Zimbabwe’s agricultural marketing season is always characterised by high demand for market intelligence from thousands of farmers.
Such demand is not just for a few commodities like maize, cotton, tobacco and cattle but more than 50 different commodities which many farmers are now producing.
This season has witnessed a bumper harvest in many commodities that are looking for a market. It is not enough to avail information on a few commodities when there is potential demand for all commodities.
However, the supply and demand for most of the commodities is not being properly managed and regulated so that farmers do not lose income due to avoidable gluts.
Towards reliable customer experience
The whole agriculture sector should mobilise resources towards providing a good and reliable customer experience for farmers, consumers and other actors.
At the moment, the proliferation of organisations is contributing to the fragmentation of customer experience such that many farmers are not getting satisfactory answers to their queries.
They end up moving from one service provider to the other, only to get the same information or poor quality service.
In fact, many farmers recently told eMKambo that they have gone for decades without getting consistently good customer experience from agricultural service providers.
From a recent satisfactory and perception survey conducted by eMKambo in 10 informal agriculture markets, farmers are losing trust in service providers such as Government departments, private sector, farmers unions and NGOs.
In most cases, farmers end up relying on their own communities of practice such as local commodity associations with links to informal markets where trust and relationships carry the day.
The farmers mentioned that, instead of negotiating prices of a few commodities like maize, cotton and cattle at national level, farmers unions should try to meet the collective needs of their members who end up looking for information on their own from elsewhere.
Chamber of Commerce are also mudding the waters by double-dipping into what should be the role of farmers unions. Lack of clear role definition is resulting in the waste of resources.
How can we define and articulate the aspirations of farmers?
Without robust information and knowledge exchange dedicated to answering farmers’ queries and directing questions to sources of answers, the agriculture sector will remain stuck with half-baked ideas that cannot move the sector forward.
A higher level knowledge exchange that acts as a coordination mechanism is badly needed so that information does not remain fragmented. This year has been a bumper harvest for all commodities not just maize. Farmers are asking all kinds of questions on how and where they can sell diverse commodities.
The eMKambo Call Centre is always inundated with many questions from farmers and most of those questions cannot be answered by one organisation. Answers have to be collected from many actors including several buyers, processors, transporters and millions of consumers.
The needs of farmers, consumers and other actors change in line with the farming season. It is important to understand the impact of a bumper harvest on the needs and demands of farmers, consumers and other value chain actors.
They are not interested in knowing everything about maize marketing but the demand for all commodities that they have produced from a good rainfall season.
In other words, agricultural support should not just be about revamping silos and post-harvest handling but acute intelligence on who wants what, where, when and in what quantities as well as transaction modes.
Market intelligence as a business
Getting to the bottom of marketing issues require focus on specific priorities of all value chain actors. Such priorities have to be regularly reviewed as the season progresses.
While development partners and Government sometimes collaborate in supporting agriculture production, the private sector should be supported to set up market intelligence as a business that enhances agricultural production.
This is because the private sector tends to be more growth-oriented than development interventions that focus mainly on trying to lift vulnerable communities out of poverty using agriculture.
The private sector realises that the best way of lifting the poor out of poverty is reviving struggling companies so that they are able to absorb commodities from poor farmers while creating employment which improves the buying power of consumers.
If a quarter of the millions that have been poured into agricultural production had been directed at setting up agricultural warehouses and revamping processing companies, there would be significant uptake of bumper surplus which farmers are struggling to get rid of this marketing season.
Importance of resolving farmers’ queries
In the absence of a harmonised knowledge exchange platform from which business models can emerge, farmers and other value chain actors end up relying on biased advertisements which do not provide a balanced view of the agricultural status quo.
When input providers use advertisements to vie for supremacy, farmers get confused by overwhelming choices. It is important to resolve the needs of all value chain actors.
From eMKambo’s experience, when farmers call over the weekend, it means they are frustrated enough to find means of getting in touch with the market. It does not help to postpone answering farmers queries because they end up guessing their way into producing commodities that may not be in demand during particular periods of the year.
A lot of energy should be spent listening to farmers and the market. This ensure thorough understanding of challenges and requirements that if addressed can lead to a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector. Without investing in such efforts, gluts will continue alternating with shortages and we will continue producing what we will have lost a few months before.
Listening and talking to farmers will generate millions of ideas across the entire agricultural sector. Ultimately, it is possible to hear great ideas from people who work with the soil, water and livestock daily.
Becoming aware of what to anticipate enables better ways of setting up and meeting expectations from both the production and demand side.
Building on questions from farmers over the past five years, eMKambo is leveraging its Call Centre services to conduct in-depth farmer satisfaction surveys and determine how the agricultural sector can meet the priorities of farmers and other value chain actors.
Most of the information being provided by development actors to farmers is of less priority in terms of capacity to sustain activities into the future. Short-term measures lead to unviable agribusinesses for many farmers with good economic drivers.
Gathering real time agricultural data can provide rich insights on how to meet the needs of farmers and other value chain actors better. It should lead to a culture where decisions are based on reliable data and insight. At the moment, a lot of decisions are not based on evidence but rumour and gossip on how agricultural markets function.
As a knowledge centre, eMKambo is trying to understand satisfaction levels of all value chain actors using mobile phones and face to face interactions in markets and production areas. That effort is already generating key performance indicators that drive satisfaction among all actors.
So far, there has been a discovery that, contrary to conventional top-down information supply models, farmers are willing to wait longer for feedback as long as all their issues are resolved at once.
That is why they take time to assemble all their questions and then call. Sometimes they call to verify their assumptions or information they would have received from other sources.
That exercise facilitates confidence building as opposed to continuously pushing unsolicited messages to farmers.
Uncovering learning through reflection
Given an increase in the amount of information sources, many farmers now need few rules of thumb rather than a lot of information that ends up confusing them.
Contrary to the widespread notion that the customer is always right, informal markets have shown the extent to which many customers learn from traders, farmers and other actors who frequent informal markets.
Since not every value chain actor can possibly know everything, they thrive on trusting other people’s knowledge.
In some cases, providing farmers and other value chain actors with more information or knowledge is unlikely to improve their situation due to several barriers to using that knowledge.
Many farmers need information on a just-in-time basis as opposed to just-in-case basis, on the assumption that it will become useful in the future. Unfortunately, most capacity building programmes are based on just-in-case knowledge provision approaches on the assumption that communities will use that information when the project comes to an end.
Quite often, when the project phases out, that is the end of everything associated with it, including knowledge sharing practices. That is why setting up community knowledge centres becomes important so that they continue weaving various knowledge pathways into collective agribusiness action.
Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) (www.knowledgetransafrica.com) whose flagship eMKambo (www.emkambo.co.zw) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: [email protected]; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.