Charles Dhewa Correspondent
When academic and scientific research came into African economies, communities were already surviving on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS).
In agriculture, for instance, a long tradition of seed selection, multiplication, retention and preservation exists up to today.
Conservation Agriculture and other related forms of knowledge have also been part of community assets since time immemorial. The same applies with livestock, where knowledge on selecting, multiplying and preserving breeds has been passed on from one generation to another.
Different types of indigenous chickens, goats and cattle were selected and preserved based on micro-climates, but informed by IKS
Farmers also knew who had good breeds/seed and in which communities. To date, farmers and communities have continued to keep track of cycles of seed or livestock breeds brought from other communities.
For instance, a sweet potato variety called Mai Chenge in Gokwe South District of Zimbabwe was named after a woman from the district who brought it from Murewa District in Mashonaland East where she had visited her relatives.
Co-existence between scientific research and indigenous knowledge
An enduring challenge for developing countries remains transitioning from academic/scientific research to commercial and social viability. Cultivating co-existence between scientific research and indigenous knowledge could have enhanced this process.
Unfortunately, failure to tap into IKS has seen modern scientific research efforts resorting to aggressive replacement strategies instead of exploring ways of co-existence.
While academic and scientific efforts have focused on replacing IKS, they have not been able to answer several outstanding questions from farmers, communities and ordinary people. For instance, smallholder farmers who have been witnessing their indigenous cattle and goat breeds getting smaller in size for years are yet to get convincing answers from science.
In the absence of meaningful scientific knowledge, the farmers continue to attribute the decrease in the size of their breeds to decreasing grazing. Where scientific research has been conducted, it has not generated usable knowledge on natural adaptation. The confusion has been worsened by development agencies suggesting to farmers that the best way to increase the size of local goats and cattle is to bring big breeds from other communities or commercial farms.
But farmers continue to ask “What has happened to our Mhesisi and Jamluthi?”
How and why have birds become enemies?
This is another question from many farmers who have been producing small grains and co-existing with birds for generations.
How and why have birds become so voracious predators to the extent of pushing farmers from small grains to other crops in communities that have predominantly been known for producing small grains?
If, as suggested by small grains seed breeders, the solution is growing varieties that cannot be eaten by birds, how will birds survive now that forests are being cleared for extensive monoculture? Should science focus on improving crop varieties without thinking about the environment and ecosystem?
In relation to livestock pastures, scientists and development agencies have been aggressively promoting exotic grasses like banar grass, lablab and others. But communities are keen to know why there has not been deep research on natural pastures which grow naturally and are easily available in communities.
When farmers are struggling with low productivity due to decreasing land sizes, how sensible is it to reserve some land for planting exotic pastures? Is it a coincidence that as natural grasses are being ignored by science, indigenous livestock breeds are getting depleted?
According to many farmers who practise mixed farming in Africa, natural pastures have their own unique tastes and medicinal properties that have not been adequately investigated in the rush to import scientific knowledge.
The farmers are convinced that African scientists have become colonial informants and subjects of external solutions. During the time communities depended on their local natural food, food-related illnesses were fewer. Communities are now no longer sure of the long-term effects of science that is being injected in food/seed/livestock using laboratories and formula — rendering the food less natural. To what extent is science taking over and destroying natural ecosystems? This is another question.
Unfortunate absence of knowledge loops
Academics and researchers have not developed information and knowledge loops with other value chain actors. They have remained scientists. A PhD graduate is not able to share knowledge with value chain actors at the bottom of the pyramid like smallholder farmers.
That is why most PhD graduates either lock themselves in laboratories at research stations or go back to university where they concentrate on converting more students into PhDs with whom they can converse on equal terms based on the same language. From a knowledge perspective, extension officers tend to be more valued by communities because they are more deeply rooted in local realities.
What has worsened the situation is loss of reliable pathways and processes through which communities shared knowledge in the past.
Instead of sharing genuine knowledge, the promotion of maize and other hybrids is now dominated by advertisements which are more about persuasive messaging and attracting customers from competitors.
Farmers have become confused to see five seed companies promoting more than five maize varieties in one ward. They have started questioning the motive by seed companies to push more than five different varieties in one community and one shop.
What is the difference between the varieties being promoted? Farmers end up making decisions based on hearsay from other farmers or the way the varieties are advertised at demonstration plots or field days which are largely stage-managed events than authentic knowledge sharing platforms.
Most field days and exhibitions are now more about selling than knowledge exchange. The actual research into seed remains hidden and not simplified. Developing countries have also not been able to commercialise research findings in order to increase production and demand in ways that develop value chains.
For instance, scientific knowledge on value addition has also remained locked within extreme positions. For instance, apart from beer brewing and subsistence consumption, science has not been intentional in enabling smallholder farmers to obtain other benefits from small grains. On the other extreme is research that is done by companies to produce small grains beverages that can last for years, but the intricacies of such knowledge are not shared by farming communities. Farmers continue to hear that cornflakes can be produced from small grains, but such products are only produced by corporates.
Identifying and addressing the missing middle link
Who can facilitate authentic knowledge sharing platforms in marginalised communities?
Currently, information and knowledge is locked in researchers who prefer keeping it to themselves. On the commercial side, competition is forcing companies to lock knowledge like recipes and keep it to themselves.
The same applies with development organisations who keep ideas to themselves in order to win donor funding ahead of other competitors. All these actors are targeting the farmer and each actor is bringing a piece of information or knowledge separately.
There is need for a knowledge broker who can bridge these information and knowledge barriers in an increasingly competitive environment.
On one hand we have pure academic/scientific researchers focusing on issues like artificial insemination, tissue culture and others. On the other hand is a market for diverse finished products. In between is a farmer who should make sense of the research from science and implement it on the ground. When seed is produced by researchers, there is no pathway for such seed to enter local commercial entities like agro-dealers who can reproduce indigenous seed/breeds for running commercially viable enterprises, the way seed companies do with hybrids.
This means there is a missing link in reproducing research results and distributing to other players. Since extension services and research institutes are not commercial entities, what they promote may not stand the competitive landscape.
A case for building business models starting from the farmers upwards
Most business models are being developed from the top, based on what we think communities and farmers want.
There is no careful assessment of community cognitive capacities and readiness for external knowledge. Interventions by several development agencies are not adequately informed by what communities really need or want. This is because many development agencies start conducting baseline surveys after receiving funding. There is no room for pre-funded research that should inform proposals. Instead, proposals are written first before the baseline when it should be the other way round.
Major institutions and sectors are still defined by their mandates — politics for politicians, businesses for profit-oriented organisations, researchers for academic purposes, development organisations for pro-poor initiatives, traditional chiefs for safeguarding culture, etc.
In between is a farmer who is supposed to embed all these mandates. A farmer is a politician, researcher, profit-oriented person, a pro-poor traditional leader and, so on, all in one.
Rural communities need knowledge hubs where all these knowledge mandates can be harnessed and synthesised for farmers, investors and different information and knowledge seekers.
That is where a knowledge broker becomes critical in clustering and synthesising knowledge. Such efforts go beyond digital platforms.
When knowledge is in pockets, opportunists increase and that renders the economy fragile.