Zimbabwean agriculture has evolved into patterns as opposed to random challenges and opportunities. For instance, it is now clear that one in three years is a drought year. That means we have to prepare for this pattern so that we are not taken by surprise. While ordinary people may not be able to accurately predict the impact of floods, climate and weather technology is now able to foretell the occurrence of floods, heat waves and rainfall with some degree of accuracy.
This year the Meteorological Services Department has shown marked improvement in that score. The capacity to interpret agricultural patterns and predict potential outcomes is becoming more important than the capacity to produce crops and livestock.
Recognising patterns enables farmers and policy makers to see the relationship between events and build the capacity to co-evolve with the environment as well as navigate challenges and opportunities.
Although the Zimbabwean agricultural system has been characterised by notable patterns emerging from repeated experiences, we have not been good at learning from those patterns.
Just as we are fond of counting the number of hectares under particular crops at the beginning of each season, a full pattern can result from also accounting for what is in agricultural markets.
Matching production, marketing and consumption should be a key component of recognising agricultural patterns. That can allow us to plan for excess commodities and shortages. If we do not carefully look at the whole pattern, we cannot deal with post-harvest losses.
It is by recognising agricultural patterns that farmers and other value chain actors can explore opportunities and progress through uncertainty and the unknown in the agricultural ecosystem.
Those patterns can then be developed into business models, agricultural concepts and bases for higher level of agricultural truth. Agricultural sustainability requires heightened awareness of the context.
Due to recycling of the same information between organisations and communities, it is currently difficult to surface consolidated agricultural truth that show agriculture an intelligent socio-economic activity. When farmers have such truth, they will not be at the mercy of markets. A creative leap in the whole agriculture sector requires value chain actors who can acutely see and read patterns as well as being able to tap into the larger institutional field that connects the whole agricultural ecosystem.
This can be accomplished through deeper connection between value chain actors including consumers. Increasing the depth of connection in agricultural value chains will lead to relationships between all actors moving from sympathy to empathy.
Through empathy, value chain actors feel for each other, leading to a compassionate agricultural ecosystem where everyone is interested in win-win outcomes.
A critical part and result of recognising agricultural patterns is asking intelligent questions. Most farming communities in Zimbabwe are losing their capacity to ask intelligent questions. One of the reasons is that information sources have become too fragmented and shallow.
Many institutions are just pushing information to farmers irrespective of demand or use. For instance, pushing price information to farmers without an idea of the commodities they are growing for the market is a waste of resources and time.
Just-in-time information tends to be more important for farmers than just-in-case information which they can forget, especially if it continues coming when they are not ready to produce commodities for the market.
Emphasis on the supply side of information is also giving farming communities the impression that they should just receive what is coming without asking questions. A possible explanation for this fatigue is that the majority of queries from farmers are not adequately answered.
Therefore, if they do not get satisfactory answers they stop asking and start resorting to their local solutions. Yet by asking better questions they can arrive at better conclusions and avoid re-invention of wheels.
An important skill eMKambo has been empowering farmers with is the ability to steer agricultural conversations by asking the right questions based on what they are trying to solve. There are many cases where farmers want to expand their view of a particular value chain such as sweet potatoes.
They will have produced the commodity for years and now want to expand their horizons rather than keeping it narrowly focused. In some cases they want to challenge basic assumptions such as the notion that groundnut is a female crop or affirm their understanding in order to feel more confident in their conclusions that their local knowledge about livestock diseases is valid.
In every farming community, there is someone with an answer to problems that are being faced by other community members but that member may keep quiet afraid of challenging conventional ways being promoted by those with power. Unless knowledge sharing is democratised, important patterns in farmers’ mindsets can remain hidden.
From eMKambo’s experience, very few farmers also ask clarifying questions preferring to ask general questions which can be answered by everyone. Yet clarifying questions can help them better understand why things are what they are.
Some may continue believing that the Grain Marketing Board is the only buyer of maize when, in fact, there are many buyers. In many conversations during field days or agricultural shows, value chain actors speak past one another.
When a seed company or an abattoir does not provide satisfactory answers, farmers may keep quiet for fear of prolonging the conversation yet the answer can be found in exhausting the issues through candid conversations.
Asking clarifying questions can help uncover the real intent behind what value chain actors are saying. These questions can help them understand each other better, leading to intelligent follow up questions and answers.
Another set of important questions missing in conversations with farmers are adjoining questions. These can explore related aspects of problems that are often ignored in most agricultural conversations.
Questions such as, “How would climate smart agriculture apply in a different context like Binga?” or “What are the related uses of conservation agriculture?” fall into this category.
These questions can open a useful discussion on behavioural differences between farmers in different districts like Makoni and Binga. Exploring such questions generates patterns that would otherwise remain undercover.
Important patterns can also be surfaced through funnelling questions. Given the amount of agricultural information most farmers have been exposed to by many organisations over the past decades, farming communities should by now be asking more funnelling questions which dive deeper. Such questions are asked to understand how an answer was derived as well as to challenge assumptions. Examples include: “How did you conclude that Masvingo and Matabeleland are good for
livestock” and “Why did you not consider the fact that most farmers practise mixed farming in Zimbabwe?”
There is also a powerful class of questions that farmers do not bother asking. These are elevating questions that raise broader issues and highlight the bigger picture.
Such questions help value chain actors to locate agriculture in the whole economy. Being too immersed in an immediate problem or single commodity makes it harder for farmers to see the overall context behind their activities.
They should be able to ask a question like, “What are the larger issues surrounding agricultural marketing?” or “Instead of talking about food and nutrition security issues separately, what are the larger trends we should be concerned about as farmers?”
These questions take agricultural actors to a higher playing field where they can better see connections between individual problems and the larger patterns. Fostering intelligent socio-economic change through agricultural patterns
Farmers and other agricultural actors should be assisted to recognise that with knowledge comes responsibility. Their ability to recognise and apply patterns and predict outcomes as well as understand the complexity around agriculture is becoming fundamental.
Agricultural knowledge without impact is empty victory. A conscious pursuit of the larger truth through knowledge and recognising patterns is beginning to define effectiveness.
Rather than rushing to make conclusions on the basis of inadequate information, farmers and other value chain actors must slow down and understand each other better in a changing climate where empathy is beginning to carry the day.
As a pattern, agriculture constitutes a significant change of mind, body and spirit with value chain actors operating in different cognitive and emotional contexts. Some farmers are aware of the changes they are undergoing and seek to accelerate their learning while others resist change.
An increase in consciousness should see the agriculture sector moving to become a set of intelligent practices with visible patterns. It does not help perpetuate poverty by keeping farmers and communities in shallow practices they have developed over generations.
Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) (www.knowledgetransafrica.com ) whose flagship eMKambo (www.emkambo.co.zw ) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org ; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 /772 137 717/ 712 737 430.