Our agro-based economy could perform better if more knowledge on marketing dynamics and value-addition of our agricultural products was acquired. Extension officers, farming organisations, seed companies and non-governmental organisations are always educating farmers on how to grow maize, potatoes, tobacco and vegetables.
But there are millions of farmers, NGOs, financial institutions and policy-makers who have no clue about the market dynamics.
Everyone in the agriculture chain, including the farmers, consumers and banks funding the farmers, should make an effort to understand the entire chain.
Unless a farmer wants to remain at subsistence level, they should not grow what does not have a market. Impressive field days are meaningless if commodities end up without a specific buyer.
Too much focus on one crop is also stifling our agriculture. Take, for instance, celebrating the increase in the number of tobacco producers every season is celebrating a dangerous monoculture that is destroying our diversity and strength. Depending on one crop makes the nation vulnerable, especially when there are turbulences in the pricing.
Our resilience as a nation is based on the diversity of crops and animals that give us food and income.
Informal markets such as Mbare agriculture market (Harare), Sakubva (Mutare), Malaleni (Bulawayo) and Garikayi (Masvingo) hold diverse crops that should be nurtured. The various crops are all equally important.
In fact, these markets are becoming custodians of our agro-biodiversity where farmers can get seed of some of the most valuable drought-tolerant crops like rapoko, sorghum and millet yet are shunned by commercial companies for one reason or another.
While tomatoes, potatoes and bananas tend to dominate informal agriculture markets, the variety of commodities on the markets is a powerful force against monoculture which is still gripping our mindsets.
Diversity of agriculture commodities typical of informal agriculture markets
The diversity of commodities at informal markets is a strength that should shape our agriculture policies. We have to identify pathways for scaling up essential food crops.
We also have to work on our attitudes and mindsets towards what we consume. The fast food consumption culture is destroying our healthy lifestyles. Should we not be eating mhunga/nyauthi instead of imported bulgur?
Market intelligence from informal agriculture markets can be used to build a strong agriculture biodiversity system in Zimbabwe. While there is so much talk about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) among researchers and activists in workshops and online forums, an important national reality is manifesting itself in smallholder farming areas and informal markets.
Informal agriculture markets are driving production patterns in both smallholder and large-scale farming areas. The markets are a creative bridge between urban consumers, retail merchants, supermarkets and export markets. If production is based on signals from informal markets, the current aimless production processes will be minimised in favour of targeted production processes that minimise waste of inputs and other critical resources such as trees and water.
If farmers are not guaranteed a market, they will not see the benefit of long-term investments in agriculture, neither will they experiment with new crops and livestock.
Myths and confusing messages
Strategic cultivation of domestic markets and value-addition is the future of Zimbabwe. The export market is not superior to our domestic markets.
In fact, domestic markets are much better because we can control them. All our marketing institutions are still focusing on the export market yet lessons from West Africa, East Africa and Asia show that countries can actually survive on domestic markets. We need to supply to our domestic markets first before exporting to foreign consumers whose preferences we do not know much about.
Transformation in our agricultural learning institutions is also needed. Colleges are still teaching outdated agricultural skills. There is too much emphasis on supply-driven agriculture when it is supposed to be demand-driven.
On the other hand, the mainstream media is full of messages that associate modernisation with commercial hybrids.
This is one of the forces that farmers and informal markets are resisting in favour of maintaining agricultural biodiversity, which is the basis of healthy ecosystems. Mobile phones are supporting a quiet revolution in which farmers are sharing knowledge and promoting their own traditional food crops, challenging monocultural practices. For farmers in areas that usually receive low rainfall like Masvingo and Matabeleland, biodiversity offers an insurance against drought since there are crops that are drought resistant.
While there have been efforts by several NGOs and communities to raise the profile of local agriculture biodiversity, there seem to be invisible barriers preventing this movement from blending into a formidable transformative force.
Monoculture is indeed eating into the efforts of the farmers. In tobacco farming, for example, the tobacco farmers take the crop from seedlings, transplant it, fertilise it, irrigate, harvest, cure and, finally, take to the market where the value of the commodity is uncertain.
All this burden could be shifted from the farmer if they would just plant and harvest the crop then hand over to contracting companies and buyers to cure and market the golden leaf. That arrangement would be mutually-beneficial. It should be the responsibility of contracting companies and some buyers to haul coal from Hwange and then cure the crop since the farmers would have done their part.
That way, the farmer can find time to diversify into other agricultural ventures.
This will also save the environment since farmers will not have to worry about cutting down trees to cure their tobacco.
Marketing is a different game with rules that are different from production and farmers cannot do both.
It requires skills in managing a business, intermediation and deal-making which are intricate processes in their own right.
Farming as a business thrives on data, evidence as well as demand and supply trends analysis. One cannot do this basing on rumour or prices only. You need to know the price volume, variety and volume of agricultural commodities on the market.
This information is also key in value-addition to avoid the setting up of processing plants without a clear idea of the volume of commodities that can be available for processing at a given time.
Many processing plants are lying idle because the initiators started by putting up infrastructure without a correct sense of the amount and variety of tomatoes or ground-nuts to be processed as well as the demand for related processed products.
Charles Dhewa is the chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) Ltd, which operates a agricultural knowledge-sharing facility
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