Overcoming misconceptions about involving users in creating knowledge

One of the most enduring misconceptions in developing countries is the notion that if farmers and rural people are not involved in creating knowledge they will not adopt what comes from outside. As a result, billions of US dollars have gone into diverse versions of participatory development approaches.


Unfortunately, as soon as donor funding dries up, most communities either go back to their original practices or they become more confused about what course of action to take.

Development agencies have not invested in understanding the main reasons why some approaches and technologies are adopted effortlessly, while others are rejected even though they seem to make sense.

While involving users in creating knowledge is considered a key component of ensuring adoption, many African countries have several technologies that have been developed and adopted without involving users.

Experts, who understand human psychology, have gone ahead to successfully create machines and frameworks without consulting users. For example, rural African communities are teeming with grinding mills, oil expelling machines, tractors, water pumps, solar panels, cultivators, planters, ploughs and many other tools that have shaped livelihoods. No farmer or rural artisan was consulted in designing, pre-testing and rolling out all these gadgets yet they have spread like wild fire.

Experts should not under-estimate themselves

The world is a better place because of experts and gifted geniuses who can accurately see what is hidden to the majority of human beings. While it makes sense to consult or involve communities in generating knowledge and technologies that affect their lives, what if you are introducing something entirely new that a particular community has never seen it work anywhere before? How can you expect people to have an opinion about what they do not know they need to know? If you do not know what you need to know, everything new is acceptable. There are many situations where an outsider can clearly see the bigger picture in ways that local communities may never see even in 100 years of participatory engagement.

In addition, many people do not take too long to be convinced about something. If, as an expert, you are cocksure about what you want to introduce, why waste resources trying to convince everyone? For instance, why would a monetary specialist waste time and money trying to get ordinary people to understand the intricacies of financial dynamics in the economy? If you have done your homework as an expert why look for non-experts to tell you what to do? There are issues that are better left to experts with the majority happy to be consumers and adopters. If those who designed WhatsApp had tried to involve everyone from conception up to rolling out, do you think the technology could have seen the light of day?

Participatory approaches should not be embraced uncritically. As long as experts and promoters are confident about what they are introducing, communities can put their faith in something new and eventually adopt it without doubt. The world is what it is due to numerous top-down approaches and imposed technologies that have been massively adopted because they answered and continue to answer a need.

Experts and designers are better off conceiving technologies in isolation and bringing them to users when the time is right. Many people do not have the time, patience and temperament to be involved in the whole journey through which a knowledge product travels from being an idea to reality. There is a place for the wisdom of the crowd and a place for experts.

Not everyone cares about nutrition research

Given the complexity of nutrition knowledge, it is far-fetched to expect every consumer to be knowledgeable about carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamin B6, etc. It is the role of experts to package all these important food attributes without bothering ordinary people with the details. It is like expecting every car driver to have intimate knowledge about the engine — how pistons work inside the engine, electrical issues in the car, etc.

Experts and those who have made it their mission to promote these technologies should do so without causing unnecessary cognitive overload in ordinary people.

Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

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  1. I think your generalisations undo your article. In any product development/design, feasibility study is integral so is user participation. A balance has to be struck between taking too long on this stage of the development cycle and actual production, so sampling methods have to be adopted. The current trend in product design is to incorporate the user requirements upfront so that the end product gains broader market acceptance and the product is customisable making it easier to hit economies of scale. It works. Any development agency that excludes user participation is doomed to fail.

    Africans, in the main, are more of consumers than product designers/developers due in part to the high cost of designing products from first principles compared to adopting what is already available (tried, tested, acceptable and cheaper).

  2. Charles, I differ to agree. First and foremost I think you mashed everything up into one thing.

    I differ with you on the following. Every product be it bread, service, a process or/and even research has a life cycle and you will always have the techies, the early adopters, early majority, late majority and the laggards. NGOs on a 3 year spending life-cycle have a mandate to spend and their indicators for delivery have nothing to do with the return on investment of the product they were peddling. Their metrics are on numbers of participants, funds raised, funds spend and so on and so forth.

    I agree with you on that huge amounts of money have been spend by donors as well as that you dont need to involve everyone. It is critical that farmers and rural people are involved in the development of products they need to use. They are Savvy buyers and will stick with what is durable and simple to use. Failure of participatory action processes is that they are not looking to design products farmers want or need but rather they want to push products and services that are already in production, many of which are over designed, poor quality and complicated for users. Take an example of the bicycle and an organization called World Bicycle Relief. There product is answering to the needs of the users and its run on a business model and the users pay for the product and are happy. over 500 thousand bicycles sold.

    Your final statement shows a systemic failure whereby an expert on knowledge management misses the critical elements of the Innovation process for creating products from idea to market. Lets change that. There are many ideas and products out there designed and made by Africans that are failing to get to market, not because of cost but failure to understand the stages. START SMALL and be BOLD enough to make Africans the center of your programs and let them lead you to the products they are willing to use. Include them through competition for INNOVATION. SIDA funded some program that included farmers in development of learning materials and ran competitions which saw some amazing results. What was missing was an ecosystem that would then take up the challenge from where SIDA left to a product on market that generates incomes and enables nation to levy revenue. “Nyika Vanhu, Musha Matare” Keep the people engaged or you run risk of being “efficient” in the wrong forest

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