Many Zimbabweans do not seem to understand the full impact of the El Nino-induced drought currently ravaging Southern Africa.The full impact is not just about crops that are affected by lack of rainfall or number cattle that are dying.It is more about inputs that are wasted (money, time, fertiliser, chemicals, etc,). If you borrow $50 000 from a bank and invest in agriculture and drought destroys everything, the impact is your failure to pay back the loan. While the value chain may not care about crop failure because commodities can come from elsewhere, for a farmer who fails to pay back a loan and losses livestock, the impact is more devastating.
In order to allocate resources appropriately, farmers and policy makers have to rely on sound data and evidence on the full effects of drought. Decision making has to be driven by timely access to information. Farmers and policy makers have to guided evidence rather than continue responding to short-term pressures that tackle symptoms of bigger challenges. That is how the link between evidence and advice can be strengthened.
Unfortunately the loudest
voice gets the most attention
While decisions have to be informed by evidence, evidence-based policy making is not a distinct approach. It involves a shift away from opinion-based decision making towards relying on high quality, valid and reliable evidence. However, given the contested nature of evidence in Zimbabwe at the moment, most policy makers are not sure what makes evidence high quality, valid and reliable.
On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be clear guidance on how policy makers should appraise evidence and separate potentially relevant information from what is irrelevant. Juggling local contexts, lay knowledge and political demands seems a big headache for policy makers.
Unfortunately, this policy predicament has seen the loudest voices getting the most attention in the agriculture sector. Although many Zimbabweans are surviving on diverse agricultural commodities, there is so much noise about maize and cattle than other crops and livestock. While the media is saturated with the central role of maize in fighting the current drought-induced food insecurity, there is dead silence on the contribution of other agricultural commodities in mitigating drought.
There is lack of systematic evidence collection and analyses on all commodities that make up Zimbabwe’s food basket. For instance, at a recent meeting convened by four farmers unions to discuss the impact of the current drought on the livestock sector, the whole conversation was dominated by cattle.
Goats, sheep and donkeys were not even mentioned. Workshop participants heard that at least 22 000 cattle had succumbed to drought but no statistic were provided about other livestock as if they do not exist in the same context as cattle. Again, there was no deep analysis on the impact of such cattle death.
The disproportionate influence of those with a louder voice, for instance the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe, can be a barrier to the generation of evidence – informed agricultural policy-making where many other commodities should get an equal voice. Zimbabwean agriculture can only become holistic if mechanisms to contain powerful voices are found.
At the moment, millions of Zimbabweans survive on neglected crops and livestock which receive minimal support from policy makers and development agencies. Although these commodities do not have a voice they continue to feed millions. Droughts which are threatening to become more frequent require us to stop a mono-cultural mind-set but consider the diversity of our food basket. No country has ever developed through importing food.
Our policy makers need capacity to evaluate and balance evidence and not just depend on the loudest voices. Meaningful questions have to be generated in order to streamline policy making processes and ensure impactful results are generated from diverse stakeholders using all available evidence. The current drought calls for a dynamic evidence base, mobilised through systematic evidence mapping. People’s agriculture markets are becoming a crucial source of evidence for coping with drought. The following is an example of such evidence captured by eMKambo.
Given the dynamic nature of evidence, resulting partly from the adoption of ICTs, people’s understanding of food and their diets is also changing. Policy makers and development partners have to design ways of filtering and using information from diverse sources. Evidence-based policy making is no longer simply about creating a vast database of everything and then cherry-picking the best from what is available.
How farmer classification negatively affects the use of
The way we have classified farmers into communal, A1, A2 and large-scale commercial has the unintended effect of creating silos, from a knowledge sharing point of view. It would appear all these categories of farmers need entirely different forms of evidence in order to be productive yet they can actually borrow experiences and ideas from each other.
Driving from Harare to Mutare one sees a lot of grass growing alongside the road. Cultivating relationships between farmers along the Harare to Mutare road with those in Masvingo and Matabeleland provinces will easily see grass currently being under-utilised in these farms being cut and sent to Matabeleland and Masvingo to save livestock that are dying from lack of pastures. While providing commercial feed to cattle through feed-lots is a good idea, this should supplement a lot of pastures that are not being used in some provinces. A few months from now we will see most of these pastures being burnt when they could have saved livestock in other parts of the country.
In our quest to get support from outside, we have not built a culture of fully utilising what we have to solve our challenges. We need a very broad evidence base partly because of the wide range of policy objectives facing agriculture and rural development.
The nature of the issues being addressed by the agriculture sector under a changing climate requires questions to be framed in ways that bring together all disciplines – including the natural, engineering, social and economic sciences; statistics, legal advice and local knowledge systems. We need an approach that covers all possible evidence such as opinions, judgements, analyses and hard facts.
However, evidence is necessary but not a sufficient condition for decision-making processes. Ways through which policies are developed, implemented, monitored and revised are always shaped by the wider social and political contexts. That means we need evidence to understand the policy environment and how it is changing.
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.