Agricultural Innovations to Knowledge Sharing in Africa 1
Most recent African indigenous knowledge (IK) literature,
especially in agriculture, emphasizes that Africans are informed
innovators. This literature is filled with success stories (see
for instance Chaiken 1998, Ndoum 2001 and Nwokeabia 2001). Excellent
examples of local innovations and discoveries include crop breeding,
grafting against pests, water harvesting, soil management, conservation
and processing. Indigenous agricultural innovations have continued
to be important as most of the locally-grown food is for local consumption.
Nigeria, for instance, the informal agriculture sector, mostly using
indigenous methods and techniques, has an estimated worth of about
US $12 billion, providing income for an estimated 81 million people 2
The knowledge in the sector can be characterized as:
in particular places, experiences and unique climatic conditions,
transmitted or transmitted through imitation and demonstration,
relevant for poor women,
reinforced by experiences and trial and error and adapting,
asymmetrically distributed and preserved within a group,
involve specialists by virtue of experience or authority, and
within a culture/society including technical information.
At a general level, new approaches may still be
needed to address some of Africa’s problems. There is some
unique knowledge among the local producers that can contribute to
help make hunger and malnutrition history, and reduce grass-root
poverty, especially among poor women without changing cultural food
patterns in Africa.
But, too often African indigenous innovators are
overlooked in the search process for new solutions. Two main reasons
can be attributed for this: (i) the innovations and discoveries
they produce are mostly incremental meaning that they do not carry
high income gains; and (ii) culturally, there is little knowledge
sharing due to lack of records and the application of innovations
in isolation. Indigenous innovators face uncertainty because of
a lack of organizing frameworks. They lack information as to who
needs innovations, how to find the users, when to approach them,
why they should be approaching them, and most importantly, whether
the receivers will appreciate the effort.
The consequence of the lack of an organizing framework
is that innovators mostly become indifferent to diffusing their
knowledge, and not utilizing potential scale effects, efficiency
and productivity gains from their innovations. The system can now
be said to be caught in an 'indifference-trap'. People thus hold
back on productive innovations and discoveries that they would have
otherwise passed to others.
This note explains the link between asymmetric information,
the indifference-trap, loss of efficiency gains and stunting of
the growth of indigenous innovations and proposes a pragmatic solution.
The paper describes, with some empirical evidence, how indifference
feeds into the process, motivations and dynamics of the indifference-trap.
The Indifference Trap
An indifference-trap occurs in a system when innovators no longer
share potentially efficiency and productivity-enhancing innovations
and discoveries. Commonly, an innovator in the traditional system
has three options:
open and share knowledge,
indifferent and doing nothing.
This paper discusses the third option, which often
leads to a breakdown in the flow of information and innovation.
lack of a sharing network the central factor contributing to asymmetric
information among active agents, and hobbling secular economic and
social development in indigenous agricultural activities relates
to poor local knowledge sharing networks. Innovators
just do not have enough information about their counterparts. In
the presence of these uncertainties, the indigenous innovators adopt
an indifference attitude, mostly leading to indirect restriction
of the innovation, among the innovators and producers. The result
is a deficit in the (incremental) technological progress.
deficit in the incremental technological progress from lack of sharing
is explained through what we call a “continuous but non-additive
innovations” effect, instead of a "continuous and additive
innovations" effect. In a continuous but non-additive innovations
situation, one gets a rise and collapse of innovations and a highly
unstable production process. Basically, this occurs when an economy
is caught in the indifference-trap with isolated agents innovating
on the same knowledge system over and over again. Because of isolation
and barriers to flow of information and absence of a knowledge sharing
network, these innovators are indifferent to the public utility/efficiency-impact
of their innovations being widely diffused. Resulting innovations
are also used in isolation and may collapse when the innovators
This rise and
collapse of isolated innovations may explain why formally self-sufficient
African societies are suddenly becoming unable to take care of themselves.
In an indifference-trap, the value of these innovations will continuously
fluctuate between their current values and zero (the current innovation
is not additive to the previous innovations and collapses to zero
when the innovator ceases to apply it). Even though there may be
infinite amount of innovations on a particular knowledge e.g. soil
management, they do not become additive because of indifference
and information asymmetry. The impact of such isolated innovation
processes on general technological and economic growth is short-lived.
As such, African agriculture, caught in a seemingly perpetual indifference-trap
doomed to technological stagnation and low productivity. While accepting
that local agriculture is of considerable value and that Africa's
local producers are both richly innovative and caught in an indifference-trap,
the larger question is: how many African farmers are actually indifferent.
Using a sample of 243 agriculturists, the author tested this through
In the survey
of 243 local agriculturists, while about 90% admit generating new
knowledge on their own, none cared to record or pass this knowledge
on to other agriculturists. As a general response, only 1% of the
sample was willing to pro-actively share its innovations, on the
condition that it could identify in advance a person who needed
them. Respondents make it clear that basically they consider sharing
useless, thus illustrating the existence of the indifference-trap.
The result also proved that indifference is a serious setback to
the diffusion of innovations in Africa.
responses changed significantly when the issue of public assistance
was linked to the process of diffusion of knowledge and innovations.
A much higher percentage - 75% -would now record its new knowledge/innovations,
and 81% would pass on what it knew to other agriculturists in the
for a sharing network
However, in spite of an indifference trap, African agricultural
producers continually need new environmentally-specific innovations
and hence, processes and products to deal with changing supply conditions
and to use core competencies in a profitable way. To continually
increase efficiency and productivity, producers need the support
and advice of others. Lack of a cohesive learning and sharing network
for innovations detracts from the ability of isolated individuals
to take advantage of generally available skills. Therefore, an important
obstacle to sharing indigenous knowledge in Africa, particularly
in the low-income sector of agriculture, is the absence of a sharing
conditions must be changed to gradually enable people to share and
connect to those who may add to their knowledge. In fact, the author
observed that indigenous African agricultural producers often do
feel the need to learn and share knowledge with others and seeks
to explain the role of a knowledge sharing network in this process.
It is generally
accepted, that while innovations and discoveries do take place in
Africa, they are largely unknown. Public policy, laws, institutions,
customs and regulations - factors that affect a knowledge sharing
network - determine the intensity and direction of people's innovative
activities and the impact of innovation on the efficiency and productivity
In a knowledge
sharing network, indigenous innovators and adopters can quickly
and easily relate to one another, contributing to collective learning
and nurturing a willingness among innovators to connect.
In a nutshell, knowledge sharing stimulates economic development
in four main ways:
for new technologies and businesses; and creates joint ventures,
and other income generating activities.
The higher the
number of adopters in this network, the larger the probability that
the user will further innovate - a continuous and additive innovation
effect. Where only few people bear highly productive knowledge among
African indigenous producers (for example herbalists),working with
these few to promote their knowledge can help a system achieve excellence
by tapping the capacity of the best.
Allen (2001) also argued that in endogenous technological advances,
imitations and innovations determine the long-run economic growth-path
of a country. Growth of technological knowledge produces useful
outputs, and technological advances define the values of resources
and the rates of utilization, hence impacting sustainability in
a sector such as African agriculture.
To complement the innovative achievements of African local agriculturists,
a mechanism is needed to promote, with participatory public support,
a sharing and additive system of innovation among the lowest-income
producers of Africa. Incubating local agricultural innovations can
help to unlock the secrets of the economic and cultural transformation
of these societies. The technological and secular approach to innovation
systems is based on putting these innovations into the public domain
to achieve a scale effect, and increasing the productivity of the
This study promotes
the creation of local knowledge sharing networks to help innovators
share their inventions with potential users and other innovators
to both gain recognition for their work and to increase knowledge
generation for further innovation. The study bases its observations
on interviews with community based innovators. It calls for public
support for creating or fostering local knowledge sharing networks.
The policy objective of a local knowledge sharing network should
be to find workable strategies to increase allocative efficiencies,
increase their scale effects, and stabilize their growth in local
economies. The policy would have to first stimulate a need to share
knowledge among disparate innovators. Second, the policy would have
to provide for knowledge “connections” to enable innovators,
adopters and intermediaries to interact, for innovators to enhance
the innovation process, for adopters to find solutions to their
problems and for intermediaries to help connect and support interactions
or improve the knowledge sharing environment.
A. DA. Dependency Theory. [web page] 2001; http://www.xrefer.com/
(Accessed on 3rd May 2001).
Barro, R. J. and Sala-I-Martin X, (1995). Economic Growth. Cambridge
Mass.: The MIT Press.
Chaiken, M. S. (1998). “Primary Agriculture Care Initiatives
in Colonial Kenya”, World Development, 26(9), 1701 –
ECA (1992) Study on the Role of the Informal Sector in African Economies
- E/ECA/PSD.7/13. -Paper presented to the Seventh Session of the
Joint Conference of African Planners, Statisticians and Demographers,
2-7 March 1992, Addis-Ababa, ECA.
Ndoum D. Mbeyo'o (2001). Dynamics of agro-ecological knowledge among
the Mafa North Cameroon. CML University of Leiden, Netherlands.
Nwokeabia, Hilary (2001). Why Industrial Revolution Missed Africa:
A traditional Knowledge Perspective. Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia.
1. By Hilary
Nwokeabia. The author is a staff of the United Nations Conference
on Trade and Development., contact the author at: email@example.com.
2. Estimated by the author using national statistics. Informal usually
are those economic activities that are not registered, do not pay
taxes. It is part of each sector in Africa and estimated to provide
income for up to 600 million Africans (see also ECA 1992).
3. The questions
are: a.) are you willing to continue generating new knowledge/innovations
if given assistance; b.) are you willing to record your new knowledge/innovations
if given public assistance; and are you willing to teach to other
agriculturists in your locality any new knowledge/innovations you
may acquire if given assistance?
was writtien by Hilary Nwokeabia. The author is a staff of the United
Nations Conference on Trade and Development., contact the author