Information, knowledge and agricultural practices
Charles Dhewa Review Correspondent
In many African countries the words “information” and “knowledge are used loosely and interchangeably. But if we are to borrow and adapt knowledge intelligently, it is important to make a clean and clear distinction between the two concepts. Knowledge only exists in the human mind. Everything else like information in newspapers, books, radio, videos and databases is information.
This means most investments into formal education, media and mobile technology generate information which only becomes knowledge when people integrate it with what they already know.
When farmers attend agricultural shows and field days or read newsletters, they are just acquiring fragments of information which remain useless unless they make sense of it in their minds. Knowledge is applied information and is composed of awareness, understanding, meaning, insight, creativity, ideas, intuition, judgment, and anticipating the outcome of your actions.
Why is this important?
African countries such as Zimbabwe are in the throes of a new industrial revolution which has to be anchored on diverse sources of knowledge. The presence of mighty corporations, numerous NGOs, formally educated populations and sophisticated institutional frameworks is failing to address poverty, inequality and unemployment in all African countries.
While there is some level of awareness on the causes and effects of inequalities in income and technology, inequalities in knowledge are not well understood. Assessing knowledge dynamics in a particular community on the basis of existing formal institutions like schools, colleges and universities completely misses the point because knowledge sources in African communities are not limited to formal education.
Development partners and policy makers are yet to understand the cognitive diversity and knowledge patterns in many African communities. As a result, there are assumptions that pushing information to everyone will result in knowledge.
This approach ends up blaming ordinary people for failing to capitalise on information that is pushed to them yet such information cannot be translated into useful knowledge.
When people face the challenge of getting out of poverty or fixing their local economies, they rely on their wealth of knowledge to create viable solutions. They don’t wait for formal science to provide answers. While it may be easy for African countries to engage with universities, research institutions and development agencies, harnessing knowledge that resides in masses of rural innovators remains an enormous challenge.
Since contextual knowledge is now more appropriate, a critical starting point is mapping local knowledge sources and discarding what is not useful. Innovation has to come from within. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) can only be effective when supported by Local Direct Investment (LDI) in building a strong cognitive base.
Welcome to the
The revival of industries in African countries like Zimbabwe will not happen without our own equivalent of enlightenment phase which drove England’s industrial revolution in the 18th century.
The enlightenment phase is very important in addressing the relationship between knowledge and economic development. Doing away with antiquated machinery and resizing local agricultural industries in line with new farmers’ capacity to produce appropriate volumes of commodities is an important part of the new enlightenment. Borrowing knowledge and equipment from elsewhere should be based on this enlightenment.
During the 18th century industrial revolution, innovators realised that some of the impediments to progress included: fragmentation of knowledge, high costs of accessing knowledge, limitations for adopting knowledge and conflicting theories, among other challenges.
Developing countries like Zimbabwe seem to be facing the same problem where our cognitive context is still not coordinated enough to ensure organised accumulation of knowledge and accuracy of empirical knowledge.
The fragmentation of knowledge sources in all African countries is certainly getting in the way of innovation. While some information and knowledge is held by government departments, some is with NGOs and, on the other hand, local communities such as farmers and traders are also generating their own knowledge.
A strong cognitive base in each African country will enable ordinary people and innovators to combine their own knowledge with what is coming from outside.
To the extent that fabricators and traders in African informal markets are adapting technology from the East and West to produce local products, they are examples of innovators that are taking advantage of their cognitive environment. These fabricators are observing, understanding and manipulating available resources.
In this case, the informal sector has become an authentic cognitive bridge and enabler of innovation.
In doing their work, these fabricators identify pieces of missing knowledge and ask questions that need answers.
They also assimilate theoretical discoveries and generate new knowledge. People’s capacity to generate new and more effective ways of producing, trading, and managing their resources and their institutions is a key part of innovation. However, the capacity of local communities to filter, combine, adapt and re-create knowledge will depend on a supportive cognitive environment like a market.
The main challenge for African countries is no longer about understanding the physical world (chemistry, biology, physics, etc) but understanding systemic problems like the ecology and the economy. Unless this knowledge gap is closed, creating new institutions and business models will remain a problem.
A related change is understanding the overwhelming diversity of information sources as well as the complexity of useful information. There are still enormous barriers to finding and selecting useful knowledge. That is why knowledge catalysts are now very important in mobilising knowledge.
Every African country now requires knowledge catalysts whose knowledge mobilisation roles will shape cognitive habits in local innovation spaces such as industrial parks and informal markets. Unlike developed countries, African countries have no choice but to combine knowledge from the South with knowledge from the North, scientific knowledge with indigenous knowledge, local with global knowledge.
All these knowledge forms can no longer be useful as abstract entities. The role of knowledge catalysts, in such a situation include fostering effective dialogue between different knowledge sources while maintaining the diversity of perspectives.
Using data to take guessing out of agriculture practices
An example of catalysing knowledge is integrating data from diverse sources so that farmers and agriculture value chain actors are able to optimise insights from new and old data. Data can enable deep visibility into the agriculture sector, contributing to meaningful financial debate among agriculture value chain actors. The following narrative does not only show how data becomes information and knowledge but also reveals the importance of knowledge catalysts.
Market analysis: Mbare
Farmers Market – January
to June 2015
The first half of 2015 saw a total of 59 different agricultural commodities being supplied. The categories and percentages of total value are reflected in the pie chart above.
The gross trade value of close to $10 million is not a trivial figure in any economy.
While there is extravagant attention on production, little attention is paid to the people’s market yet, as long as raising income is the main goal of most development interventions, the market is a fundamental component.
While data contributes to collective intelligence, many people remain passive consumers of information. It takes time and effort to make sense of filtered information. With capacity building, African agriculture value chain actors like farmers and traders can become knowledge catalysts able to filter, curate, think and take productive action.