By Charles Dhewa
In spite of presence in rural areas by African governments and development agencies there are still no meaningful pathways for uplifting communities out of poverty. A recent trend has seen development agencies working through some kind of consortia in one rural district or county but still after three or four years when the consortia is disbanded due to donor money running out, these rural areas remain the same if not worse. Information remains fragmented and it’s not clear who should be consolidating information and knowledge from diverse actors like agro-dealers, NGOs, processors and many other actors in rural communities?
Need to map interventions in rural communities
The way companies, governments and development agencies deal with information and knowledge has a bearing on the quality of products and services. If these institutions wait for agricultural information to become news for it to be taken seriously, they will not be able to develop pathways for uplifting rural areas. The mainstream media is interested in news not agricultural information and socio-economic trends. Interventions in each rural community should be properly mapped into a body of knowledge. It is not just about producing a database of actors but interpreting activities, overlaps and synergies in ways that can inform investors. Every African country’s agricultural extension department should be capacitated to consolidate local knowledge into a strategic resource. It’s not about waiting for the national department of statistics but keeping agricultural information fresh and fluid.
While many development agencies and some private companies are now working in marginalized rural areas, what is often missing is a strategy or plan for them to leave such areas better. There are no rural development pathways for uplifting communities and rural areas the way private companies map a growth trajectory. Such steps should see rural communities being assisted to map a clear pathway from rural electrification to infrastructure development to irrigation development and then setting up warehousing facilities, for instance. The private sector including banks are not investing long-term in agriculture and rural development. Otherwise all farmers producing commercial crops like cocoa, cotton and tobacco will now be owning irrigation systems. It appears most private actors are interested in taking what farmers produce and use it to develop their own enterprises, leaving farmers with their poverty.
Who can be appropriate custodians of local knowledge?
Ideally, agricultural extension services and local knowledge centres should become custodians of contextual data gathering, processing and sharing as pathways for uplifting rural communities. Such a task cannot be done by consortia of development agencies which only exist for a few years. Farmer unions are also too membership-focused to embrace everyone in a community while individual NGOs only focus on their beneficiaries to the exclusion of local knowledge champions who may not be part of specific projects. For instance in a ward comprising 10 000 households, an NGO or consortia may only collect information about its beneficiaries not everyone.
With adequate support, extension services should be able to consolidate all the data including details of how much maize is milled by local grinding mills per week in a district or ward as well as the number of cattle leaving for urban abattoirs. Such information has a huge bearing on food security and the local economy. When agricultural extension officers become present at the burgeoning African informal markets, it becomes mandatory for each farmer who visits the market to leave information with extension officers. These extension officers can also easily consolidate information from diverse classes of farmers and other government departments like ministries of health, local government and ICTs.
It’s time to remove the colonial straight jacket
What is stalling development is the fact that most African governments are still stuck in colonial hierarchical reporting structures which are less about interactive knowledge sharing but more about a subordinate angle. Information going up the ladder from the grassroots to the head office is rarely value added along the way from the farmer to extension officer to district and province. Ideally, the district Agritex officer should be empowered to consolidate and respond to issues from the ground as well as synthesize information from the head office and private companies into local languages for the grassroots.
There is no reason why simple information gathering and sharing tools have not been developed for use by extension officers and farmers at local level. High literacy levels are useless if local people cannot contribute to policy making processes through gathering and sharing information on what is happening in their contexts. A visit to any African rural community reveals a lot of ideas and knowledge nuggets that are unfortunately not finding pathways for enriching government decisions.
Stock cards have for decades been limited to cattle information but not extended to other livestock like donkeys, goats, sheep and chickens yet more than 90 percent of rural households own chickens, goats and other small stock that deserve some tracking system similar to stock cards. Small stock are a source of resilience for smallholder farmers and should be part of a very strong information management system starting from the grassroots to national level.
Statutory Instrument on enhancing the flow of agriculture and livelihood information
Why do political elections have a powerful information collection system while agriculture and rural development don’t have? In all African countries including the poorest, election periods are characterized by an efficient information collection system, making it possible for election results from the remotest Kazingizi primary school to reach the command centre within a few hours. If a whole command centre can be set up for elections, most of which leave communities more divided, why can’t the same attention and resources be devoted to something as fundamental as agriculture and rural development information?
Data related to food distribution and input distribution is easily collected country wide but the same is not being done for agricultural value chains and rural development information. Each African country should consider enacting a Statutory Instrument on enhancing the flow of agriculture and livelihood information. There is no doubt that a fluid information collection system is the foundation of effective service delivery and development. Transformation should start with redefining the role of grassroots actors. Expertise and information on how to produce most agricultural commodities is now public knowledge that just needs to be harnessed nationally and globally for farmers to access it. That is why if anyone does a google search on producing cattle, groundnuts, oranges or any commodity, more than a dozen documents show up.
The supremacy of communication
African service delivery would be better if communication was not one of the most under-rated activities and roles in African countries. Policy makers may have the best strategies but without reliable pathways of sharing, such strategies are useless. In fact, strategies are not tangible products unless they are transformed by communication into tangible results. Farmers don’t care about strategies crops and livestock resulting from the application of strategies. Smart governments and organizations are beginning to ensure communication is fully resourced not just broadcasting stations or newspapers that are only interested in selling news. Interpretation is a fundamental part of communication. How can developing countries make their communication tools more relevant and purposeful? African countries are losing billions of dollars annually due to poor communication and paying lip service to information.