By Charles Dhewa
All over the world, information sources are no longer just important for journalists. African policy makers who really want to transform their agro-based economies cannot afford to remain silent about their sources of information. There is emerging consensus to the effect that information from academic institutions, private companies and development agencies is not enough for transforming agro-based African economies. The need for alternative sources of information has never been greater.
How reliable is information from formal institutions?
In as much as it may be easy to get information from formal institutions there is no longer guarantee that such information sources provide their best ideas and strategies for transforming African agriculture. To the extent, the private sector is often reluctant to get some of its strategic information into the public domain, policy makers have to devise creative ways of accessing useful information from private actors.
On the other hand, the majority of African economies are not yet formally institutionalized but dominated by SMEs, informal markets and smallholder farming communities. It follows that if formal informants constitute about 25% of agricultural transformation information sources, 75% of the most useful information is within smallholder farmers, SMEs and other actors who are not part of formal institutions. While it may be easy to get information from commercial farmers as opposed to smallholder farmers who are not formally institutionalized, how can African policy makers tap into informal sources of information and enrich their policies with undocumented initiatives and experiences from different ecosystems?
For instance, it is important to know how financial inclusion is understood by informal markets and smallholder farmers. While banks may think financial inclusion is about opening branches in farming areas, farmers may understand financial inclusion as wealth creation through interest on savings in a bank. A useful starting point is understanding existing relationships between financial institutions and farmers if financial institutions are to make a financial difference to ordinary lives.
The role of rapid assessments
Rapid assessments are some of the under-rated methods and pathways for collecting information from economies that are not formally institutionalized. That is how we can get information on mechanisms through which SMEs, smallholder farmers and marginalized communities are surviving and coping with climate change as well as absence of reliable financial systems. A rapid assessment opens avenues for accessing fluid information that can be used to develop local communities and continuously review strategies in a fluid manner than can be achieved through static documents.
Every new intervention is getting into communities where things are already happening. Rapid assessments pave pathways for continuous sharing of information and knowledge. Farmers who contribute information at the start of the intervention want to continue contributing to what makes sense in solving their challenges. A product can only impact the market if it is informed by potential customers. A cue can be taken from African informal mass food markets where packaging and measurement is informed by clients who indicate their preference for different types of measurements such as baskets, boxes, bundles, 20l tins and many different measurements and packaging material depending on commodity.
Much of the content from rapid assessments should constitute experiences of farmers and other value chain actors in different ecosystems. In some cases, government needs technical assistance in conducting rapid assessments because some of the information collected is private property that has to be converted into business models. Weaving business models is often a domain for private organizations and social entrepreneurs. For instance, early warnings from the market can only be generated by private actors like SMEs and processors.
Based on a competitive mind-set, some private companies may share knowledge selectively. However, public sources of information like mass markets can provide valuable information because they have a much broader exposure to many actors and their impacts. While the public sector has more data than the private sector, such data is often in unusable and inconsistent formats.
It is through rapid assessments that policy makers can see that smallholder farmers cannot produce solely for value chains and manufacturing but other important linkages have to be understood. Other enabling factors for smallholder farmers to thrive, not just value chain approaches being pushed by NGOs and the private sector become visible. Policy makers will also begin to realize that it is not just about yields but the entire ecosystem. While development agencies may want to move smallholder farmers from agriculture to manufacturing, local markets demonstrate their relevance for social cohesion and local food security. Unless policy makers broaden and deepen their sources of information this evidence will remain invisible and unused.