The road to home-grown economies in Africa

October 18, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

Charles Dhewa is a knowledge management specialist working at the intersection of formal and informal agricultural markets. The organisation he founded, Knowledge Transfer Africa, has set up a fluid knowledge and information platform called eMKambo.

A home-grown economy is all about identity and some identity features start from a country’s name. During the colonial era Rhodesia had its own meaning and image associated with Cecil John Rhodes. Come independence in 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, derived from Zimba raMabwe – a house built of stones. Naming a country is often based on enormous amounts of collective consensus and unpacking the name has more to do with a shared culture and tradition which is the backbone of home-grown solutions. A well-packaged culture is the foundation of every home-grown economy. Building a home-grown economy starts with answering questions like who are we? What is our culture?  What are our values? What human and natural resources do we have? 

Our culture and tradition is part of our natural resources. Most African countries continue to be envied for their natural resources by the rest of the world. However, building a home-grown economy should start with re-classifying existing resources in ways that reflect strong relationships between culture, tradition and natural resources.  

I think building home-grown economies is about moving away from the Mudhumeni type of extension which has a strong colonial background

For instance, Zimbabwe’s policy makers are still using the colonial characterization of natural farming regions one to five according to amounts of annual rainfall received. Characterizing an economy on rainfall patterns  without considering elements like culture including languages of the local people who have traditionally used local resources, land and minerals, underestimates important characteristics of an economy. 

In a changing climate, it no longer makes sense to define socio-economic development in farming areas according to annual rainfall amounts. African countries should revisit colonial classifications of their economic drivers and production zones. Mineral dykes should be re-classified in order to clearly define opportunities for local communities. Watersheds and large river basins can be re-defined as green belts requiring specific resources.  

Likewise, cultures and languages should be accordingly classified as part of natural resources. It’d be useful to know the extensions of Shona, KiSwahili, isiNdebele, Nyanja and all diverse African languages that mediate knowledge used to exploit natural resources. Currently, with the dominance of English through imported education systems, it is difficult to tell where local languages begin, end and overlap. 

What follows are agricultural policies that are developed from the ‘bottom’. A bottom-up approach to agricultural policy development can see communities participating in valuating resources. After all they know what they need for agricultural support, gaps and where support is lacking. Policies should be informed by valuation of the agriculture sector covering water, land and production capacity, details that could inform required budget (unlike budgeting annually from the top and ending up dedicating more than half of the budget to a few agricultural commodities).   

To that end, I think building home-grown economies is about moving away from the Mudhumeni type of extension which has a strong colonial background (a teacher-student relationship between extension officers and farmers). ‘Specialists’ can focus on assisting communities to do the costing and budgeting, as opposed to dictating the way forward despite not living there themselves. For instance, in Zimbabwe, fruit specialists should be concentrated in Honde Valley (for exotic fruits) and Dande (for Masawu), and livestock areas like Gwanda should bring in people with relevant skills to help the local communities. These ‘experts’ can then work with communities in developing short, medium and long-term plans (2 – 10 years).  This approach speaks to sustainability and devolution. You can’t talk about devolution without experts at the grassroots taking care of issues daily. 

Community-based plans can then inform the national agricultural strategic plans. There should be a 5 – 10 year investment plan backed by community priorities and targets. For instance, communities in Chimanimani, Machakos and other areas in Zimbabwe can participate in budgeting their local agricultural activities. They know what they have and the nature of support they need. Local intermediaries in each community – roles fulfilled by traditional leaders, for example, but also by other designated community members – can serve as mediators with the community, as translators of local knowledge, and potential conflict resolution facilitators. 

Institutional and civil participation 

In order to begin cultivating more supportive bottom-up systems, we need African academic institutions to work closely with the agriculture sector. Currently, universities are pursuing academic excellence with no links to the economy. Each university should have an outreach budget that can be used to decolonize the notion of student involvement with a focus on urban industries. There should be a budget for students to go out and work with smallholder agricultural communities, irrigation schemes, catchments and villages. That is an important way of inculcating passion for local resources, practices and knowledge. The ministry of agriculture can participate in assessing how graduates have impacted the local community in which s/he was working with. 

Ultimately, home-grown economies can only be sustained through promoting genuine participation of citizens in policy development, formulation and implementation. Unfortunately, in most African countries policies are crafted from the top and in cities – from the center, to the peripheries. For instance, Zimbabwe’s Transitional Stabilization Programme (TSP) – introduced by the government to ensure an ‘empowered upper middle-income society by 2030’ – remains as a buzzword that is barely understood by the majority.  

“For all African countries, building a home-grown economy should start with re-distributing power to traditional leaders, as well as enabling communities to define their priorities.”

Furthermore, anti-corruption measures and methods need to be adopted in order to neutralize the consequences of partisan politics that lead to top-down governance structures and favoritism. More often than not, the MP selects workers according to partisan lines. People with appropriate skills for the post – for instance, for the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development, knowledge and experience in road rehabilitation – will be excluded if they belong to a different political party. Another common occurrence is that resources end up flowing towards the District Administrator who is a member of the same political party as the minister in charge, and is expected to hand over commodities to a chief of a community who is also expected to belong to the same party.  

Because of the way that our political structures were set up since colonial times, rural African communities now think politicians are (and should be) effective problem solvers. This makes not only for complacent but passive citizenship with thinking that goes along the lines of: “Our MP has promised us a dam and development so let us relax.” And more importantly, political differences hamper sharing of knowledge and skills to the community’s disadvantage.  Even at national level, opposition parties do not share their ideas with everyone on the pretext that the ruling party will take the credit from such ideas. 

I am hopeful seeing how many rural communities are now beginning to rebel against partisan politics, which have been used to weaken them for years. For all African countries, building a home-grown economy should start with re-distributing power to traditional leaders, as well as enabling communities to define their priorities. This also includes allowing rural communities to decide how they wish to relate to urban or external experts, state actors and technical assistants, and setting up the relationships for mutual participation. After all, our people – with their cultures, traditions, and languages – can and should be the protagonists of change. 

Featured Image: Women take part of the food distribution by the community leaders in Kaguro (North Darfur). Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran – UNAMID, 2011. CC licensed.