Small consistent incomes are better than random high yields

Rural households that receive regular small incomes tend to have a better standard of living than those earning a once-off payment from a single commodity like cotton, cocoa or tobacco. Levels of malnutrition and poverty are often higher among communities that depend on high yielding monocrops than those surviving on diverse agricultural and non-agricultural activities. For ordinary people, fishermen and farmers in developing countries, it is better to earn $100 per month from diverse income streams than earn $12000 once a year from one commodity. They don’t want to be millionaires.


Importance of addressing contradictions

One of the contradictions that should be addressed through the right policies is the fact that rural areas continue to produce much of the food but they suffer from malnutrition more than cities. There are more development agencies in agriculture and rural development focusing on rural smallholder farmers but agriculture development remains stubbornly very low. The thrust for modernizing African agriculture continues to marginalize smallholder farmers whose incomes have remained low for decades. In addition,colonial collateral systems conspire against smallholder farming systems.

Instead of basing policies on income diversity, most African countries promote one-size-fits-all agricultural policies which ignore the reality on the ground where orphaned agricultural commodities are more reliable for ordinary people than high yielding commercial commodities that consume a large chunk of the agricultural budget. For instance, commodities that are produced with sophisticated irrigation technologies contribute less to people’s incomes than those produced using rudimentary technologies.

Silent income revolution

While government policies are promoting high yielding and export crops, the majority of farmers and economic actors are not interested in earning foreign currency but generating and managing their own incomes using local currencies. The idea of a market for ordinary people is certainly different from how government people define a market. Whereas government tries to use price as an incentive for farmers to produce, local economic actors including farmers would rather work with local demand and diversity of commodities which ensure resilient incomes and food systems. These economic actors are shifting from focusing on productivity to incomes, especially in the face of a changing climate where high yielding crop varieties are failing to reach their maximum productivity levels.

Income-focused trends at local level are challenging production-centric policies and strategies being promoted by governments and development agencies. When policy makers begin to focus on improving incomes at the grassroots, they will shift from production-centric infrastructure systems to a market-centric infrastructures that ensure smallholder farmers and other grassroots economic actors have full access to reliable markets. This will certainly inspire a new sense of wealth creation where farmers and rural entrepreneurs do not have to sell their commodities through intermediaries all the time.  In order to understand the new thrust, government will move from only collecting crop production data to collecting income data at local level.  That can reveal gaps between production and income. Yield data is meaningless without income data.

Indigenous vegetables as income sources

As communities diversify their income sources, indigenous vegetables are finding a space in most African informal markets. However, while policy makers are directing resources at exotic hybrids, the production of indigenous vegetables has remained largely informal. These vegetables are mainly ground growers and therefore exposed to mud and dust. Highly informal production leads to contamination by many impurities including soil that may not be removed adequately in the cleaning process. Harvesting is merely picking with no basis for grading because they are not produced with commercialization in mind.

Indigenous vegetables also go to informal markets where mass consumers do not often emphasize on traceability and quality. After picking there is not much hygiene in the processing stage.  Since the market and consumption has not been formalized there is no feedback to producers. Whereas in the production of exotics like peas there is emphasis on thorough grading, indigenous vegetables whose sizes are bigger than peas should become a commercial crop so that farmers can be educated properly to, for instance, raise the crop and mulch so that there are minimum impurities from the ground.

A unique selling proposition for indigenous vegetables is that they are very easy to commercialize. They grow on their own during the rainy season with no need for irrigation, fertilizer or chemicals. They can be considered authentically organic, the direction in which the world is going.  Some don’t even need seed, for instance, Nyevhe and Mutsine whose seed like dormant in winter and germinate naturally with the first rains. During the dry season, these vegetables ensure consistent incomes for many households.  / /

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Various shades of shrinkage and identity theft in the market

Every time farmers inquire about prices of commodities in the market they are often looking for the highest price. However, unless there are serious shortages, in both formal and informal markets, it is rare for farmers or suppliers to sell the entire consignment at the top price. In almost all agricultural commodities sold either through auction systems, open markets and formal institutional markets like retailers, 50% of commodities may fetch the top price, 25% the medium price and 25% the bottom price. In all developing countries, very few farmers are aware of these invisible market dynamics.


Different shades of shrinkage

As the process in which commodities become less or smaller, shrinkage of commodities is a major reason for different price ranges irrespective of grades and quality. Shrinkage is the main reason why traders who frequent farming communities buying commodities vigorously negotiate for lower prices on-farm because they have an idea of shrinkage levels that happen from field to fork. Depending on commodity, shrinkage can constitute more than two percent of the commodity volume and value.  Some of the shrinkage is theft-related in the selling process and during overnight security, especially in the informal market. During selling, miscounting contributes to shrinkage. For instance a farmer can mistakenly pack 24 heads of cabbage in a customer’s sack instead of 20 heads or 125 cobs instead of 120 cobs. This is very common because the marketing process is very fast and prone to errors that eat into a farmer’s profitability.

Some of the shrinkage is related to product replacement to customers. For instance when a customer sees that a cabbage she has bought from the farmer has defects, the farmer has to replace with a good one. In Zimbabwe, a cabbage variety called Star 3301 has been notorious for breakages which has caused farmers to lose through replacements in the market. Unfortunately, seed breeders do not breed for some of these market-related factors but focus on breeding for high yields.  They also often don’t even breed for taste.

Theft-related shrinkage

In the retail trade, shrinkage is a euphemism for shoplifting. In African food markets, commodities mostly affected by replacement shrinkage and theft-related shrinkage include cabbage, green mealies, water melon, leafy vegetables and butternuts. The same applies to potatoes whose pockets are easily stolen either in transit or in the market during over – night storage.  As a challenge, shrinkage happens across all markets including formal and informal. In formal markets like supermarkets and food chain stores, shrinkage is often in the form of slow turn-around and slow selling which reduces quality and freshness such that some commodities become unsaleable.

In the past few years, African farmers have started complaining against an unfortunate reluctance by formal markets like supermarkets to pay for what is not sold which they consider returns to the supplier. On the other hand, informal markets do not have returns policies but thrive on relationships which ensure everything is sold and in most cases, traders are willing to take the bulk of the risk. Although shrinkage is worse in perishable commodities, it is also prevalent in dry crops like pulses where, besides theft, reassessment leads to some form of shrinkage. Where a trader buys soya bean or groundnuts from farmers for supplying to formal companies like processors, the processor may want to reassess quality and quantity, leading to renegotiation of the final price downwards to the trader’s disadvantage. Strangely, the processing company will not pass on the benefits of reduced prices to consumers.

Identity theft in the market

Identity theft is common in both formal and informal food markets. For instance, due to the nature of potatoes, more than 90% of potato farmers are not willing to participate directly in the market. In the majority of markets, the potato value chain has established channels of selling through the trader who has space in the market for stocking the commodity and has a way of dealing with theft in the market. Since farmers are often in and out of markets depending on commodity production cycles, they do not have  permanent stalls for stacking potatoes. As a result, once the farmer has sold the potato to the trader on-farm, the commodity can no longer be identified with the farmer or source. It now assumes the trader’s identity. In the eyes of the consumer, the farmer becomes invisible because s/he is not available to interface with consumers.

Packaging as identity

At least the informal market tries to preserve the identity of the farmer or source by selling commodities in the original packaging in which the commodities come from the farm into the market. Supermarkets and food chain stores do not sell commodities in the original packaging. They ensure potatoes are first of all cleaned by wholesalers. The farmer sells to a wholesaler who is told by the supermarket to re-package in attractive packaging with labelling showing the identity of the supermarket. The wholesaler is told by the supermarket to pack into 5kg, 10kg and 2kg but mostly in 2kg plastic packaging.

Ultimately the same potatoes from the farmer are sold in a new identity through a different packaging. The supermarket or food chain store does not add much value beyond cleaning or washing and re-packing for distribution in a new identity. The consumer does not see the farmer who is the original producer. This is how branding becomes more powerful than knowledge applied by the farmer to feed the nation. On the other hand, an Iophone or Lenovo laptop is identified with the original inventor even if it seats somewhere in remote villages of Nyeri and Musambakaruma. If food is identity it should be marketed accordingly. Although it is not an illegal practice, companies that stick their logos on unsuspecting farmers’ commodities and market such commodities as if they are the original producers are not different from con men.  In the knowledge economy, the fact that there are no laws against such a practice does not make it ethical and right!  / /

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To sell or not – decision making challenges in unstable economic environments

A majority of African farmers tend to make decisions based on their experiences, expectations and fears, especially in an unstable economic environment and changing climate. At the beginning of each  marketing season, a question in every farmer’s head is “Should I sell now or later?”  Since the future is unpredictable from both an economic and climate perspective, farmers are taking long to make decisions.  Most farmers are unwilling to sell in a hurry as they try to make sense of the fluid economic and environmental situation. This presence a challenge for processing companies who are end up not being guaranteed of surplus.


A catch 22 scenario

A farmer might be pushed to sell quickly in order to buy inputs before the price of inputs surges. In almost all African countries it is now known that input prices are always on an upward trend.  Where the farmer decides not to sell immediately, s/he will be expecting commodity prices to appreciate more than the past year given that the competitive environment is very thin due to climate change induced drought. Uncertainties on the next season may also compel a farmer against selling now in order to counter the rising price of food, for instance in Zimbabwe and other countries in East and Southern Africa.

Another issue is currency.  Due to currency uncertainties and rumors in countries like Zimbabwe, farmers may wonder: “If I sell now, what happens to my income if the currency changes?” This decision-making crisis is worsened by the fact that farmers do not have attractive savings or investments in which they can invest their earning from agricultural commodities. To sell commodities worth USD10 000 a farmer should have reliable and valuable uses. A smart farmer cannot keep the money in a bank where tomorrow the value of the money may be less by 25% due to inflation.

Consequently, farmers would rather store wealth in tangible commodities like grinding mills or livestock.  Most farmers are selling agricultural commodities to get something they can use immediately. If there was reliable information on who is selling what and who wants to buy what, a swapping economy would simplify some decisions and reduce pressure on cash. For instance, if somebody selling soya bean wants to buy a tractor while the tractor owner wants to invest in soya bean production, the two would easily meet and transact.

Re-imagining a new role for government extension

African agricultural extension services should be empowered to assume new roles in facilitating decision-making among farmers who are struggling to make sense of a dynamic and complex environment. Since the dawn of industrial agriculture in Africa, extension officers have been assisting farmers to produce the same agricultural commodities for decades. There is no longer any new knowledge on producing such old commodities. To stay relevant in a changing environment, agricultural extension officers should acquire new skills which include gathering fluid data using modern technology, interpreting evidence for farmers and facilitating aggregation of commodities at community level as well as guaranteeing fair trade.

Government extension officers can only protect farmers from unfair market practices if they have accurate data. Where private companies want to buy more than 100 tons of groundnuts from one community, extension officers with data on their finger-tips should easily mobilize such commodities in appropriate grades. They can also prevent cases where farmers compete to supply commodities to one buyer in ways that knock prices down. Most of the data should be collected at farmer level because every farmer knows where his/her commodity is going. Relying on production data alone for decision-making explains the poor state of our agriculture system. Production side data on its own is not enough. It needs to cover end to end along entire value chains.

The role of extension services in building rural finance models

Lack of data is a major reason why developing countries are failing to come up with robust rural finance models. If local extension officers have data from Chimanimani district of Zimbabwe or Taveta in Kenya showing that US$20 000 worth of bananas leave each of these districts daily for Harare and Nairobi, it becomes easy to build rural finance models in these districts.  Such data should be captured at source together with what remains for local consumption because a farmer knows better where s/he takes his/her commodity. This evidence will assist ministries of agriculture in negotiating resources from the fiscus and accurately predicting harvests in ways that also help farmers to make accurate decisions. Using data, the government can organize production to minimize unpredictable price fluctuations.

When extension services departments are able to collect and analyze data at local levels, they become reference points for financial institutions keen to work with specific value chains. Evidence-based farmer characterization can show farmers at different income levels ranging from $100 to $20 000 and such information can be used to craft appropriate collateral systems for different farmers. Most smallholder farmers do not have a banking history because much of their trading happens in the open market where data is often not recorded. Once a farmer’s local production records are consolidated with his/her market records that should automatically constitute collateral. Extension services can authenticate these facts.

Policy makers should not use price as a carrot

Most African governments are not using data to guide farmers what to produce. Instead, they are using price announcements as a carrot to lure farmers to produce a crop. Ideally, data should be used to convince farmers to produce diverse crops and livestock by showing gaps in food security and commercial opportunities.  Better prices can then be offered to incentivize farmers and control numbers.  In this case, data gives direction so that there are no gluts and shortages. Once farmers show interest to produce certain commodities it becomes possible for floor prices to be set.  That is how policy makers can re-allocate resources. Currently bumper harvests come with costs in the form of post – harvest losses.

In the absence of data, development agencies end up spending resources and time conducting baselines when agricultural data should be on the finger-tips of the ministry of agriculture like an exchange rate.  Unless farmers know the value unlocked by their commodities in the market, they cannot price such commodities correctly on-farm. That is why informed conclusions have to come from both the market and production side. Comparing market performance with production performance can only happen if there is fluid collection of data. Price is no longer the main decision-making determinant for farmers.  If that was the case, farmers would rush to deliver maize each time government announced a price.  / /

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How marketing systems in developing countries penalize poor farmers

Whether it is potato production in the highlands of Rwanda, cassava production in Northern Mozambique or sweet potato production in Gokwe South district of Zimbabwe, the marketing season presents the same headaches for farmers. While production is now much easier, profitably moving commodities from farms to markets remains a nightmare that cannot be solved by price information or ICT platforms alone.

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Processes through which farmers continue losing money

Several visible and invisible costs are incurred by farmers when moving butternuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes and many other commodities from the farm to the market. The following steps reveal the extent to which the movement of agricultural commodities from field to fork does not favor poor farmers:

  1. Transport to move commodities from the farm to urban markets. Most transporters are based in cities where the farmer has to go and identify appropriate transport, thus incurring costs of going to look for transport.
  2. Cost of empty bags and tying strings – like transport, these are also often found in the city.
  3. Cost of food for the farmer on the way to and back from fetching empty bags, tying strings and transport. Farmers often ignore this cost yet it actually chews into their profit.
  4. Communication costs (phoning and texting) – farmers spend a lot of money calling the market.
  5. Labor costs for loading at the farm and off-loading at the market.
  6. Vehicle entry fee into the market. Depending on size, a two toner truck can pay at least $4 while a seven toner truck pays $7.
  7. Selling space fee in the market ($6 or more).
  8. Cost of security overnight if commodities arrive for selling tomorrow or if there are left overs.
  9. Cost of sales assistant who helps the farmer to sell in the market while the farmer collects money from customers and puts it in the bag.
  10. Cost of food for the farmer and sales assistant during eight hours in the market (5am – 1pm).
  11. If commodities are leftover for selling tomorrow, transport cost for the farmer and sells assistant who have to travel to and from a relative’s residential place in the city.
  12. Cleaning fees for the space which might be too dirty for ordinary cleaning services.

Depending on distance, the above costs can be highly prohibitive for most farmers who live more than 100 km from the market. In addition to fetching transport, empty bags and strings from the market in the city, farmers are expected to pack commodities according to grades, standards and volumes acceptable to the market. Such knowledge is often missing in farming areas. The farmer should also know how to properly tie up the bag in the way the market expects for long distances or final destination.

Selective treatment of farmers and the power of relationships

The transporter has more confidence in the trader or middlemen than the farmer because he deals with traders regularly, thus the transporter often takes advantage of farmers by over-charging especially where the relationship is only once-off.  Transport hired by the farmer tends to be more expensive than if hire by the trader or middlemen. A major reason is that middlemen or traders are good negotiators who have also built good relationships with transporters, among other actors. They also know distances to most production zones while farmers do not have such knowledge and that comprises farmers’ pricing and negotiating power. Farmers are also often asked to pay cash upfront to the transporter before the commodity leaves the farm.

On the other hand, the trader pays after selling. In fact, when the traders goes to buy commodities on-farm, he summons the transporter to come once the consignment is ready.   Transporters also tend to over-price in order to justify or hide behind cost of vehicle maintenance. Most of the transport is highly localized in cities and cannot go outside as the owner wants to monitor it and also prefer local roads so that vehicle maintenance is kept to a minimum. Rural roads are very bad such that they increase wear and tear. To justify these challenges, the few transporters willing to go to rural areas tend to over-price farmers with the costs being passed over to the consumer.

While farmers may not be sure about different commodity grades and quality specifications in the market, traders often have such details on their finger-tips. Absence of knowledge about grades and standards makes it difficult for famers to negotiate the cost of transport because low grade and high grade commodities use the same amount of fuel on the road. Another challenge is that the farmer has no guarantee of getting selling space and if s/he finds the market full s/he is forced to off-load in order to sell the following day. Off-loaders at the market also tend to over-charge farmers than traders with whom they have a long-term relationship.  As if that is not enough, most first-time farmers in the market do not know customers so their commodities sell slowly unless they hire a sales assistant. Farmers coming to the market for the first time also do not know where to get health food and water so they end up buying expensive food where as traders get food from caterers on loan and pay end of day or after some days.

Conventional marketing systems favor regular participants in the market

Both formal and informal systems of marketing agricultural commodities in African countries favor traders and a few farmers who are always in the market building relationships with transporters, food caterers and every actor. Marketing costs are so random that there is often no clear basis for charging. For instance, security people in the market have their own criteria for charging fees. It is very easy for farmers to throw away a lot of money in the process. When selling is not completed, marketing can continue to the following day and this means the entire process can take more than three days. Strangely, most farmers want to complete the sale within a day. They lack patience to sell a commodity that will have taken at least three months to grow.

 Middlemen or traders do not make money on fair pricing but it is the farmer who has to adjust the price downwards. Unfortunately, the farmer cannot succeed in persuading input providers to reduce the cost of inputs. In any case, the farmer will have bought inputs before producing commodities and cannot go back to negotiate with input providers for a reimbursement. Meanwhile, African governments remain stuck with marketing institutions that have become irrelevant to the new dynamic context. If you hear the so-called Agricultural Marketing Authorities advertising their activities you would think they have solutions for most of these challenges that have been confronting farmers for decades yet those institutions are only interested in levying value chain actors including the poorest of the poor.

The majority of smallholder farmers cannot produce enough surplus that can be profitably taken to distant markets in the city. This is where aggregators become very important. In the absence of an aggregator or efficient transport system, farmers in distant areas end up selling locally at a loss or resort to barter trade. All farmers want to sell on time in order to get into production cycles of other commodities. Since traders/buyers do not often come on time, farmers end up taking lower prices in order to run with the next production cycle but they will be under-cutting themselves.  / /

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Extent to which inherited knowledge systems are constraining African Imaginations

The introduction of exotic crops, fruits and livestock into Africa was initially guided and informed by the way indigenous crops, livestock and fruits performed in different micro climates. Unfortunately, instead of cultivating co-existence between exotic and indigenous foods, the colonial knowledge system has sought to completely replace indigenous crops, fruits and livestock with exotic food systems

charles dhewa

A telling example is how African agronomists and horticultural specialists have been equipped with knowledge on promoting plantations of apples, oranges, peaches and other exotic fruits. They cannot imagine plantations of indigenous fruits like Masawu, Matohwe, Tsvubvu, Nyii and many others that respond well to a changing climate. In addition to maize and wheat, exotic leafy vegetables have also been over-researched such that there is no longer any new knowledge about these food commodities. On the other hand, thousands of indigenous crops, fruits and vegetables are yet to be researched and commercialized for the benefit of consumers.

 The folly of replacing natural ecosystems with exotic foods

As seen in most rural communities, you don’t need foreign currency to produce indigenous fruits and vegetables. By embracing exotic foods at the expense of local foods, African policy makers have destroyed local knowledge about different food systems. The entire agricultural and nutrition curricular focuses more on generating knowledge about the production, processing, marketing and consumption of exotic foods whose market base is no longer expanding. Financial systems are also biased towards exotic agricultural commodities on the pretext that they have off-takers.

Rather than exploring and developing local food systems, development agencies are also supporting the production of exotic commodities, most of which have reached their ceiling. Community irrigation schemes are being compelled to produce exotic crops and fruits using inputs whose knowledge and ingredients are also exotic such that foreign currency is required if production is to continue. Development efforts have a wide pool of indigenous crops, fruits, tubers and vegetables from which to choose instead of bringing Chia and other exotic crops for production in Africa.

Having destroyed their natural resources through unregulated industrialization, some developed countries are now curious to get new food systems from Africa. This is a huge opportunity for African countries to develop their own indigenous foods and use diaspora populations to promote consumption of African food in developed countries. Traditionally, Africans have developed tastes and preferences for foods that grew naturally without destroying local economies and ecosystems. This is what the new generation of Western consumers are craving for. African countries should not squander an opportunity to provide unique food with distinct flavor to the world just as Africa is now a haven for tourists from Asia and the West.

The role of African research institutes, universities and financial institutions

There is a limit to which African research institutes and universities can continue using exotic knowledge to produce exotic food just for the sake of earning foreign currency. An African agricultural research institution should ensure more than 90 percent of the commodities being researched on are indigenous.  Exotic knowledge and methodologies have to be creatively combined with Indigenous Knowledge Systems. African gene banks should contain more local and indigenous seed and planting materials than exotic ones.

Universities and research institutes in Africa should play a leading role in regenerating indigenous natural foods as an important way of minimizing the effects of climate change and foreign currency deficit. Currently the whole African agriculture system is anchored on foreign currency yet local knowledge on natural products can be a solution to foreign currency challenges. Once developing countries are able to apply knowledge in developing natural resources they can create markets for new commodities unlike exporting commodities to countries where those commodities originate. It is not sustainable to continue earning foreign currency from commodities that originate externally.

African financial institutions like the Africa Development Bank should ensure more than 75 percent of their agricultural funding supports indigenous crops and livestock unlike promoting exotic commodities that have reached their ceiling and are no longer resilient to climate change. You will never find a European bank or an American bank financing research and production of purely indigenous crops, fruits and livestock in Africa because these institutions have vested interests in promoting hybrids and equipment from their countries. When will African financial institutions wake up to this reality?

Harnessing the power of collective community knowledge

Meanwhile, African rural communities are already using their knowledge and food systems to cope with a changing climate. On the contrary, formal research institutes continue focusing on exotic food systems and related knowledge. Unfortunately, community knowledge tends to be individualized when it should be layered the way academic knowledge is built through layers from primary school to PhD level. This is where   knowledge brokers can play a fundamental role in layering local knowledge in diverse ways including by age, gender, location and culture.

The starting point in transforming African agro-based economies is obtaining comprehensive knowledge on local food systems and natural ecosystems. Where necessary, imported knowledge should be combined with local knowledge in producing and preserving natural foods and ecosystems. This can be achieved though the following activities:

  • Conducting research and consolidating knowledge on indigenous foods, starting from seed, production and all the way to plantations for natural trees. Thorough research should also be conducted on livestock including guinea fowls that are game animals and very resilient.
  • Introducing data gathering tools to capture supply, demand, prices, tastes, preferences, sources of indigenous fruits, tubers, vegetables and livestock flowing into the mass market across Africa.
  • Establishing a basis for frequent analysis of market data to inform production and preservation.
  • Exploring value addition options – porridge, snacks, flour and others in the market given that more than 90% of indigenous crops, tubers, fruits and vegetables are consumed raw.
  • Initiating continuous policy papers that inform policy reviews on the promotion of indigenous foods as part of local content.
  • Government funding directed at researching the extent to which exotic knowledge systems continue to substitute IKS. In all African countries, more than 80 percent of decisions are based on local indigenous knowledge while in cities less than 5% of decisions are informed by indigenous knowledge. To what extent is urbanization eroding IKS in Africa? As African countries grow their towns and growth points, to what extent are they destroying IKS?

We are not advocating for the complete reversal of the gains associated with exotic knowledge. There is no doubt that imported knowledge and technology has contributed to some measure of progress in African countries. Given that each knowledge system has its limitations, Africa is likely to benefit more through intentionally promoting co-existence between exotic and indigenous knowledge, especially in relation to food systems under threat from climate change. Eating habits, tastes and preferences are beginning to be influenced by a rapidly changing climate.  / /

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The opportunity cost of industrialization in developing countries

The African spiny horned cucumber (pictured below) is abundant in Southern Africa this farming season. Like other natural crops, it does well in seasons characterized by global warming-induced drought such as the one ravaging Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe this year. Replaced by the English cucumber, the African cucumber has been completely ignored by policy makers and researchers who have not bothered to find out its properties and potential uses. While in Africa it’s now considered a weed to be destroyed by herbicides, in the USA consumers buy it in supermarkets.


Using local resources to respond to climate change

While climate change remains a topical issue in Africa, the majority of organizations are competing in raising awareness of its existence than generating solutions based on full understanding of its root causes. As African countries are restless to industrialize their economies, they are paying a blind eye to the contribution of industrialization to climate change. What has largely been ignored is the opportunity cost of transitioning from ecosystems in which natural forests, human beings, insects and wild animals existed without external forces trying to change the natural ecosystem.

The unfortunate notion of developing an economy is about building physical infrastructure, creating employment at all costs, increasing the Gross National Product (GNP) and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), export promotion and improving standards of living. But what is the opportunity cost of pursuing  these goals? Infrastructure development focuses on constructing physical structures like roads, railways, high rise buildings, residential areas as well as clearing land for mining and plantations, among others.  How are developing countries replacing natural resources that existed before setting up these structures?

Replacing natural ecosystems with external resources

African countries are destroying their natural ecosystems which they are replacing with colonial imported assets. At the end of the day they are crying foul about climate change without trying to find solutions within existing natural ecosystems. More importantly, they are not thinking about using abundant natural food systems to develop their economies. Traditionally, Africans have developed tastes and preferences for foods that grew naturally without destroying local economies and ecosystems. Having destroyed natural forests to produce hybrids and other imported foods in pursuit of industrialization, African countries are now importing inorganic knowledge to replace organic knowledge.  When you destroy natural food systems you also destroy embedded knowledge.

In all sectors, African countries are trying to develop their economies without strategies for replacing natural ecosystems that are destroyed in the process.  Road networks are good but to what extent are they benefitting natural ecosystems?  In most cases, roads are used for exploitative purposes and destroying natural resources. For instance, most big roads going to areas where cocoa, sugar cane, tobacco, tea, cotton and other commodities dominate are mainly for exploiting those crops. Developing countries have not developed roads for business models around natural foods.

The cost of forging alternatives

Opportunity cost refers to the cost in terms of forgoing alternatives. If you clear 10 000 square metres of land for mining and related infrastructure, what strategies are there for re-establishing or re-generating the previous ecosystem?  When you build large dams how are you going to use the large body of water to replace the previous ecosystem? Unfortunately, when large dams are built the main focus shifts to irrigation of monocrops using imported knowledge. In their obsession with economic growth, African countries have not developed pathways of developing or propagating local knowledge in order to increase production and utilization of natural foods.  They have embraced food systems from countries that have done thorough research on their foods which they are bringing to Africa for production in abundance.

To that end, African countries have become a food production zone for countries that have destroyed their natural ecosystems.  For instance, less than 2% of tobacco is smoked in Zimbabwe, with the rest exported.  As the country produces tobacco it is destroying its natural ecosystems, soils and micro climates on which natural foods used to grow.  Honey which used to grow naturally has gone down and we are trying to use scientific methods of keeping bees. We no longer have sufficient bees and it’s not clear to what extent this is affecting pollination on which maize, butternuts, cucumbers, tomatoes and other crops depend.

Developed economies have destroyed their food systems toward satisfying their markets. They are now aggressively expanding their markets to developing countries through replacing or substituting local food systems.  The proliferation of fast food outlets, supermarkets and hotels whose menus constitute less than 5% of local natural foods is an example.  This shows developing countries have become a market for western imported foods through either consuming western food or producing food for western countries.  To strengthen this model, Western countries are selling seed to developing countries so that these countries satisfy western tastes and preferences. Imported seed is coming with knowledge on how to produce food but not how to reproduce seed.  Such vital knowledge remains in the West.

Developing countries competing among themselves

When developing countries produce western food, they compete in exporting to each other. For instance, when Zambia has excess maize it exports to Zimbabwe not to western countries. When you are using foreign knowledge to produce foreign food to earn foreign currency from your neighbor or brother that is not economic growth because it’s just taking from the right hand to feed the left hand. It also increases opportunity costs which negatively affects local food systems. To worsen matters, food research in developing countries continues to follow colonial academic curricular meant to support Western food systems.

As developing countries continue to lack innovation around their food systems, they are producing for Western countries to add value. The best chocolate factories are in Europe although European countries do not produce cocoa. African countries have not invested in developing business models for local natural commodities like wild fruits, African horned cucumber, sweet potatoes and many others. Much of the research has gone into crops like Irish potato which is in the same family as sweet potato.  Tastes for the imported Irish potato seed have been developed mostly in the West where knowledge on producing  diverse finished products is held.

Market capture at several levels

Developed countries have used a market capture strategy through forcing developing countries to export selected commodities to them while also cultivating local markets for foreign food.  Market capture has happened at the following levels:

  • Equipment – Developing countries are not able to manufacture durable equipment so they end up importing from the West where hybrid seed and livestock breeds also originate.
  • Inputs (chemicals, seed, fertilizer) – Most developing countries do not manufacture these inputs so they depend on the West.
  • Knowledge, skills and labor – where developing countries are supposed to use their knowledge and skills in researching and producing their natural foods, they spend their knowledge on understanding and producing foreign food through export-oriented strategies.
  • Processing – Instead of producing for processing locally, most developing countries produce and sell raw commodities like cocoa, cotton, tobacco as well as minerals which should be processed locally to finished products.

 How much imported knowledge is used to improve local natural ecosystems? 

Most African countries have not been able or willing to answer this question. When we destroy and replace our natural resources in a bid to grow our economies using external knowledge, what is the opportunity cost? It is now obvious that we are trading our natural resources and ecosystems with imported knowledge. Where we talk in terms of dollars and cents in relation to a trade balance (exports versus imports), we have a huge knowledge deficit through importing Western knowledge and exporting less. When we import knowledge, it comes through commodities like seed, livestock semen, chemicals and equipment. We spend foreign currency to import external knowledge. How much knowledge are we importing to for improving our natural resources so that we can export natural commodities?

However, all hope is not lost

There is still scope for regenerating indigenous natural foods as an important way of minimizing the effects of climate change and foreign currency deficit. Currently the whole African agriculture system is anchored on foreign currency yet local knowledge on natural products can be a solution to foreign currency challenges. Once developing countries are able to apply knowledge in developing natural resources they can create markets for new commodities unlike exporting commodities to countries where those commodities originate. It is not sustainable to continue earning foreign currency from commodities that originate externally. The starting point is obtaining knowledge on our food systems so that we know much about our natural ecosystems. Importing knowledge and applying it on natural ecosystems is going to support external ecosystems in Africa.

The following activities form the starting point in the regeneration process:

  • Raising awareness on the potential that exists within natural food systems – not only focusing on human benefits but a holistic approach that embraces wild life and nature.
  • Conducting research, not only for academics, but for consolidating knowledge on indigenous foods, starting from seed, production and all the way to plantations for natural trees like mopane for Macimbi, Matohwe, Nyii, Tsvubvu, African horned cucumber, pumpkins and many others.
  • Value addition – processing and preservation.
  • Export promotion.

Creating awareness without providing alternatives is a meaningless effort. At the moment, climate change messages are focusing on telling communities what to do without providing alternative solutions. It’s not enough to discourage communities from cutting down trees when they need to survive.  Let’s ensure they see benefits of natural resources and they can then see reasons for protecting forests. The whole ecosystem can benefit including wild animals like birds.  It’s important to provide climate-mitigation measures that show benefits of preserving natural food systems. Instead of boasting about minerals like gold and platinum, it is better for developing countries to develop and preserve indigenous knowledge on natural resources. Such knowledge can be used to deal with climate change.

All African countries have gone for years importing knowledge such that the graph for Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) needs to be raised. Research on the extent to which imported knowledge has substituted IKS is urgently needed. To what extent is urbanization eroding IKS? As we grow our towns, we are probably destroying IKS. Methods of connecting knowledge systems and promoting co-existence are badly needed. Each community has different knowledge levels with concentration differing with individuals, communities and households as well as tradition or culture.  / /

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From academic and scientific research to commercial and social viability

When academic and scientific research came into African economies, communities were already surviving on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS). In agriculture, for instance, a long tradition of seed selection, multiplication, retention and preservation exists up to today. Conservation Agriculture and other related forms of knowledge have also been part of community assets since time immemorial. The same applies with livestock where knowledge on selecting, multiplying and preserving breeds has been passed from one generation to another. Different types of indigenous chickens, goats and cattle were selected and preserved based on micro-climates, but informed by IKS


Farmers also knew who had good breeds/seed and in which communities. To date farmers and communities have continued to keep track of cycles of seed or livestock breeds brought from other communities. For instance, a sweet potato variety called Mai Chenge in Gokwe South district of Zimbabwe was named after a woman from the district who brought it from Murewa district in Mashonaland East where she had visited her relatives.

Co-existence between scientific research and indigenous knowledge

An enduring challenge for developing countries remains transitioning from academic/scientific research to commercial and social viability. Cultivating co-existence between scientific research and indigenous knowledge could have enhanced this process. Unfortunately, failure to tap into IKS has seen modern scientific research efforts resorting to aggressive replacement strategies instead of exploring ways of co-existence. While academic and scientific efforts have focused on replacing IKS, they have not been able to answer several outstanding questions from farmers, communities and ordinary people.

For instance, smallholder farmers who have been witnessing their indigenous cattle and goat breeds getting smaller in size for years are yet to get convincing answers from science. In the absence of meaningful scientific knowledge, the farmers continue to attribute the decrease in the size of their breeds to decreasing grazing. Where scientific research has been conducted, it has not generated usable knowledge on natural adaptation. The confusion has been worsened by development agencies suggesting to farmers that the best way to increase the size of local goats and cattle is to bring big breeds from other communities or commercial farms. But farmers continue to ask “What has happened to our Mhesisi and Jamluthi?”

 How and why have birds become enemies?

This is another question from many farmers who have been producing small grains and co-existing with birds for generations. How and why have birds become so voracious predators to the extent of pushing farmers from small grains to other crops in communities that have predominantly been known for producing small grains?  If, as suggested by small grains seed breeders, the solution is growing varieties that cannot be eaten by birds, how will birds survive now that forests are being cleared for extensive monoculture? Should science focus on improving crop varieties without thinking about the environment and ecosystem?

In relation to livestock pastures, scientists and development agencies have been aggressively promoting exotic grasses like banar grass, lablab and others. But communities are keen to know why there has not been deep research on natural pastures which grow naturally and are easily available in communities. When farmers are struggling with low productivity due to decreasing land sizes, how sensible is it to reserve some land for planting exotic pastures? Is it a coincidence that as natural grasses are being ignored by science, indigenous livestock breeds are getting depleted?

According to many farmers who practice mixed farming in Africa, natural pastures have their own unique tastes and medicinal properties that have not been adequately investigated in the rush to import scientific knowledge. The farmers are convinced that African scientists have become colonial informants and subjects of external solutions. During the time communities depended on their local natural food, food-related illnesses were fewer. Communities are now no longer sure of the long-term effects of science that is being injected in food/seed/livestock using laboratories and formula – rendering the food less natural. To what extent is science taking over and destroying natural ecosystems? This is another question.

Unfortunate absence of knowledge loops

Academics and researchers have not developed information and knowledge loops with other value chain actors. They have remained scientists. A PhD graduate is not able to share knowledge with value chain actors at the bottom of the pyramid like smallholder farmers. That is why most PhD graduates either lock themselves in laboratories at research stations or go back to university where they concentrate on converting more students into PhDs with whom they can converse on equal terms based on the same language. From a knowledge perspective, extension officers tend to be more valued by communities because they are more deeply rooted in local realities.

What has worsened the situation is loss of reliable pathways and processes through which communities shared knowledge in the past. Instead of sharing genuine knowledge, the promotion of maize and other hybrids is now dominated by advertisements which are more about persuasive messaging and attracting customers from competitors. Farmers have become confused to see five seed companies promoting more than five maize varieties in one ward. They have started questioning the motive by seed companies to  push more than five different varieties in one community and one shop. What is the difference between the varieties being promoted? Farmers end up making decisions based on hearsay from other farmers or the way the varieties are advertised at demonstration plots or field days which are largely stage-managed events than authentic knowledge sharing platforms. Most field days and exhibitions are now more about selling than knowledge exchange. The actual research into seed remains hidden and not simplified.

Developing countries have also not been able to commercialize research findings in order to increase production and demand in ways that develop value chains. For instance, scientific knowledge on value addition has also remained locked within extreme positions. For instance, apart from beer brewing and subsistence consumption, science has not been intentional in enabling smallholder farmers to obtain other benefits from small grains.  On the other extreme is research that is done by companies to produce small grains beverages that can last for years but the intricacies of such knowledge are not shared farming communities. Farmers continue to hear that cornflakes can be produced from small grains but such products are only produced by corporates.

Identifying and addressing the missing middle link

Who can facilitate authentic knowledge sharing platforms in marginalized communities? Currently, information and knowledge is locked in researchers who prefer keeping it to themselves. On the commercial side, competition is forcing companies to lock knowledge like recipes and keep it to themselves. The same applies with development organizations who keep ideas to themselves in order to win donor funding ahead of other competitors. All these actors are targeting the farmer and each actor is bringing a piece of information or knowledge separately.

There is need for a knowledge broker who can bridge these information and knowledge barriers in an increasingly competitive environment. On one hand we have pure academic/scientific researchers focusing on issues like artificial insemination, tissue culture and others. On the other hand is a market for diverse finished products. In between is a farmer who should make sense of the research from science and implement it on the ground.  When seed is produced by researchers, there is no pathway for such seed to enter local commercial entities like agro-dealers who can reproduce indigenous seed/breeds for running commercially viable enterprises, the way seed companies do with hybrids. This means there is a missing link in reproducing research results and distributing to other players. Since extension services and research institutes are not commercial entities, what they promote may not stand the competitive landscape.

A case for building business models starting from the farmers upwards

Most business models are being developed from the top based on what we think communities and farmers want. There is no careful assessment of community cognitive capacities and readiness for external knowledge. Interventions by several development agencies are not adequately informed by what communities really need or want. This is because many development agencies start conducting baseline surveys after receiving funding. There is no room for pre-funded research that should inform proposals. Instead, proposals are written first before the baseline when it should be the other way round.

Major institutions and sectors are still defined by their mandates politics for politicians, businesses for profit-oriented organizations, researchers for academic purposes, development organizations for pro-poor initiatives, traditional chiefs for safeguarding culture, etc. In between is a farmer who is supposed to embed all these mandates. A farmer is a politician, researcher, profit-oriented person, a pro-poor traditional leader and, so on, all in one. Rural communities need knowledge hubs where all these knowledge mandates can be harnessed and synthesized for farmers, investors and different information and knowledge seekers. That is where a knowledge broker becomes critical in clustering and synthesizing knowledge. Such efforts go beyond digital platforms. When knowledge is in pockets, opportunists increase and that renders the economy fragile.  / /

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