Agriculture Development

Fostering knowledge retention in African agriculture and rural development

Agric produce

By Charles Dhewa

Knowledge retention is still to receive the attention it deserves in sustaining African agriculture and rural development. Most efforts focus on knowledge generation and sharing which is mostly a supply-driven approach. As long as communities and farmers do not have mechanisms for retaining knowledge, it remains difficult for them to sustain their performance.

Knowledge exchange is a continuous process

Knowledge exchange is always happening in farming communities and local markets although no one may be documenting what is going on and collecting statistics.  The value of markets and production zones as centres of African memory is diminished when there are no efforts to document processes as part of building pathways for handing over knowledge to the next generation. When there is no one collecting statistics of agricultural commodity trading at the local level, it gives the wrong impression that nothing is happening at the grassroots. With mass markets handling more than 80% of Africa’s food system, trading that happens in these markets cannot continue to be taken for granted because they show the extent to which rural development is driven by people’s markets.


The value of platforms that foster knowledge retention

ICTs have expanded platforms for knowledge retention.  Where communities used to rely on their memory and notebooks, they can now use their mobile phones to capture names and other critical details. Discussions can now be kept fluid and fresh through several Whatsapp groups. To a large extent, digital technology has enhanced knowledge retention.  While a farmer cannot remember the names and phone numbers of more than 200 fellow farmers and other agricultural service providers, mobile phones have become an extension of farmer memory and knowledge.


Platforms that foster knowledge retention is very important in farming communities where knowledge has remained oral for generations. Each community should have a structure or institution responsible for continuously gathering, processing, and synthesizing information as things as part of keeping the knowledge fresh.  Waiting for information to be demanded before processing can be overwhelming especially if many people request information at the same time. This work should be done by an institution or a platform because it may be beyond the capacity of farmers and ordinary people to keep sophisticated information like exchange rates over the past two to three years as well as how such details have a bearing on their income and profitability.


As technology replaces human beings, can we use it to retain our knowledge? Traditionally our forefathers had fewer options in knowledge retention which were mainly in the form of innovations like pfimbi, mufushwa, pottery, and others.  But we have failed to modernize it and use natural resources to create storage facilities for food and knowledge. Conversely, western countries have used the education system to retain their knowledge for their own industrialization. African countries are just adopting western education without examining contexts and that is why formal education is failing to transform African economies because it is not entirely applicable.


Who is capturing new innovations and trends?

Knowledge brokers, marketing authorities, extension departments, and local think tanks should be capacitated to monitor and keep information including price trends for farming communities as part of local institutional memory. The value is information consolidation as opposed to each farmer keeping his/her own information which may not be meaningful if not made part of the big picture.  That knowledge retention is key in African agriculture and rural development is no longer debatable.  Structural adjustment programs across Africa were not written in the context of the majority and that is why African countries are repeating the same mistakes. COVID19 has increased entrepreneurship but governments are preoccupied with counting the number of cases dying, recovering and those vaccinated.  What about new innovators?


Creating institutions responsible for knowledge retention is critical because as African economies grow and with people from outside coming to invest, there is a danger of knowledge becoming privatized for the benefit of a few enterprising individuals. Formal institutions are more into descriptive reporting of information than knowledge retention. Knowledge is the finer part of the description which is often missed in most formal reports and minutes.  As if that is not enough, formal knowledge tends to be siloed. For instance, development organizations are fond of cherry picking the vulnerable, women and youth, ignoring the rest in the entire community ecosystem as if the vulnerable, women and youth exist in isolation. There is also much emphasis on quantitative yet qualitative is where knowledge is embedded. You can count bridges, clinics, roads, boreholes an irrigation schemes but these are just numbers. What are the implications of setting up such infrastructure?  Knowledge is in answering such questions.


Establishing transformation pathways for knowledge retention

At the policy level, each government department should have a knowledge management and retention system related to its mandate.  A lot of health knowledge should not remain undocumented when the ministry of health is available. The same with knowledge in the ministry of sport where questions should be raised and answered on why indigenous sports and games have been allowed to be overtaken by imported sports as if Africans did not have their own sports before colonialism. African countries should also stop throwing away knowledge through unfocused retrenchments.  In African culture, old people are more valuable as advisors but in African governments are copying the Western notion which dictates that once someone reaches 70 years s/he must go irrespective of his/her knowledge.  Ideally, elders should be given strategic roles in socio-economic development because they bring valuable experience.  Life is too short for people to learn everything from their own experiences.


Most African countries are failing to write their own history. For instance, the History of Chimurenga in Zimbabwe is in bits and pieces that are not neatly consolidated.  Most academics do not even have family trees and that is a serious loss of knowledge and memory. Each community needs centres of African memory where family trees and other knowledge resources are preserved. Christianity has gathered momentum in Africa because Africans have agreed to believe whatever is preached by Christianity is a source of wisdom. Had Africans retained their traditional knowledge and codified it into books or other artifacts, they would have built a firm foundation for knowledge and wisdom retention.  The absence of such a solid structure explains why African tradition has become overtaken by imported formal education systems. It is now as if anyone who is not formally educated is illiterate and not knowledgeable about anything. Africans are confusing literacy with knowledge.


About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende