The fact that African agriculture is beset by narrow margins and slow growth elevates the need to invest in data and evidence. People who get into agriculture expecting quick returns are often disappointed because African agriculture is no longer a one-step dance. Obsession with quick returns is one reason why opportunists tend to congest one or two commodities. Taping into existing and new data will enable investors to unlock value across a range of agricultural commodities and agribusiness models. Data and evidence about diverse commodities is becoming more important because lines between agricultural commodities, services and agribusiness ecosystems are blurring. Consumers, farmers and traders are no longer just interested in commodity prices or information services. Instead, they are buying the idea and experience of agricultural ecosystems. This opens opportunities for smart value chain actors who can provide integrated experiences to diverse consumers, most of whom are becoming more conscious about their health.
Evolving characteristics of informed agricultural entrepreneurs
Given an increase in the amount of information and sources, many farmers and traders now need few rules of thumb rather than a lot of information that ends up confusing them. Contrary to the widespread notion that the customer is always right, informal markets are revealing the great extent to which many customers learn from traders, farmers and other actors who frequent informal markets. Since not every value chain actor can possibly know everything, they thrive on trusting other people’s knowledge. Some of the key characteristics of smart agricultural entrepreneurs include:
- Very dynamic and responsive to environmental changes.
- Driven by owners’ characteristics and personality traits.
- High commitment to succeed because the enterprise is a major source of livelihood.
- Customer base built on networks, trust and relationships.
- Customized products and services.
- Exposed to ‘free’skills and knowledge transfer for business and products/services improvement.
Beyond facts and figures From eMKambo’s experience, many farmers no longer need too many facts and figures but solutions to their pain points. They need information on a just-in-time basis not just-in-case it becomes useful in the future. Unfortunately, most external capacity building interventions are based on just-in-case knowledge provision approaches on the assumption that communities will use that information when the project comes to an end. Value chain actors are realizing that it is no longer enough to celebrate a few field days. Success comes from drawing on information from different parts of the agricultural sector, generating a complete on how actors engage and retain knowledge as well as customers.
Strengthening knowledge ecosystems
Knowledge management is more than information and technology but extends to building a network of committed people from different persuasions. It does not help for knowledge experts to continue sharing knowledge among themselves. Knowledge mobilization has to be stepped up through communities and that is where indigenous knowledge becomes superior at enhancing social inclusion. Efforts should go into understanding indigenous businesses in rural areas, growth points and high density areas in terms of the calibre of consumers who buy from them. This can feed into analyses that take into account volumes of commodities going into different markets. Aggregation is about responding to the market and one has to know the end user. Ultimately, creative value chain actors can begin to tease out options for extending periods in which seasonal commodities like sweet potatoes can be supplied for various uses including processing. Tasting the market differently and walking the whole length with different agricultural commodities is a fundamental process in dealing with narrow agricultural margins and slow growth.
Since knowledge generation goes beyond the mandates of many international development organizations, there is need for knowledge ecosystems that bring everyone together. African agriculture cannot afford to continue suffering from poor and fragmented data whose accuracy and accessibility remains questionable, although ICTs are becoming ubiquitous. When agricultural value chain actors lack insight into the broader context in which agricultural commodities compete, they are less likely to recognize opportunities and threats. In the absence of robust evidence, part of the agricultural sector such as the seed industry will continue to reach different conclusions about their agribusiness priorities, based on incomplete evidence. The consistence and sustainability of the entire agricultural sector remains a dream in such situations.