How COVID19 has redefined knowledge and the value of intangible resources
The African continent is famous for abundant natural resources such as minerals and fertile land suitable for producing diverse food commodities. But more important than natural resources and equal to knowledge are intangible resources such as community engagement and relationships. However, it has taken a crisis like COVID19 for intangible resources to start receiving the attention they deserve. On the other hand, African scholars are still to find formulae for assigning appropriate value to intangible resources. That is why it easier to express fertilizer and other inputs in budgets than it is to express community engagement and relationships in dollars and cents.
Redefining knowledge and what it means to generate solutions
In addition to showing that countries cannot build resilient food systems without fluid data, COVID19 has revealed the value of empowering communities to gather information because communities are more informed about their status quo. The pandemic has also shown that while a crisis can force people to change but responding to a crisis requires knowledge. It has also challenged conventional notions of knowledge and what it means to know or generate solutions. At the beginning of the pandemic, it became obvious that some of the highly rated global organizations did not have answers and predictive capacity. Locally-led solutions filled critical gaps as it became clear that, for instance, food has to be produced as close to communities and consumers as possible.
Revisiting the meaning of experts
The misconception that experts know everything was proven wrong by COVID19. Before the pandemic showed up, some organizations thrived on projecting themselves as all-knowing experts whose views would not be challenged without consequences. By showing that locally-driven solutions can actually provide better solutions in times of need, COVID19 also challenged age-old data collection methodologies and tools. A key emerging lesson for policy makers is that do not wait for perfect data. Gather enough information to sense the scope of the problem you are facing.
Experts can no longer assume they know local people’s challenges, priorities and needs. Everyone has permission to imagine what a locally-led version of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) looks like. Communities that depend on seasonal rainfall for food production have to plant at the right time, as soon as rains beat the ground. They cannot afford to miss the start of the rainy season while attending some NGO meeting or nutrition garden gathering.
The value of embracing simplified learning approaches
Another fundamental lesson from COVID19 is the value of simplifying learning approaches. For many years, the development sector has deliberately made learning complicated so that development organizations and practitioners continue promoting the notion that they are the experts who should always be called to provide solutions and expertise. This explains why when development agencies exit communities there has often been no one to take the lessons forward.
Development actors have been challenged by the pandemic to give up their claim to expertise as part of redistributing power to local knowledge holders. Learning should be simplified so that local people participate in knowledge generation as opposed to forcing people to implement what is coming from outside without asking questions or adding anything. Every community has a lot of knowledge and legitimate experience. Experiences of women, youth and other marginalized groups should be reflected in interventions.
Crises like pandemics are massive opportunities for generating new approaches and knowledge pathways. For decades, development organizations have used an extractive approach to learning and knowledge generation which does not value existing local ways of knowing. Local officers are often tasked with documenting and sending reports to the head office with no feedback loop. The power and income of the officers depend on following extractive structures as opposed to being accountable to local knowledge structures and systems.
What has been largely missing are platforms and systems for genuine communication and knowledge exchange which makes a difference to local communities and lives. The mainstream media has continued to focus on promoting the so-called experts rather accommodating views from the grassroots. For instance, powerful seed companies and other private sector actors continue to dominate the media and platforms like agricultural shows which they use to market their products rather than sharing authentic knowledge about strengths and limitations of their products.
The value of empowering communities to collect and share information
Having used formal education systems and other channels to improve literacy levels among their populations, by now African countries should have established systems that enable communities to gather and share information. This should be very easy because people are always willing to let the world know what they are doing and tell their stories without a consultant or someone extracting stories of change from them. They just need knowledge sharing platforms at community level that connect communities with each other and with national platforms. That can prevent cases where one community has abundant food while a neighbouring district is depending on food aid.
Critical initiatives like the national census can be conducted cost-effectively and reliably if data collection systems are anchored on communities rather than periodic top-down approaches in which “experts” are engaged to collect census information using sophisticated tools. Besides, who says African governments should conduct a census after every 10 years? It is unfortunate that African governments have copied Western models of conducting a population census after a decade when Western and African contexts are very different. For instance, most western countries do not have village set ups and their communities are organized differently such that even if they conduct a census after 10 years, they have other means of staying accurately informed about their populations.
On the other hand, African countries like Zimbabwe already have village heads who collect data about their communities and submit such information to government departments for different purposes including elections and ascertaining the number of vulnerable households eligible for food assistance. Why can’t the same record-keeping mechanisms be used to provide census data in a fluid manner? Simple tools can be provided to village leaders so that information is shared regularly.
Using data to demonstrate the value of food systems and markets
Most importantly, data can reveal how food has a strong public good element which means, just like water and electricity, it should not be left entirely in the hands of the private sector who can increase prices at will to the disadvantage of most communities. Empowering communities to collect and share information can also show how the best way of learning about markets is to experience the market in action by being part of the ecosystem. You cannot study markets in a classroom and hope to understand them.
Data can also show why local authorities like municipalities should prioritize land for food markets ahead of residential and recreational purposes because everybody needs food. In several African cities, food traders and middlemen are privatizing markets and determining food prices because the ministry of agriculture and local authorities have ignored food, thinking that it should be handled by the private sector like wholesalers and supermarkets.
The same way the ministry of agriculture is setting up irrigation schemes, nutrition gardens, dip tanks and dams should see it building market infrastructure in mass food markets because it is the government department responsible for food. That is how it can have a strong voice in nudging local authorities to set aside enough space for food markets because without putting in place such facilities, the ministry of agriculture’s work is undermined. It does not help to promote food production with no clue on how the food is received in the market and feedback from consumers.