Succeeding through mixed competencies

African policy makers, private companies like seed houses and development agencies are blaming farmers for not adopting new technologies to lift themselves out of poverty

African policy makers, private companies like seed houses and development agencies are blaming farmers for not adopting new technologies to lift themselves out of poverty

Charles Dhewa
The fact that farmers and students exposed to the same capacity building initiatives produce different results suggests training alone does not lead to success. In the majority of developing countries, farmers in the same environment and with access to similar resources achieve different outcomes.

On the other hand, agricultural economists and agronomists who did the same course can achieve different results. If it is difficult for sophisticated graduates to translate knowledge they have acquired during four years of university education, why should we expect farmers and semi-literate people to find it easy?

Limitations of trying to professionalise local indigenous knowledge

Instead of addressing structural and institutional barriers, African policy makers, private companies like seed houses and development agencies are blaming farmers for not adopting new technologies to lift themselves out of poverty.

There is no realisation that knowledge application is context-sensitive such that for many innovative farmers, it is a secret mix of competencies. That is why most of the farmers who are asked to describe what makes them succeed may not know what really contributes to their success but go on to share surface intuitions.

If it is about hard work, every farmer works hard. While farmers and rural entrepreneurs are expected to share knowledge, each actor tends to have a secret set of skills and competencies hidden from the surface.

Very few farmers and traders have the ability to apply what they know under pressure in order to improve their level of quality.

In the absence of clear market channels and processes, farmers can do everything right but face different prohibitive rules on the market. Failure to account for contextual dynamics is one of the reasons why efforts by development actors to turn local indigenous knowledge into professional communication products like videos, manuals and formal reports is reaching a dead end.

To the extent this effort does not take into account the value of the oral and fluid nature of local indigenous knowledge, it remains communication lipstick. For instance, aggregating commodities among smallholder farmers for the market is often very difficult due to different circumstances and needs among farmers. Some want to sell immediately while others may have other options like remittances from their children based in urban centres.

Agricultural economists and agronomists exposed to same courses can achieve different results

Agricultural economists and agronomists exposed to same courses can achieve different results

Benefits of a nuanced understanding of consumers

For food producers in developing countries, an important part of secret competencies is understanding consumers at a granular level. This is where data and analytics become vital. Value chain actors who are beginning to embrace a culture of data collection and analysis are building a nuanced understanding of their customers.

For instance, three classes of consumers are emerging in many African countries — those who want to go back to traditional food systems; those trying to balance traditional with modern food choices and; the last group comprising those not sure what they really want (lukewarm by-standers who consume whatever comes). Efforts to promote organic food should consider these issues.

Knowing the market includes detailed characterisation of consumers. Targeted marketing messages can only be developed from drilling down into detailed nuances of different classes of consumers based on their income levels and culture, among other indicators.

Without digging deeper into the attitudes and behaviours of consumers, it is difficult for traders to plan and build sustainable businesses. Competencies in manipulating data can reveal more meaningful layers of sights into what influences choices by low income consumers who patronise African informal markets.

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Although many consumers are becoming health-conscious, sporadic incomes and poverty often force them to consume whatever comes. On a more revolutionary note, a new breed of dynamic value chain actors is harnessing ICTs to build data- informed businesses that undermine traditional agribusiness models like contract farming.

This trend is transforming the nature of competition in African agriculture such that supermarkets and processors no longer have monopoly on consumers and market segments.

Collecting data regularly in fluid informal markets is enabling smart value chain actors to capture patterns at a very detailed level in ways that cultivate a culture of fluid knowledge development.

That is why policy makers, financial institutions and development agencies should invest in monitoring of agricultural markets for new insights and best practices. Best practices in agricultural production are meaningless without insights from the market.

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