Helping communities to benefit from their information and knowledge
Marginalized communities and farmers always find it difficult to access relevant and reliable information. Their capacity to objectively assess that information is also inadequate. The situation is worse during the marketing season when information overload increases especially from different buyers competing to portray themselves as offering the best deal for unsuspecting farmers.
Market information is more than price
One of the major issues is that market information is a public good which any one can get by getting into the market and asking around. However, while people think market information is all about price, there is always a story behind each price and that story is more important than the figure. Although it is a public good, market information is very valuable. How do people like farmers possessing this public information benefit from it? They benefit only if such information is consolidated into a final product that helps them make better decisions and take next steps. Prices from a single community may not be valuable unless consolidated and compared with prices from other areas.
The main difference between market information and tangible products is that knowledge brokering can introduce a feedback mechanism that adds value to the generators of information like farmers. That is how farmers end up benefitting from the information that they have. If a trader buys a commodity that trader is also buying information about that commodity and that information can be used for comparative advantage trading. What is needed are pathways for consolidating community information so that it comes back as a value added product for farmers and local communities. Armed with that feedback and intelligence, farmers are empowered to decide whether to build local markets or not after realizing that local markets are better than distant markets. They also start thinking about value addition and investing in preservation for the purposes of prolonging the shelf life of various commodities.
Who can assist farmers to protect their knowledge and information?
Across much of Africa, communities and farmers do not benefit from their knowledge and information. Most social services offered by lawyers in African countries tend to focus mainly on human rights issues, especially of the political nature and in urban centres. There are no lawyers who deal with justice in agriculture and rural development. If they were to exist, such lawyers would assist farmers and rural make sense of contracts which they often enter with private companies and financial institutions. Farmers in cotton growing regions have lost property like scotch-carts and farming equipment to contracting companies due to lack of legal representation.
Such lawyers would also provide legal advice to relationships between communities and development agencies so that relationships are not one-sided in ways that cause communities to lose their indigenous knowledge and other sacred resources. For instance, poverty in most rural communities is often used by many NGOs to write proposals but when money and other resources are obtained to purportedly address that poverty, communities are not told.
Most rural communities do not know how to fight for their rights. Local authorities and rural communities, in whose name development agencies get donor money, have a right to know the full details of the money accessed in their name including salaries of NGO officers working in the communities. When a project phases out, communities should remain with some of the assets such as vehicles instead of these being given to other NGOs who continue seeking funding without fully involving the beneficiaries.
Farmers and other less powerful value chain actors should be protected against abuse of power by big players. Financial institutions write contracts that are assessed by their legal departments before loan borrowers like SMEs are asked to sign. Since most farmers and SMEs cannot afford lawyers let alone setting up legal departments, in the event of misunderstandings, financial institutions take advantage of smaller less powerful partners.
Many development agencies know that what happens in Africa does not happen in the Global North. For instance, the European Union has gone a long way to mitigate some of the rights infringements resulting from the mass extraction of data from ordinary people by setting up the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Similar regulations should be introduced in Africa and other developing regions of the world as part of protecting ordinary people’s knowledge and information.