Can history be dangerous? A recent study by ICRISAT and partners – Bunda College of Agriculture, Malawi; the Directorate of National Rural Extension, Mozambique; the University of Zimbabwe; and the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute – highlights the damage caused by a phenomenon known as ‘lock in'. A technology solution is adopted, perhaps for sound historical reasons. Twenty years later, science has moved on, and better solutions are available. But we remain ‘locked in' to the old ways, and pay a heavy price.
One example is the computer keyboard. The arrangement of letters (QWERTY) was developed for the manual typewriter – specifically to prevent keys from jamming at high typing speeds. This isn't a problem with a computer keyboard. Another arrangement would be more efficient – but the world is ‘locked in', and QWERTY remains the global standard.
QWERTY doesn't do much harm, but other cases of ‘lock-in' are far more serious.
In the 1980s, Malawi introduced a type of basal fertilizer known as 23:21:0+4S. The reasons? Imports were difficult because of the civil war in Mozambique; it was simpler to import a single kind of fertilizer for the whole country; and this formulation was ideal for tobacco, the main cash crop. Today Malawi can import a range of fertilizers, suitable for different crops and different regions. But it remains locked in to the old formulation, and farmers pay high prices for sub-optimal fertilizer.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Zimbabwe faced trade sanctions. It needed fertilizers that could be produced locally and suitable for large-scale commercial farmers who were the major users. The answer: Compound D, which was at that time, almost state-of-the-art. Today there are no sanctions, fertilizer demand has shifted from large-scale to small-scale farmers, and more suitable formulations are widely available. But Zimbabwe is still locked in to Compound D or its minor variants.
How to get out of lock-in? One prerequisite is better information – users, traders and policy makers must all be aware of the different options available, and their costs and benefits. Decisions concerning millions of potential users have to be carefully made. They cannot be reversed easily; for example, choosing the wrong fertilizer or the wrong telecommunications standard.
In the southern African context, regional technical bodies can play a vital role in guiding these decisions, and avoiding the consequences of lock-in. ICRISAT is part of the Soil Fertility Consortium for Southern Africa (SOFECSA), which aims to do just that. SOFECSA's goals – better technology, better awareness of these technologies, and appropriate, effective technology solutions.
For further information, contact Joseph Rusike at email@example.com.