One of the challenges that we discovered during our multistakeholder workshop in The Hague a few years ago was that people tended to fall back on their expertise when faced with the discomfort of empathizing with farmer’s needs. Particularly so when the farmers in question were from Africa, and not from their own regions.
Our design visualization team – Jam visualdenken – captured one element of how this barrier manifested. Experts talked a lot about “Knowledge” being the key to effective agriculture value chain development, and how it was critical to transfer as much of it as possible. It became this big thing shoved at the ‘global South’, with little thought given to how it would be transferred, much less how relevant and appropriate the “knowledge” would be. A silver bullet, or a panacea.
Today I came across this article from Zimbabwe – “Limitations of using documents & reports to share knowledge in Africa” and I could immediately perceive the author’s deep understanding and empathy of their own local context and needs. Here’s a snippet:
While African communities have learnt from each other for generations, the conventional way of trying to spread knowledge through case studies is not yielding sustainable results.
There is an assumption that technical people can get into a community, work with local people, document their successes and share success stories with other communities, leading to adoption of best practices.
This notion misses a thorough understanding of how communities learn from each other. Almost all rural African communities rely on collective sense-making through very patient conversations, observations and learning by doing.
This led me down the rabbit hole of the authoring organization‘s website, where I came across a blog worth following for their deep understanding of the African agricultural landscape and the information needs of the farmers. Here are two selected blogposts from their site:
[… ]motor mechanics and metal fabrication are now part of the informal sector. Previously locked in formal systems, these skills are now being unpacked and applied in informal markets. This is leading to the integration of indigenous knowledge systems into formal knowledge sharing pathways.
Since indigenous knowledge is more customer-oriented, it results in the production of needs-based products, tailor-made to meet the needs of diverse customers. For example, ploughs and hoes are made as per customer requirements unlike the previous mass production ethos in the formal sector which had little consideration for existing draught power dynamics in different farming communities.
Technology and digital tools do not know empathy and why it is important.
A lot can be learnt from remarkable ways through which African socio-cultural systems generated and shared knowledge. There were reliable conduits for sharing knowledge from one age group to another, one gender to another and one society to another. Besides respected knowledge brokers, each community had sense making tools linking different communities of practice. Some of these methods and tools included rituals, idioms, metaphors, stories and various forms of apprenticeship.
This is exactly what our modern knowledge systems lack. We have not cultivated proper ways of sharing the rich information/knowledge from schools, colleges and university curricular into diverse African communities. There is an expectation that this knowledge can be shared by students after graduating. However, a lot of what can be useful in communities is either forgotten or misapplied. More than 70% of ordinary Africans who function through their own languages, values and norms have no way of meshing what they know with the formal education system. In most cases, their cultural values are still considered barriers to academic knowledge which is being confused with modernization.
Unless we develop verifiable ways through which knowledge is questioned, shared, rejected and value-added, it remains stuck within various communities of practice. Such knowledge will have less developmental impact than anticipated. Academics continue to be locked in their systems, speaking to each other while farmers and rural communities continue holding onto what they know works. As if that is not enough, the language used for crafting policies in most African countries is not suitable for use by the majority but for lawyers and judiciary systems who can interpret it.