Invisible barriers affecting African food systems

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INFORMATION about producing any food commodity is now abundant on the internet and in diverse manuals. For anyone who wants to know how to bake bread or process fruits into drinks or jams, a quick search on the internet can produce tonnes of documents with step-by-step information on how to add value to diverse commodities including recipes on utilisation. Such information can also be easily printed and bound into copies for communities to use in processing or preserving food.

 However, there is a missing link

If information is so abundant, why are households not baking their own bread instead of waiting for formal companies to produce and sell bread to them daily?  Many farmers can even grow their own wheat while others have access to different kinds of flours. If availability of information and raw materials was everything, most confectionery companies would have gone out of business as households would have been able to produce their own bread and related products.  The fact that, in spite of recipes being available to everyone, the majority prefer buying bread than baking their own suggests there is more to turning natural resources into food than availability of raw materials and information on producing value-added and processed food.

Why some projects are impossible to scale up

For decades, Africa has seen various agricultural projects of different sizes, either remaining the same or being abandoned.  Efforts to scale up some projects from one community to the other or to the national level have not been very successful due to several invisible barriers related to cultural, economic, political and economic factors, among others. More importantly, most projects have been too small and context-specific to be scaled up. Otherwise, community dairy projects would now be competing with big dairy companies that continue to supply dairy products in cities and rural areas.

By now breweries would have seen their market share gone down as people who have retired from brewing companies would have simply gone and started brewing the same kind of beer in their communities.  Production zones that are famous for specific fruits like banana, mango, orange, pineapples and many others would be full of processing plants if it was all about availability of raw materials and information on how to process food.

Challenges around developing tastes for new products

In a desire to understand challenges around scaling up agricultural projects, eMKambo has for years been gathering evidence towards finding a promising way forward.  The inquiry has tried to find out why tomato sauce or tomato puree has not been easy to produce in tomato production zones of Zimbabwe such as Mutoko, Murewa and Chimanimani. One of the key issues is that local people cannot really confirm the nature of the final product that they want because developing tastes for new processed products is a difficult challenge.  In addition, as long as fresh tomatoes are always abundant, local people do not see any need for tomato sauce or tomato puree.

Since processing and value addition is more of a science than usual agricultural production practices, scientific knowledge is needed for developing relevant expertise at community level.  Most products are processed by corporates because significant capital investment is needed to convert a raw commodity into a processed product. On the other hand, appropriate technology is still missing especially for processing fruits and tomatoes at local level. Breakthroughs that have been achieved with peanut butter processing and small-scale maize milling at village level have not been extended to perishables like fruits and
tomatoes.

Exploring collaboration between development agencies and the private sector

After observing that development agencies and the private sector often work with the same farming communities, eMKambo sought to find pathways for these actors to collaborate in agricultural value-addition enterprises. According to the private sector actors, most agricultural projects introduced by NGOs are too small to be integrated into commercial value chains.  Part of the reason is that development agencies tend to focus on vulnerable members of communities with no capacity to produce volumes that are needed by private processors. On the other hand, the private sector is more interested in working with champion farmers who can meet targets and are receptive to innovation.

There have been cases where a private sector company is struggling to resuscitate its processing plant in a rural farming area where development agencies are also trying to promote almost similar projects.  Using its knowledge brokering prowess, eMKambo tried to get the private sector company and a development agency working in the same area to work together meaningfully.

The private company suggested that the development agency provides funds to the company so that it acquires the remaining equipment which will enable local farmers to benefit from a functional processing plant owned by the company.

Since the development agency would be making such an investment into the company on behalf of the local community, eMKambo suggested that the private company allocates shares to the community so that when the development agency eventually pulls out, communities will be empowered.  In reply to that suggestion, the private company said that was not possible because the company operated on purely capitalist values which did not have room for communities to be shareholders. To that end, differences between capitalist values and developmental values emerged as key barriers against sustainable agricultural interventions in developing countries.

Community projects are part of agroecology

The fact that pathways for integrating private sector business units with community projects in a long-term and sustainable manner have not been found in most developing countries for more than 50 years indicates that community projects are part of agroecology and local food economies. Such economies are better integrated to local mass food markets than trying to force them into vertically integrated commercial value chains that are driven by completely different sets of values. While private companies have tried to set up out-grower schemes with small-holder farmers for commodities like broiler chickens and tea, among others, successes have been few compared to failures. Revisiting and rethinking potential synergies and models can yield positive results.