By Charles Dhewa
By confusing information with News, most African countries have neglected vital information that is neither News nor statistics but more important. What is ignored is information that continuously informs and guides socio-economic activities in rural communities. A lot of research has been done in many African communities by several institutions like NGOs, the private sector and government departments but the information cannot be found in one place. Most of the research reports and studies do not speak to each other while some organisations focus on individual value chain studies for narrow purposes.
No one has taken time or put resources toward consolidating all these studies and researches into a holistic and fluid body of knowledge that can inform local development. When studies and information sources are fragmented, you cannot deduce trends that inform community development pathways.
What roles are ministries of information satisfying?
In most African countries, the ministry of information is about the media, news and political information at the exclusion of fluid socio-economic information. On the other hand, government officials think information is statistics yet without the contextual interpretation, statistics are just a set of meaningless numbers. Given that national statistical agencies lack a business angle, business people and investors always miss business sense in the data held by statistical agencies at national level.
The ministry of information also tends to avail information in other government departments in the form of news rather than part and parcel of daily work. For instance, the ministry of agriculture generates a lot of information daily and should not wait for such information to be converted into news and then shared with the majority. Digitalisation should assist in turning such information into a fluid resource and an inclusive knowledge ecosystem that keeps communities updated and in touch with early warnings.
Information is now a necessity and not a luxury
Ministries of information are yet to wake up to the fact that information has moved from being a luxury into a necessity. Therefore, besides inviting sabotage, leaving a commodity or service that is in high demand like information in the hands of private actors like Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) puts such commodities and services beyond the reach of the majority especially when decide to increase the cost of data bundles and airtime. For the majority to participate in economic development, a necessity like information should be a public good and government should ensure information that matters in economic development is accessible to the majority.
African governments that invest in fluid information collection and analyses will soon minimise food imports because farmers and other producers would be adequately informed to make quality decisions, contribute to solutions and provide early warnings. Being proactive means clarity on affordable and effective ways of generating information. Setting up knowledge gathering platforms within ecosystems is the fastest way of gathering information about diverse value chains. Such information and knowledge will become part and parcel of local farmers’ enterprises unlike expecting farmers in remote rural areas to subscribe to an information platform owned by a MNO based in the capital city more than 400km away. Local platforms can enable farmers to provide information and statistics to their local knowledge centres as well as begin to build their track records for financiers and other potential partners.
Farmers belonging to a community should have their socio-economic information pooled together for the purposes of guiding investment unlike leaving each farmer with his/her fragmented information or in the hands of MNOs. Fluid information gathering requires active, reliable and timely information sources. Currently much of the information coming from the ground does not have a clear destination. A system that does not link producers with diverse markets is dead. Farmers, traders and other value chain actors should interact freely.
African communities have been over-researched
Most African communities have been over-researched such that asking them the same question is unproductive and causes fatigue among local people. Those going to collect information should just be asking for new information instead of different organisations going to ask the same questions when doing their own separate baseline studies.
Had government and development organisations focused on setting up pathways for keeping local information fluid, each community would be having some consolidated demography such that if, for instance, someone goes to Binga district to collect information there would be no need to ask about levels of education or marital status since the information will have been gathered already and kept in a fluid state. The researcher would just ask people if their circumstances have changed since the last time information was collected and update the details unlike repeating questions.
Given that they already keep information about their population, village heads should be empowered to collect and update demography information regularly. They can even be given tablets in which they can easily update and keep their data in a fluid state. There is no reason why those conducting a census continue to estimate populations when the exact number of people in a community is known including where they are staying and those who have migrated. Why conduct a census every 10 days when people and communities have information that should simply be made fluid and shared in real time? Instead of spending millions repeating researches that have been done, it’s key to keep the information as a flow.
How the media can contribute positively
In addition to converting socio-economic information into fluid news, the mainstreaming media should paint a clear picture of the changing agricultural landscape in African countries. Media should be clarifying who is who in agriculture-driven economies? They should also be democratizing economic and financial news that has remained a preserve of economists and bankers for too long. Economic and financial information is still to be brought to the level of major economic actors like SMEs and farmers.
More importantly, the media should be simplifying monetary issues through programs like “Know Your Economy” through which ordinary people can be exposed to the dynamics of the economy. More than 80% of Africans do not read newspapers or listen to television when ministers of finance and reserve bank governors issue financial and monetary statements. It should be the role of media to translate and communicate some of these issues to the majority who remain excluded from formal financial issues.
The situation is worsened by the fact that African governments have not bothered to invest in economic and financial literacy for the majority. Economic plans and systems are still too complex for the majority to understand what is going on. When citizens do not understand their economy their contribution to solutions is limited. For instance, they stop caring about the national budget because they won’t see how it directly speaks to their aspirations. If you ask smallholder farmers how much they know about the national agricultural budget as announced by the minister of finance, they often don’t have a clue. Even policy makers like members of parliament are uninformed.
Using fluid information held by communities and taping into community knowledge centres or platforms, the media can nudge institutions like the National Economic Consultative Forum (NECF) to think about building their influence from the bottom, starting with convening Village Economic Consultative Forums, Ward Economic Consultative Forums, District Economic Consultative Forums, Provincial Economic Consultative Forums and finally, NECF. The NECF cannot just start and end at national level and expect to be considered a serious national institution that fosters effective decision making about the economy.