How do we liberate agriculture and development from academic preferences?

Charles Dhewa is a knowledge management specialist working at the intersection of formal and informal agricultural markets. The organisation he founded, Knowledge Transfer Africa, has set up a fluid knowledge and information platform called eMKambo, which tracks trends and ensures agricultural value chains are driven by knowledge, technology and innovation.

Between key informants and literature reviews, which are the most reliable sources of knowledge in countries located in the Global South? There is an unfortunate tendency to under-value information, knowledge and expertise from people at the frontline of many of the issues we debate. For example, farmers who themselves are coping with climate change, traders who have seen the informal market survive several droughts, or food processors who have endured hardships associated with collapsing agricultural industries.

Farmers’ marketplace
Photo: author provided.

Although a study that gathers qualitative evidence and experiences from these people is more reliable than any literature review, such evidence is often considered anecdotal and therefore ranked lower than literature reviews. The pattern we see is that many academics and other knowledge workers prefer using stale knowledge in books and journals written before the dawn of software, to the detriment of development outcomes.

Pitfalls of relying on stale knowledge

Some of the people obsessed with literature reviews are fully aware that much of the knowledge about countries in the Global South is not documented in books or journals that can be cited. Local knowledge remains in communities and ‘key informants’, partly because of the strictures of academic publishing which mean that in disciplines ranging from agriculture to economics, and history to engineering, southern researchers and academics are still citing traditional thinkers from the North (many who have been dead long ago). The production of our own literature based on our own history and socio-economic-environmental and political context is severely limited.

Experiences and lessons that have quietly informed social and economic growth patterns in African countries have only occasionally translated into Literature that can be reviewed and used as guidance for development strategies and policy frameworks. For instance, had drought experiences in 1992 which affected 12 African countries and other years been carefully documented into development literature, it could currently be cited to inform how communities and countries recover from climate-related setbacks, instead of resorting to literature on greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized countries. On the economic front, years of high inflation in countries like Zimbabwe in 2008, which resulted in the abandonment of the local currency, should have been a source of literature on how an economy can bounce back from more than 1000 percent inflation to a single digit.

Moreover, to what extent have development agencies been hijacked by academics? It seems one of the contributing factors to the challenges mentioned is that government departments and development organizations are being run by intellectuals who cannot connect with grassroots issues. Development interventions should be in the hands of people who stay in communities and clearly understand local challenges and opportunities. Unfortunately, many development agencies have, over the years, built themselves up as rigid structures that exert themselves on all the processes they manage and initiate. This makes the whole intervention technocratic, because the top officials at the head office are mostly experts hired through the academic qualifications route as opposed to practical qualifications. By default, these organizations convert community interventions into academic institutions and faculties. That partly explains the emphasis on theories of change as if development theories are boxed and monolithic, whilst theory-building and development are more akin to fluid processes benefitting from dynamic sources. 

Tapping into fast-changing trends

“By default, [development] organizations convert community interventions into academic institutions and faculties. That partly explains the emphasis on theories of change as if development theories are boxed and monolithic, whilst theory-building and development are more akin to fluid processes benefitting from dynamic sources.”

Tracking and analyzing changing consumer trends is more powerful than any literature. It can show informative contradictions between young urban youths joining the fast food chain bandwagon and on the other hand previously orphaned crops and indigenous livestock inserting themselves in the market. For instance, wild fruits are becoming commercialized, yet there is certainly no literature on how Nyiiand Tsvubvu  have been performing in urban markets for decades because their market penetration is a less-than-five-year trend, induced by climate change. All these emerging trends should inform development pathways more than resorting to literature reviews. 

Research findings that cite books written more than 10 years ago are less relevant in an environment characterized by mobile money and the rapid movement of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises)into the mainstream economy. Literature review cannot explain emerging issues in agriculture and health. For instance, many countries in Southern Africa are now experiencing crop and livestock diseases like Tuta AbsolutaFall Army Worm and January diseases as well as several human ailments which did not exist a few years ago. You cannot find useful literature on these diseases going back 10 years to 50 years. When literature review is prioritized ahead of real-time knowledge, countries in the Global South end up recycling old ideas at the expense of new ideas that speak to the evolving context. Countries end up doing endless policy reviews instead of developing new fluid policies.

Sifuniso Imbuwa, local farmer, Barotse floodplain, Zambia.
Photo: Clayton Smith, CC license.

Why not develop frameworks for ‘fluid literature’?

With the introduction of ICTs and globalization, many countries have an opportunity to revisit capturing and creating knowledge in multiple ways, and making it relevant to their socio-economic-environmental and political actions. It is possible to ride on the proliferation of ICT platforms like voice call, emails, chats, twitter and many others that have become critical in combining oral and written expressions of knowledge. Such platforms are an opportunity to review research methodologies, which are critical for generating literature, informing development strategies and continuously updating government policies. Given that most of it has not been documented, local knowledge exists as a fluid body of knowledge within communities and not authored by a single person or turned into a PDF. For instance, knowledge about climate change is not in the form of literature but a processthat has been happening and that real people have been experiencing in the face of their changing environments.

As opposed to depending on books written many years ago (mostly by authors who never set foot on these Global South countries), we can start to rely more on participatory approaches to project design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. By not only relying on physical assets but on inclusive knowledge and information-sharing pathways, we could, for example, deliver faster updates and early warning systems to urban and rural communities. These can become the basis for informing research methodologies and literature review based on continuously gathered fluid experiences. 

“In a changing climate, there is a need for fluid systems of gathering and processing evidence rather than doing literature reviews or waiting for crop and livestock assessments that happen once a year.”

In agriculture, field officers in most projects are not able to capture important details in project reports. A monthly report only covers first-week visits to one ward and then a visit to another ward towards the end of the month. The output is called a monthly report yet it will have missed a lot, if not most, details in most wards. Meanwhile, students from universities and agricultural colleges who engage with value chains and farming communities are often frustrated when they cannot find the information they are looking for, and end up resorting to stale literature reviews to fill the knowledge gaps.

The situation is worse when it comes to rainfall predictions, where farmers are expected to plan and make decisions based on scant details that cannot adequately enable them to anticipate and plan against risks. In a changing climate, there is a need for fluid systems of gathering and processing evidence rather than doing literature reviews or waiting for crop and livestock assessments that happen once a year. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the annual national crop and livestock survey report comes out in February/March, when much of the crop damages take place from winter to summer. Examples of winter damages related to frost, and other details, are not covered by the national crop and livestock assessment in order to paint a realistic food situation.

Addressing cases where development projects leave communities hanging

A fluid information system would address such issues through weekly and monthly updates into the crop and livestock survey, keeping policy makers, development agencies and local people accurately informed. In Zimbabwe, each province now has a university, which presents opportunities for students and relevant faculties to gather local data and contribute to the national fluid survey. Devolution of knowledge should see statistical agencies having a presence at district level so that data is quickly processed for the local audience and needs, instead of the current state of affairs, which requires sending all the information to the capital city and waiting for more than a year to receive processed results. By the time such feedback is received, the situation will have completely changed on the ground, leading to misinformed decisions.

Banana farmers transporting their crops to the market.
Photo: Gwendolyn Stansbury/ IFPRI

A fluid knowledge platform will fill gaps left by projects when they phase out so that farmers continue working with the market appropriately. Most private companies and so-called off-takers are not permanent institutions. One season they are buying commodities, the next season they are bankrupt leaving farmers without a market. On the other hand, mass markets are always there and projects that shun mass markets in preference for formal companies limit the capacity of farmers to connect with the entire market.

By connecting with the market, a fluid information system will not only organize local production but also extend knowledge about aggregation, quality, production calendars and many other aspects. Debates on some of these issues related to power imbalances are getting much louder. Such discussions are locating the problem in the fact that academics in the Global South are educated in the North as well as the role of funders in influencing research approaches and outcomes.


The original version of this post first appeared on Charles Dhewa’s blog. This version has been edited by María Faciolince.

Top featured image: Mitchell Maher/International Food Policy Institute, CC licensed

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