Workers in a bakery

Nudging universities in developing countries to harness community based inquiry

By Charles Dhewa

Contrary to prevailing formal approaches, knowledge sharing in most rural African communities is embedded in the way people work. For instance, knowledge sharing happens as farmers select seed or choose livestock breeds.  It also happens as they milk cows, plant crops, weed, harvest, store and market.  They do not stop and say, “Now let us share knowledge”.  They do not take agriculture as an event but a messy process.  That is why policy makers, development agencies and other formal institutions have to be continuously reminded to understand how rural people use knowledge assets in answering their needs.

The role of colleges and universities in rural development is yet to be clearly articulated. These important knowledge filters and gatekeepers have not yet adequately awakened to this reality. Instead of creating pathways for students to learn from local communities, universities continue to encourage students, especially those going on more than ten months internship, to look for placement in formal institutions like parastatals and corporates. Unfortunately there is not much to learn from these institutions because practical knowledge and innovations have migrated to informal ecosystems like SMEs owned by people who used to work in formal institutions.  This is the situation in many African countries.

Using informal networks and markets to inspire new knowledge interpretations
As if the above is not enough, the digitally-informed dynamic and hybrid economy is now increasing the demand for technological, social and emotional skills that cannot be found in most formal institutions.  For universities, informal networks and SMEs as knowledge markets provide opportunities for new theory development and knowledge interpretation based on real-time practical experiences. Academics and universities that tap into this resource can overcome the inertia of conventional tools, processes and learning habits that are not matching the pace at which people are innovating in response to the market.

Learning institutions like universities are being forced to rethink their businesses models and imagine how they can develop and put appropriate tools in ordinary people’s hands for better decisions.  Instead of waiting for society to demand data or information on ad hoc basis, universities should put their approaches, methods and tools into daily activities and processes of farmers, consumers, traders and other value chain actors.

The current dominant research techniques used by universities in developing countries take a narrow view of what constitutes quality evidence or knowledge.  This is ignoring and undervaluing unique local solutions to unique community problems. While scientific merit is necessary, it is not sufficient. Universities and other formal learning institutions should acknowledge the crucial role of alternative knowledge generators and users such as farmers, artisans and traders, among others whose knowledge has gained local legitimacy over time. Research should no longer be just for academic purposes.

The role of universities in building community knowledge retention strategies
A low hanging fruit for universities in developing countries is empowering local communities to retain and re-use knowledge so that they fully participate in the knowledge economy.  What is often considered the brain drain from rural to urban African cities leads to rural communities failing to function due to progressive loss of intellectual capital to cities. Universities can assist communities in building knowledge management systems which can retain and disperse expert knowledge within the entire community.  Such knowledge can also be absorbed by the young generation in ways that make it available when needed unlike would be the case if such knowledge is held by a few individual experts.

A university-driven community knowledge retention strategy can embrace the following steps:

  1. Analyzing the risk of knowledge loss in a community through the death of elders or migration of local experts to cities. Through student research projects, universities can develop methods for identifying where and how risks of community knowledge loss are greatest.  A system can be put in place for doing this on a regular basis.  For instance, such a system can track knowledge loss along specific value chains like livestock production, crop production and food processing.
  2. Identifying and engaging community knowledge experts and convincing them of the importance of knowledge retention as well as associated risks of not retaining knowledge. Once knowledge management practices are embedded and retention is routine, this step becomes more efficient.  Universities can assign intellectual facilitators to work with local community knowledge experts.
  3. Scoping and planning the retention process.  This involves identifying topics that are unique to different community knowledge experts. Working with experts, universities can map out knowledge topics known by different experts and prioritize them for retention or transfer.
  4. Setting up a knowledge retention framework and ecosystem – This can be a series of activities to make sure critical knowledge is transferred to the young generation, it is documented in guidance, stories, procedures, checklists and university training or learning material.
  5. Documenting and structuring community knowledge.  In addition to much knowledge being transferred directly to young people by elders through various means, some can be recorded in audio, video and text. Evaluation reports produced by several NGOs working in particular communities can be part of this resource. Universities can synthesize this material into usable forms or knowledge assets that can be included into university curricular, making it fluid.
  6. Embedding the documented knowledge within the community and university knowledge bases. A knowledge ecosystem that seamlessly connects communities to universities as fluid and interdependent knowledge sources and users is a very important output. For instance, bringing together university students studying pharmacy or medicine and community herbalists can inspire collaborative drug discovery towards expanding pharmaceutical ecosystems that are currently too narrow for the diverse health needs of developing countries. On the agriculture side, economists, extension officers, veterinary officers and other knowledge brokers can begin to be rewarded on the basis of how many farmers absorb and re-use knowledge shared as opposed to just counting the extension officer to farmer ratio and using that as a basis for providing incentives.

Addressing fragmentation of knowledge
Although development organizations and government departments know and interact with each other, agricultural and rural development initiatives in many Africa countries remain fragmented. By harnessing community-based inquiry, universities can re-define their core business in ways that influence development policy and benefit communities directly. Community knowledge platforms such as informal markets can be the most effective ways to accelerate learning and strengthen coordination in agriculture and rural development. Through focused and concerted efforts, actions of farmers, traders, health practitioners, consumers, teachers, extension officers, veterinary surgeons and other community actors can be byproducts of deeper connections and shared learning between universities and local communities.

If seriously motivated by acquiring new knowledge that makes a difference, universities, lecturers and their students should look for learning opportunities in local communities instead of flocking to cities where formal institutions cannot produce dynamic knowledge that inspires positive change and progress. Technology is breaking and scattering knowledge from many value chains in ways that formal organizations like universities cannot adequately master. Without effectiveness and well thought out knowledge management frameworks, universities and formal institutions will struggle to initiate and sustain meaningful engagement with the public, especially parents who are paying university fees hoping to get good returns on their investments.




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