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When Is A Disadvantage Actually An Advantage?


If it was true that more resources always lead to better results, African communities in high rainfall areas and favorable climatic conditions would be the richest and happier than everyone else. Development organizations and policy makers are slowly awakening to the reality that dumping resources on communities does not guarantee a beneficial end. For instance, projects set up over the past decades have not moved poor people out of poverty as expected. It looks like something more is needed.

Is there advantage in disadvantage?

Evidence from several African informal food markets indicate smallholder farmers and rural communities that are beset by disadvantages have ways of becoming competitive by compensating for their weaknesses. A typical example is how resource-poor smallholder farmers tend to bring more high quality commodities to food markets than large scale farmers who have many advantages like alternative sources of income. In the absence of quick answers, African smallholders force themselves to innovate and solve their own problems. That is why free inputs, under whatever name, are not a good idea. The majority of smallholder farmers produce high quality commodities because they pay closer attention to detail, knowing that agricultural commodities are their only source of livelihood.  On the other hand, those with alternative sources of income don’t care much about producing competitive products or developing sustainable markets.


The urge to overcome weaknesses

eMKambo is not suggesting smallholder farmers and poor people should be denied resources as a way of nudging them into radical innovation. However, it seems scarcity of resources has a tendency to strengthen rather than crush smallholder farmers.  By working hard to know their disadvantages and taking action to turn them into advantages, many smallholder farmers consider disadvantages a permission to succeed. More support often paralyses African politicians who masquerade as farmers when all they need are free inputs whose outcome they do not even trace to the market.  On the other hand, farmers with disadvantages, beyond just unavailability of inputs, feel a strong need to overcome their weaknesses.

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However, overwhelming disadvantages can hinder progressive growth. When rural communities fight poverty, malnutrition and socio-economic battles with less sophisticated weapons and tools, they are more likely to lose those battles. On the other hand, it is not enough to have sophisticated weapons in the form of good soils, farming equipment, good road network, access to finance and proximity to the market when one is not able to use those weapons and tools productively. Smallholder farmers can only exploit their disadvantages if basic amenities and resources are made available first.  In most African rural areas, some levels of poverty and squalor make it difficult for poor people to take advantage of their disadvantages.

 Disadvantages as a platform for creativity and innovation

Useful disadvantages like limited resources encourage competition and prevents complacency in ways that foster equitable growth and development. When farming communities clearly identify a disadvantage they will have successfully identified something they do not have that they want.  A degree of individual and collective resilience is necessary in order to take the disadvantage forward. These communities should be encouraged to further develop their strengths rather than waste time working on their weaknesses. That way, they will take stock of what they do well and cultivate critical skills and strengths for further success unlike continue believing they are poor and not able to do anything for themselves.

The power of random and informal conversations should not be underestimated.  By telling each other positive stories in the market, smallholder farmers tend to be the answer to many questions bugging their peers for decades. Some farmers hide their disadvantages until a courageous peer with the same challenges tells his/her story. Turning disadvantages to advantages enables farmers and other value chain actors to open their hearts to others.  Adverse conditions calibrate their abilities and strengths to inspire them to push against both visible and invisible barriers to success. Disadvantageous circumstances teach them to adapt and embrace flexibility with focus and tenacity. Struggling through disadvantage turns rote to reality.

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So, should we continue blaming development organizations for initiating projects?

It might be unhelpful to continue blaming development organizations which start projects that become white elephants. The local community should ensure those projects succeed. Every new project is a chance for local people to succeed. When the NGO goes away, it is creating a strategic disadvantage in the form of withdrawing resources.  Rather than exploiting this strategic disadvantage and move forward, most communities go back to their original situation. Usually people outside the beneficiary group, who are naturally curious and innovative, are the ones who quietly copy and innovate. Metal fabricators are an example of people who take advantage of strategic disadvantage.  Most of them have not been trained in formal engineering but have taken that lack of training to become creative in turning those disadvantages into tangible outcomes.  Creating stumbling blocks is giving people a chance and permission to succeed.

This article was first published on www.emkambo.co.zw. The writer Charles Dhewa can be contacted on the following details: charles@knowledgetransafrica.com / charles@emkambo.co.zw 

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