Fellow perspectives: What we’ve learnt from the mushroom on plugging information gap in food systems

By Monica Githige, Grace Njoroge, Serah Wacheke, Anthony Mugambi and Sieka Gatabaki

The world is abuzz with the discovery of the mycelium network. Mycelium is better known as mushroom. Mushrooms are naturally occurring information agents in the plant kingdom. They function as a highway that is operated by fungi, for the benefit of trees and other plants in the wild. They inform the green plants where to find nutrients. This way, they play a very key role in building equilibrium in forest ecosystems. And yet we have always thought that forests, being wild, are an arena of organic survival for the fittest. This makes mushrooms perfect metaphors for the interconnectedness in the forest ecosystem, and by extension food systems.

Steady reliable flow of accurate information sustains the ecosystem. Without it there will be no trust in the milieu. Take, for instance, agribusiness. Trust deficit will make it difficult to access crucial facilities like credit. Credit relies on trust assessment, through such mechanisms as credit appraisals and credit ratings. This kind of information exchange is unfortunately deficient in the Kenyan food production system. Where it is available, it is overly fragmented. Various actors work for their own benefit. This makes the system vulnerable to exploitation, malnutrition, weather extremes and market fluctuations, to name just a few challenges.

Lack of information exchange in the agriculture value chain remains a big challenge.

The non-cash crop subsector is easily the most vulnerable. The value chain around such farm produce as kale (sukuma wiki), onions or kienyeji chicken, has insufficient information. What is known in the value chain relationships – from farm to fork – in such networks, is not adequate to attract credit providers, like banks.

But there’s hope. As digital and financial services experts and Fellows of the African Food Systems Fellowship we believe that the problem could be significantly addressed by instituting an interconnected information exchange network that resembles the mycelium network. We recognise that there have been several unsuccessful attempts to fix the information deficiency in unstructured value chains in Kenya. Most of these initiatives have only focused on a few elements of the system and actors. There has been limited consideration on the role of other actors, like middlemen and cartels that control the major markets, and who are the main beneficiaries from farm produce.

We are embarking on a system-led approach to tackle the information gap, and the attendant challenges in the sector, like insufficient financial support services, high levels of unbanked and underbanked women and youth, and multiple loans to the same individuals. The loan situation only raises indebtedness levels, and blacklisting by credit reference bureaus. We will use the systemcraft approach and the five dimensions of change to investigate how to tackle the complex problem of information asymmetry.

For a start, we will identify key actors in the system and establish a common direction and understanding of the issues. The team will develop a framework for gathering information from selected actors. It will seek to build a shared understanding, and collaboration, amongst these actors. The team purposes to undertake research in the opportunities, tensions and enablers for better coordination of key stakeholders.

A pilot programme with select system actors will be designed to test the framework feasibility, prior to expanding the model of information sharing. It is hoped that through this pilot, the team will gain useful insights into how to make the sector work better, how to cushion vulnerable groups, how to access finance and how to nurture sustainable inclusive change. Providing incentives to key stakeholders will be a part of the change process.