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Toward indigenous ways of recognizing knowledge and wisdom

When you start talking to people in any African community, you become surprised about the amount and diversity of knowledge and wisdom held by ordinary people. As the conversation progresses, most communities can even suggest viable solutions to their challenges. If only policy makers and development agencies would listen. Down-to-earth criteria for assessing and recognizing local knowledge would see most African grand-mothers and grandfathers being awarded masters degrees and PhDs in their specialized areas of knowledge such as breeding livestock, brewing unique beverages as well as preserving food and seed for decades without using external knowledge.

Unwritten knowledge is more valuable

By clinging to Western formal education systems that value the written word, African policy makers continue to undermine vast pools of local knowledge that are based on orality. It is now widely known that African indigenous knowledge systems are more oral than academic. That is why introducing indigenous ways of assessing and recognizing local knowledge without imported classroom-based approaches can open a whole universe of knowledge that is more inclusive in ways that generate locally-driven solutions.

A framework for recognizing and awarding role models in local knowledge development and exchange would give more value to indigenous knowledge as more people would become more confident in refining and sharing it. If such a framework is embraced, every African village would have hundreds of people with diplomas and degrees in line with their specialized knowledge themes. Through community-driven peer review mechanisms, people can tell you who is an expert in which knowledge in their community. That is more authentic peer review than the imported system where a few self-anointed knowledge experts in university ivory towers decide which is valuable knowledge and which is not and at what point someone should be awarded a particular degree. Indigenous ways of assessing and valuing knowledge would see most food vendors and traders in African food markets deservedly earning diplomas and degrees in trading different food commodities. These people have more sophisticated knowledge than formal PhD graduates in agricultural economies or MBAs.

Building a case for indigenous ways of rewarding farmers and communities

The need for local and indigenous ways of recognizing African farmers and communities that are quietly taking care of the environment and in the process saving the planet has never been so urgent. It is becoming obvious that a good farmer creates more value for the community and society than can be adequately rewarded by formal commercial markets. For instance, such farmers quietly enhance, biodiversity, improve the quality of soil and water but such contributions and values are not embedded in the commodities that they eventually sell to receive dollars and cents.

The whole contribution to local thriving economies by these farmers is not being recognized including larger societal benefits such a fresh air.  This can only be corrected through developing and recognizing indigenous ways of rewarding commendable efforts. Fundamental questions include:

  • How do we create structures that provide rewards to farmers who are using their indigenous knowledge and good practices to save the planet?
  • How can indigenous people create their own systems of recognizing and rewarding their traditional culture, especially the way food is produced, prepared, traded and consumed?

Without examples of how and where things are being done the right way, African policy makers will continue celebrate colonial patterns of extracting natural resources and rewarding effort. People with power and influence will continue to control what a good reward should look like. For instance, in all African countries, farmers and communities continue to be offered physical rewards as part of appreciating them for adopting imported knowledge. In most field days seed companies compensate farmers for using imported knowledge and inputs like chemicals and fertilizers in line with given formulae. The awards are also in the form of chemicals, fertilizers, knapsack sprayers, tractors and other assets associated with imported knowledge.

However, policy makers are not assessing the cost of adopting these inputs and methods which come in the form of damage to the environment, soil, water and human health. Critical questions include: What is the cost of replacing indigenous knowledge systems in farmers and communities who have been coerced to shun their own tried and tested indigenous knowledge systems, culture and values?  Countries that promote foreign currency-earning crops like tobacco, naively celebrate millions of dollars earned from tobacco exports but there are not efforts to calculate and deduct the cost of tobacco production to the environment and people’s health from heavy use of chemicals.

One of the best ways to reverse this colonial reward system is to document and package indigenous knowledge for easy access and affordability. When this knowledge is properly documented, it becomes part of reliable mainstream knowledge from which best practices can be developed in ways that enhance uninterrupted learning.  Currently, African countries are not directing any efforts and resource toward packaging indigenous knowledge systems into a strong body of knowledge that can compete with and replace imported knowledge.

Limitations of academic literature review and related imported approaches

Imported knowledge systems that dominate African formal education systems have become a huge barrier to developing indigenous ways of recognizing and rewarding knowledge holders. Developing countries will not succeed in taping the full value of indigenous and local knowledge through imported approaches like academic literature review.  Besides taking an out-dated historical view of knowledge by citing what has been written a couple of years back, the tendency to lace academic papers with quotations, written references and footnotes disrupts the flow in which knowledge is mentally acquired, absorbed and applied.  More importantly, who should be quoted in a publication, the author of the article or the sources of knowledge?  For instance, if a foreign researcher publishes a journal article about food systems in a particular African market, should those referencing this article five years down the road continue citing the author or direct sources of the information such as farmers and traders?

As if that is not enough, by chopping a few quotations from what should be a free-flowing piece of uninterrupted intelligence, knowledge flows are seriously deformed, leading to poor memory of the whole knowledgeable narrative. In the African indigenous knowledge sense, the whole story is told and shared in its contextual entirety. On the contrary, when you cite a paragraph and a few pages out of 50 pages like what is recommended in Western academic literature, you are forced to ignore the whole story and context in which the quote was made.

No wonder academics are not generating new knowledge because they are always compelled to cite or quote someone who did something similar in the past.  By always looking backwards and referring to history, we are not building new information and knowledge based on prevailing context and using that to forecast what is likely to happen in the future as shown by current patterns. Actionable knowledge strategies are always missing due to obsession with literature. Ultimately, the whole knowledge agenda becomes anchored on backward-focused literature review yet more than 90% of knowledge management initiatives and processes should be based on current interactions and pure understanding of the ecosystem.

This can happen through interacting with farmers, traders as well as acutely observing what is happening in communities and gathering lessons in real-time.  You cannot use literature to validate African mass food markets because no one has been consistently documenting them in academic ways for decades. The fluidity, fast trends and dynamics in these markets also renders literature review irrelevant. This is partly because a lot of external factors make these markets more dynamic, for example, they are closely linked to rainfall patterns, seasonality, climate change, economic performance and human behaviour. When compared to manufacturing or mining where processes are more routine, African food markets are constantly in motion and changing.  A fluid system that tracks prices and capture the information on an excel sheet can be a better substitute for literature than referring to what some academic wrote about the market two to five years ago. The most reliable information is from direct primary sources not written documents which have biases because different researchers interpret things differently, especially external researchers.

Charles Dhewa, CEO, Knowledge Transfer Africa

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Mobile: 0772 137 717 / 0774 430 309 / 0712 737 430

Article source: eMkambo blog. Reproduced by permission.

Header image source: Author supplied.

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Charles Dhewa

Charles Dhewa is a proactive Knowledge Management Specialist committed to exceptional practical achievements in agriculture and rural development. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) Ltd ( which he founded in 2006 after realizing that agricultural value chain actors in developing countries needed a knowledge broker to keep reminding them of what they could be forgetting. Among other qualifications, he holds a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Information and Knowledge Management from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is a regular blogger (, with his thought leadership ideas filtering into newspapers, radio and several twitter-streams.

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