Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Informal markets help strengthen agric ecosystem

Informal markets help strengthen agric ecosystem

0102-1-1-MOMBE KUMUSHACharles Dhewa —
Placing the market at the centre of agricultural initiatives enables actors to contribute ideas and solutions that lead to measurable progress.

The majority of farming communities in Zimbabwe are no longer fully in charge of their agricultural intent, purpose, direction, values and outcomes.

Due to fragmentation in agricultural knowledge and advice, they are no longer sure what to produce, why and for who. They now act on the basis of what they are told as opposed to what they know and think should be done in order to broaden their livelihood options.

The loss of a farming community’s original intelligence should worry everyone. Losing knowledge is even worse than land degradation.

While enormous resources like livestock have gone into formal education, academics and researchers have not been able to make local people’s social science conscious and relevant to a modern economy. The land issue has been over-researched and analysed but we do not have thorough analyses of our food systems including how diets have been captured and embedded in structures of unequal power.

African agriculture lacks a level of analysis that can show how modernisation is undermining local food systems and what to do about it. For instance, local hotels serve western diets and foods because the middle class which frequents those hotels have been westernised.

Controlling what people eat is equivalent to controlling their minds. Anyone who controls a menu controls people’s food choices. If your preferred food is not on the menu you end up eating what is available.

By allowing our food systems to be weakened, we have become vulnerable to hunger since we now depend on crops and livestock products which are not suitable for our environment. The climate in most African countries is not suitable for producing wheat that is used to make middle class bread.

There is no reason why our notion of bread should not be broadened to include local foods that are an important part of ordinary people’s daily bread. These kind of issues can only be uncovered through agricultural markets.

The importance of asking intelligent agricultural questions
The majority of research themes and topics in our universities and research stations are not answering questions being asked by farming communities.

The themes and topics either recycle what is already known and published or completely ignore what is happening in new frontiers of knowledge such as informal agriculture markets.

As a result, much of the research does not support new ways of thinking about our agricultural system in a competitive world. For instance, the notion of agricultural value chains has not been adequately interrogated but completely embraced as if it is without its own limitations.

One of the main challenges with the agricultural value chain approach is that it takes the agricultural system as a linear process when, in fact, it is an agricultural ecosystem. The notion of a chain suggests a rigid process where farmers, traders and other actors are bound by chains in ways that do not enable flexibility.

In real life, agriculture is an ecosystem whose centre of gravity is the market. As a result of how the notion of value chain is being interpreted, the market is more known for buying and selling of agricultural commodities yet the most important commodity in the market is knowledge which supports all agricultural processes.

Farmers test and verify their assumptions in the market. New knowledge begins to flow when farmers start comparing their commodities with those from their peers from other districts.

By creating an environment that encourages idea exchange, informal agriculture markets drive transformative change.

In these markets, all actors such as farmers, transporters, traders and consumers are conscious and unconscious catalysts of agricultural transformation in ways that should be recognised.

While our middle class consumers continue to rely on supermarkets where more than 80 percent of goods are from outside the country, what is in the informal market is 95 percent local. That means, through participating in the informal market, low income earners are the biggest supporters of the local food economy more than the middle and upper classes.

Towards generative spaces
There is no doubt that informal agricultural markets create generative spaces where agricultural actors make vibrant connections, ask juicy questions, raise awareness, invite engagement, open up what is hidden and evoke latent energies in the food system.

They also tease things in healthy directions, ready to learn as they go and invite everyone else to learn.

In the production side of agriculture, there is not much exploration around new crops or livestock. On the other hand, markets are characterised by significant specialisation in diverse activities such as tuber trading, butternut trading, fruit trading, etc. This specialisation deepens knowledge and fosters the creation of community of practice in the market.

Through communities of practice forged in the market, farmers are empowered to produce crops in response to what is happening in the market.

Given the rate at which climate disruption and resource depletion are interacting and creating impacts far beyond what farmers can deal with on their own, informal markets are becoming important windows through which many actors including policy makers can see what is happening across the country.

There is therefore need for all actors to shift their focus to the informal market phenomenon that continues to unfold regardless of what we do or do not do.

The pull of visionary possibilities in the market

The informal market presents a space within which visionary possibilities can play a bigger role than could be achieved through a linear value chain approach.

Rather than continue looking at ourselves as victims of globalisation, climate change and other invisible forces, we can use agricultural markets to bring together diverse actors including academics, practitioners and other innovative leaders so that they explore metrics, discuss case studies and build an intelligent agricultural economy.

In the resulting intelligent agricultural ecosystem, informal markets can rapidly become an active hub for our food system.

While the value chain approach focuses on a few selected crops and livestock, the ecosystems approach exemplified by informal markets pulls all commodities that are part of people’s culture.

It becomes easy to curate the whole food system and explore new agricultural models for socio-economic impact. The informal market also reveals opportunities to help shape and amplify the work of dedicated farmers, aggregators and processors.

Placing the market at the centre of agricultural initiatives enables actors to contribute ideas and solutions that lead to measurable progress.

Through convening diverse people, the informal market can facilitate collaboration between actors, break down silos and foster a strong food system.

Working together in the market provides an opportunity for agricultural actors to build a supportive food system. Farmers begin to celebrate their work and recognise that their sustainability is central to their success. Face-to-face interactions in the market provide an emotional and intellectual safe space that allows farmers, traders, consumers and other actors to recognise what may be holding them back or what may help accelerate their agricultural effectiveness.

In Zimbabwe, we have started witnessing new ideas shared in the market already evolving into successful agricultural enterprises, thanks to the market’s extraordinary impact of bringing people together.

As a marketplace for ideas, informal markets also allow farmers and other actors to revisit their own approaches and reflect on new ideas that drive their ambitions forward.

Markets show how, although it is already doing much to support agricultural systems, technology will not replace the quality of connection made possible by face to face interactions where people do not just share knowledge but humanity.

Fostering agricultural resilience, reorientation and renewal
Learning from informal agricultural markets can enable us to transform our agricultural system through recognising our diverse national food basket. It will also support our efforts in building a resilient agricultural sector as well as reorient and renew it towards sustainability.

Resilience can be achieved when farmers reduce costs of production and improve the health of their soils. They will also benefit from reorienting their production practices and patterns to the needs of the market in terms of volume, variety and velocity of commodities that can be absorbed by a particular market in a given period.

Renewing the agricultural system includes correcting the current situation where agricultural support structures have traditionally been designed to support a few commodities that were of interest to those who wanted to process or export.

An export-oriented agenda is not sustainable if local consumers cannot afford what is being produced locally. We need an agricultural renewal agenda that can examine all conventional systems from seed to mechanization. Ultimately, we should be able to know for how many years the majority of farmers are going to continue using ploughs and hoes in a modern economy. The pace of mechanisation should be tangible and visible if it is going to truly transform the agriculture system.

Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) ( ) whose flagship eMKambo ( ) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: [email protected] ; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.


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