not have marketing skills and thus allow auctioneer types of middlemen to sell for them while they only collect money.

African informal markets are an open system that is not closed to end users such as vendors, companies, restaurants, hotels and housewives. Farmers have choices between selling to a vendor who buys one basket of tomatoes, to a hotel which wants 200 kilogrammes or a trader who buys 50 crates at once. Many traders who are labelled middlemen buy in bulk in anticipation for selling to more customers from other parts of the country.  Obviously, serious farmers who want to be viable would prefer those buying in bulk unlike selling to single customers.

If the demand for commodities comes from other cities located 100 to 500 km away, few farmers have the capacity and patience to wait for buyers from different areas to come and buy in a disorganized fashion.  Effective demand from these areas has to be consolidated and that is the role of middlemen, in addition to distributing commodities where they are needed.  Traders are the ones who pull demand from far-flung areas. Formal institutions like supermarkets are not prepared to do that, preferring customers who walk into their shops.  That is why fruit and vegetable sections tend to be very small in supermarkets.

Agribusiness as unstructured profit pools

The way middlemen are blamed is as if they are standing in the way of farmers who should access predictable profit pools. Yet there is nothing like that. As business models are becoming highly perishable, farmers have to learn to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Such decisions are increasingly being shaped by factors outside the control of any single value chain actor. There is no guarantee that good choices of commodities to grow can lead to favorable outcomes.  Unless farmers change their mindsets, they will not fully take advantage of their resources.  Individual households do not buy in bulk compared to traders.

Bulky commodities like potatoes and cabbages can only get into the market in a more organized way through middlemen who have taken time to understand demand patterns. Same with peas that are than sorted into different categories and sizes by traders in the market. A farmer cannot do everything including mixing different commodities and accompanying his/her commodities to distant markets.  That is why uncovering hidden roles and responsibilities of value chain actors is very important.  Producers and consumers need each other although they might pretend otherwise.  This loudly speaks to economic justice, governance, empathy, ethics and other soft issues that determine success or failure in agribusiness.  / /

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