I have a friend who used to run an Agritech startup. Of course it was another app to teach farmers and to organise them into digital communities for shared learning. There is quite a number of such apps in Zimbabwe. It only shows how big a problem lack of knowledge and experience is in our agricultural sector.
The government launched a programme they called “Command Agriculture” some two years ago. The brand name they chose is problematic because it reminds us of the unsustainable state dictated economics of the former USSR.
Command Agriculture though is not a bad idea given the context of agriculture and land tenure in Zimbabwe. The programme ring-fences the nation’s food needs by incentivising farmers to dedicate a set hectarage of their land to grow food that they will sell to the government.
Depending on who is telling the story, the programme has been both a success and a failure.
The problem of information
I used to go to farmer field days with my agritech entrepreneur friend. There I met a lot of very serious young farmers who are producing quite impressive results. Some of them shocked me because they looked and sounded too snobbish to be pursuing the vocation they had chosen.
However, I also met a number of farmers who just did not seem to understand the science of agriculture nor the art of business management. In fact, some of the guys who had good husbandry skills did not have complementary business skills and hence their success had limitations.
Command agriculture was always a hot topic at these field days. The farmers wanted to participate in the programme but sometimes they would not qualify because they did not meet the average yields that are required to be considered.
Education is needed
The reason why there are a lot of apps that seek to educate farmers is that it is difficult to convince farmers to leave their fields and enrol in school. The apps then attempt to teach farmers remotely. However, the applications tend to only educate by way of tips or production guides and such things. This may not be very sustainable in terms of understanding the underlying principles of farming.
The farmers themselves sometimes understand the need to learn from first principles both agriculture and business management but they just don’t have the time to do it in the formal set up.
ZOU has a solution
The Zimbabwe Open University is offering the Agricultural Management degree. It is a programme targeted at individuals who want to get into farming as an enterprise.
What’s more important is that the farmers do not need to leave their farms. ZOU is offering its programmes online including creating virtual classroom environments so learners can learn from each other and cross-pollinate ideas as they would in a brick and mortar university.
I know some of the young farmers I met at field days need to enrol. What more, they don’t need to wait and first go to school. They can learn online from a relevant Zimbabwean curriculum whilst they continue with their farm operations.