Knowledge in Africa: subjects, scales, stakeholders, structures, successes

Knowledge brokering14 Jun 2010

Eric Smaling is Professor of Sustainable Agriculture, University of Twente and Senator for the Socialist Party in The Netherlands

Evidence of a strong, positive correlation between knowledge and development abounds, anywhere in the world. Key to the rate of return of investment in knowledge is the way it is being used in societies. Knowledge may lead to improved processes and useful products. A process is when people with a certain level of knowledge take informed decisions that benefit the economy, the society or the environment, or all, whereas those without that knowledge would not have been able to do the same. The other, more tangible pillar is the use of products from technology development, such as mobile phones, vaccines, or improved crop varieties. I restrict myself to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) here, and briefly discuss the issues: what, where, who, how, and how much? I also restrict myself to knowledge obtained from strategic and applied research fields.


Singling out Dutch strengths (as suggested by WRR) may be useful when just taking the bilateral perspective, but even then the problem of demand vs. supply remains. With a broader ambition than this, a range of knowledge domains relevant for development could be listed, geared towards people, profit and planet, or all. A second knowledge-triangle links public sector, private sector and civil society. Subjects such as taxation, law enforcement, and market interventions affect all. As much knowledge is already available, quick scans will be needed to develop a state-of-art, and to have a proper idea of the degree to which the knowledge has led to development, and for which parts of the triangles. Lastly, two domains need to be addressed: knowledge development (upstream) and knowledge management and brokerage (downstream), with emphasis on the latter.


Knowledge fields do not have the same relevance at every spatial or temporal scale. Research on certain aspects of livelihood systems in a backwater of country A differs markedly from scenario studies on the likelihood of future drought occurrence in West Africa. Next to this, comparisons need to be made between countries, regions and continents. Economies of scale in particular domains deserve attention (e.g. small-scale vs. large-scale agriculture; national research vs. regional research infrastructure; national markets vs. regional markets). Three spatial scales seem desirable: country, region, and comparative.


Much research output tends to stay in the research domain: the end product of a PhD. project is the thesis and the only beneficiary is the student who obtains the degree and may find a better-paid or more inspiring job afterwards. But again, this person may continue to inspire others, colleagues and future generations. Nonetheless, to maximize the rate of return of investment into knowledge, it has to be shared with users. These can be private sector stakeholders, wanting to turn the knowledge into ready-to-buy products, consumer organizations, NGOs working in the field, but also ministers and parliamentarians involved in legislation, law implementation and enforcement, and the choices of the type of public services offered out of tax revenues and other sources of income. More efforts are needed to bridge the gap between knowledge and policies. On the financing side, bilateral donors (coalition of the willing), UN, development banks, foundations and other private parties can all participate.


I would consider the establishment of four Knowledge Centers, for West, Central, East and Southern Africa (parallel to COMESA, ECOWAS etc.), with a international permanent staff, and with broad, virtual membership. They all perform (upstream) and broker (downstream) research on the same set of priority issues. Overlaps and competition with existing R&D organizations have to be avoided. If for example, a centre in West Africa would be erected, it should not repeat but rather add value to what is being done by institutes in the region that are already active in the same field.


A very important responsibility of the Centers is the monitoring of measurable successes (and failures). There are many hard and less hard indicators to do this. Development needs to be sold, to the public, and to the parties investing in the Centers. A product is easier to sell than a process, but if the proper indicators are chosen, it should be possible to give it a value. The successes can be grouped following the two triangles suggested here (pe-pl-pr and pr-pu-cs). The focus on success is needed to safeguard public support for the entire undertaking, allows the assessment of effectiveness and efficiency of the Centers, and offers the opportunity to work on a “lessons learned” basis.