African food traders

African food traders have better techniques than PhD graduates in Economics


By Charles Dhewa

Academics like economists rely on authors and literature based on research conducted within a given time frame. Such literature has no room for adjustments as new events and knowledge emerge.  For instance, Keynesians economics was based on theories of John Maynard Keynes whose research revolved around the laws of supply and demand, among other principles of economics. Since the research was done decades ago and in specific contexts, such knowledge lacked fluidness that would have kept it fresh. To that end, studying economics has become more about memorizing old economic principles yet in real life people should be equipped with real time knowledge to respond to events as they happen.

How informal markets are different
Unlike academic corridors in which economists thrive, African informal markets are open spaces where knowledge is shared as events unfold. These markets are always solving problems as they emerge and build more solutions continuously. For example, when a food commodity is in short supply traders do not just increase the price. Instead, they break bulk so that many consumers at least get a smaller share.  Another response is shortening the market out-reach such that commodities that would normally travel 400 km from the main market like Mbare in Harare to Bulawayo reduce their outreach without increasing prices.  Consumers also respond by going for substitutes, supplements and complementary commodities. In glut situations the market broadens the outreach to far-flung areas.  All these are different kinds of solutions not found in the economics text books. More importantly, in informal markets knowledge is collectively mobilized to generate solutions in ways that a whole faculty of commerce at any university cannot do through reading economics textbooks. Sadly, when economists rely on text books written by individual authors, more than 40 percent of the content in those books comprises the author’s personal opinions or thinking as opposed to collective wisdom of the mass market.

The power of experiential learning
Academics like economists also lack experiential learning without which they cannot be able to figure out how mass markets decide it is time to increase commodity prices. On the other hand, traders are acutely aware that they do not live in isolation like academics in their ivory towers. To that end, traders and informal markets know the users and uses of their knowledge. They treasure an ecosystem of knowledge sharers made up of consumers who pass on knowledge to traders who also pass it on to farmers and the cycle continues. This sharing of knowledge within an ecosystem purifies knowledge into a fluid package unlike textbooks where knowledge is closed and frozen such that there is no room to add fresh content.

Economists who read the same textbooks end up thinking and behaving like one person. While a class of 40 economists thinks the same, an ecosystem of traders in informal markets taps into diverse thoughts and experiences. To a large extent, projections by traders in the market are based on experience not figures. They know how different commodities and consumers behave at different periods of the year and that informs their projections for the next 3 – 6 months.  Experiences and knowledge from the market has taught traders to do moderate projections (not too long or too short) that fit within production cycles of particular crops (2 – 3 months).

Policy makers’ projections are rarely based on thorough evidence
Contrary to traders in African food markets, budgetary projections by African policy makers who rely on imported knowledge are barely informed by events in the market.  When the finance minister prepares a 12 month budget, what historical information informs that budget?  What consumption patterns and economic dynamics like expenditure patterns during the year inform the budget?  Absence of thorough evidence contributes to over-spending.

Ideally, the budget for the ministry of agriculture should speak to seasons and production cycles. For instance, the ministry cannot pretend that farmers demand the same amount of extension support consistently throughout the year. It is possible that the amount and intensity of extension support in winter is lower than in summer given that African agriculture is largely rain-fed. The budget should reflect all these different cycles or activities like planting, harvesting and marketing.

Most government policies do not have specific users and uses. It is important to ask who will use the agricultural policy. Who will be excluded or advantaged?  Who will benefit from an export policy or financial inclusion policy? Where are the pain points for different actors?  Why should we even be talking about rural finance as if rural areas have a distinct economy separate from an urban economy?  Who loses from government’s free inputs program?  Obviously, agro-dealers bear the market-distorting impact of free inputs.

Diversity as a source of knowledge
Diversity of demographics in mass markets also presents a lot of favorable dynamism in terms of knowledge. Found in mass markets are the youth, women, the old, the literate with wisdom, the illiterate with plenty of experience and wisdom as well as many others who bring commodity-specific and task-specific expertise.  Conversely, if you are in university, reading the same books, the thinking is the same and you cannot develop new knowledge.  Economists speak the same language, lawyers the same and engineers the same. While their knowledge is considered “pure”, it is redundant and closed in ivory towers.

As shown by informal markets, the power of many numbers explains why they traders have better techniques. Where many people come together for a shared initiative, they generate better solutions than a few graduates no matter the number of books they have read. Informal markets have a solid pathway from famers – traders – vendors – consumers through a strong information exchange ecosystem. They borrow from indigenous knowledge systems which had pathways through which knowledge was generated and pathways inherited.

Dependence on imported knowledge is the main reason why have African policy makers have remained detached from reality to the extent of expecting an individual minister Mthuli Ncube to come up with sound economic solutions from Cambridge University where he studied.  It is very clear that African academic policy makers are failing to contextualize and simplify imported knowledge. More importantly, academics should ask themselves: Who is going to be the consumer of our knowledge products? If knowledge generation is not informed by the consumer or the market, there will be a serious mismatch. The industry is not employing many PhD graduates due to this mismatch. As African countries strive to revive and strengthen industrialization, to what extent are universities informed about the needs of different industrial sectors, some of which have completely collapsed?

How responsive are institutions of higher learning?
If they really want to be relevant, academics should create space and time to hear what is really needed.  For instance, following land reform in Zimbabwe, how are universities generating a new type of agricultural economist who can connect with new land use patterns?  The food basket has also increased from 10 to 80 commodities and indigenous wild fruits have entered commercial markets. Some crops that did not use to come to the market are now dominant market fixtures. How are universities as knowledge institutions responding to these new ecosystems?

It is lamentable that formally educated Africans cannot understand or contribute to the indigenous economy because at the heart of formal education is a colonial extractive agenda. For instance, in the agriculture sector, the mudhumeni type of extension was introduced as a conduit to impart imported knowledge to farmers. While there were more extension officers than agronomists as specialists, the former white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe and other parts of East and Southern Africa valued  agronomists who specialized on specific crops.  To the extent almost every African farming community has diverse crops, livestock, wild fruits, exotic fruits, natural forests, a single extension officer in is not able to mediate knowledge needs and fill all the gaps.

By holding onto imported knowledge, African institutions of higher learning are not generating relevant knowledge for the Bottom of the Pyramid. In fact they are betraying millions of parents who are spending their hard earned income getting their children to absorb irrelevant imported knowledge. If you generate your own knowledge you should be able to find alternatives and solutions. Conversely, imported knowledge ends somewhere and forces you to go back and consult the original suppliers. For instance, if a combine harvester breaks down, Africans always go back where it came from because they cannot manufacture spare parts.

Who has determined that a university course should be three years?
One of the reasons why academic curricular has become too detached from local contexts is that it relies so much on stale literature which is not fresh knowledge.  African policy makers should not buy the false belief that economics is an international subject which can be used as one size fits all. Economics is certainly different from country to country and region to region. Who has determined that a university course should be three years? Africans have agreed to measure knowledge according to absorptive capacity yet learning in African economies is a process with natural graduation pathways seen through products  and emerging areas of excellence along the way.  You would see that someone is now an expert in thatching roofs, weaving baskets and taming livestock through products.  We cannot assume that a class of 200 economists should all be economists within three years.  We have used academic measures by resorting to tests and assignments.   Our African economies works through experiences of the user not tests. The learning is seen in how the user uses knowledge.

Those who spend three years in university cannot even interpret their knowledge, let alone apply it. Academics reduce knowledge to classroom learning when it should largely be more research-focused. In fact, it should be 30% classroom and 70% refining in the field and not just be about tests. Academics should spend more time in the field and reduce reading and depending on bibliography where if you write a short bibliography you do not pass because you are said to have not read many books.

Context-specific dissertations
Dissertations should not just focus on one topic as if that is the essence of the whole course.  Research should be longitudinal and experiential such that students should start documenting and turning their research into actual solutions from the first year at university so that upon graduation the student is already a specialist. Graduation pathways should be guided by the context such that someone can decide to drop off at some stage and go to work while others continue.  Those studying agricultural engineering should be working with artisans at Siyaso refining knowledge and what is working or not.

The whole notion of attachment is currently too cosmetic and meaningless. It is more like an event covering 6 – 12 months. If African institutions of higher learning cared about generating solutions, they would see that devoting 6 – 12 months of a four year course to practical engagement is a drop in the ocean of real contextual knowledge.  Other faculties should learn from the medical field which is more solutions-focused in that trainee nurses and doctors are always seen in hospital practicing what they are learning. Most medical schools and schools of nursing are also located at hospitals.

In the same vein, why should the faculty of agricultural economics or engineering be at the university campus when it should be where solutions are needed?   Also missing is a seamless transition between agricultural colleges and universities. Ideally, colleges should be extensions of universities and communities the way schools have form 1 to 6. For instance, in Zimbabwe Chibero agricultural college  should be linked to University of Zimbabwe or any other university in such a way that some university courses are actually studied at Chibero college. Students who want to drop off and focus on farming as an enterprise should do so while others continue from Chibero to university without any barriers like current silos where universities think they generate superior knowledge when they are less relevant than colleges.

African countries have unfortunately imported a superiority complex associated with imported knowledge into institutions of higher learning.  We have not adapted natural learning which is more indigenous and very important process which you can’t read from a book.  We have not built ecosystems of learning from our agricultural markets and SMEs where you get all aspects of knowledge and entrepreneurship.  As if that is not enough, Africans are using too much imaginary learning and not equipping children to learn from their context. Why should children in rural Binga and Chireya learn about the Central Business District (CBD) and how are they expected to use that knowledge? Africa still have abundant natural resources, human capital, IKS as well as strong relationships that constitute most of our solutions but policy makers still think external finance that comes with conditions is our salvation.

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