Diversifying consumption patterns can stimulate African agriculture
While the older African generation grew up eating indigenous food, the young generation are spoilt for choice in terms of what to eat. The majority of young people are still to appreciate indigenous food like wild fruits, small grains, indigenous chickens and different types of indigenous vegetables. In many African countries, class structures introduced by colonialism still influence food choices and consumption patterns. The majority of black Africans continue to associate oranges, rice, bread and cooking oil with the middle and upper classes. Inspite of their superior nutritional attributes, dried vegetables like mufushwa are largely associated with poverty.
Using food to express social class and upward social mobility has done enormous harm to indigenous food systems and local diets. Many black people have ditched their local food systems in preference for a western diet in order to be accepted into the middle and upper classes. A lot still needs to be done to break this colonial bondage. In Zimbabwe efforts to move indigenous food from the periphery to mainstream local diets have gathered steam as shown here: www.naturallyzimbabwean.com. Climate change is revealing the benefits of indigenous food systems which are mostly drought tolerant.
Need for related production and processing technology
While millet and sorghum were staple foods for our ancestors before the introduction of maize from Southern America in the 1500s, there has not been meaningful achievements in designing appropriate equipment for processing these crops into various products. As an extension of modernisation, hybrids have been promoted together with technology for scaling up adoption. For example maize hybrid varieties have been promoted together with ploughs, planters, dehullers and combine harvesters. We even now have a maputi gun for processing maize into maputi. On the other hand, we are still using traditional ways of harvesting sorghum and millet (cutting with knives). The processing part is still limited to pounding (kutsva /ukugiga) and hand roasting. A simple roaster for small grains should have been designed by now. There is also no technology for extracting pulp from indigenous fruits like matamba and others yet there is a wide range of equipment that can extract juice from oranges.
Most African communities have not been innovative enough to develop their own technologies for processing our food beyond drying. This has limited possibilities of what we can do with our food systems. Thus we can’t create significant employment in the absence of enabling technology. While there is equipment for turning sunflower and soya bean into cooking oil, for groundnuts the far we can go is producing peanut butter as well as cooked and roasted nuts for sale. It is said groundnuts contain some of the best essential oils but most African countries are still to extract these oils. Rather than trying to produce a uniquely Zimbabwean car, the most important task is developing equipment that can enable exploitation of our abundant food systems which are apparently under threat from western diets. Technology (processing and packaging) will increase shelf life, demand and ultimately the producer base.
Limited scientific base
Our education system is also to blame for this predicament. Those studying agriculture at college focus on a narrow range of commodities for their research. In some cases, companies promoting hybrids can sponsor some research in line with their seed varieties. This doesn’t happen to most of our traditional foods like small grains where we have less published work compared to hybrids. Young people from rural areas seem to take pride in earning a Masters Degree studying wheat than millet or nyevhe. One of the reasons for these choices is that there is little published literature which is a pre-requisite in any research. Knowledge in communities is considered anecdotal and it is as if you don’t know anything until your knowledge is published. Unfortunately this constitutes a poor understanding of what knowledge means and can do.
Although formal education has been in African countries for decades, our scientists have limited understanding of the science behind our traditional food. While formal seed companies obtain their improved genetic material from their parent companies located in developed countries, we can’t say the same for our small grains and other foods that are threatened by extinction. By now we should have developed different types of improved genetic material for small grains, wild fruits, indigenous poultry and indigenous vegetables which are central to our local food baskets. Since we continue to rely on the imported notion of science, it seems we have failed to domesticate science and adapt it to our local conditions. We should be having a lot of research results on nhunguru, matohwe, masawu, mawuyu, madhumbe and many other food elements. Failure to domesticate science explains why broiler chickens have started dominating our indigenous poultry even in rural areas. Most farmers who produce broilers have no idea of the science behind broiler chicks production. Also hidden knowledge is why eggs from layers can’t be hatched into chicks. On the other hand, the way our indigenous chickens are produced is not secretive. The knowledge is very easy to borrow.
Given a tradition of not documenting knowledge, it means the future African generation may never know how their ancestors used to select and improve varieties of maize and other crops as well as livestock breeds. Lack of knowledge on what is involved in fertilizer and seed production makes our food systems vulnerable. We have the same dilemma in the medical field where despite the availability of different kinds of medicinal herbs, we still depend on imported medicines. Our western educated doctors are trained to become drug pushers rather than healers. Someone feels more important when s/he swallows a tablet from a Pharmacy than drinking Zumbani.
Lack of nutritional knowledge
Another key challenge is lack of general nutritional knowledge around our food systems. We seem to know more about what is nutritionally contained in oranges and carrots in terms of vitamins but nothing about vitamins in our indigenous fruits. We should be aware of substitutes of oranges and carrots in our indigenous food. A consumer should know that when s/he eats baobab fruit s/he gets the same nutrients that would be obtained in berries, for instance. This will enable local people to bring tsvubvu to the market, not because they grew up eating them but because of their nutritional content. Price should also be tied to nutritional content as opposed to demand and supply only.
Ideally 70% of the food in hotels and restaurants should be purely indigenous as opposed to western diets. People coming to Zimbabwe should know that when in Zimbabwe they eat Zimbabwean food unlike now where someone from UK finds British food in Zimbabwe. On the other hand, a Chinese restaurant saves Chinese food and an Italian restaurant saves Italian food. Japanese Suchi is popular for being entirely Japanese while Italian pizzas are known for expressing the Italian identity. We can’t say the same about our food systems. Conversely our fast food chains seem to take pride in saving western diets. Another genesis for this dilemma is that those who started hotels and restaurants in most African countries were focusing on outside markets and consumers of their own kind. Having taken over these hotels our people have failed to give them a new complexion and identity in the form of providing uniquely local food.
Role of the market
The majority of smallholder farmers are controlled by their micro climates. This limits the number and amount of commodities they can produce. If they are able to produce ten different commodities, they can increase the area planted in response to favourable conditions. Using its convening power, the market can then bring all these commodities together for either exchanging their value or market participation. Through a commodity exchange, small grains from Chivi can be swapped with horticulture commodities from Murewa.
Local farmers and people can’t constitute a market because they all have the same product. High demand for some products like millet meal means processing centres should be located in urban areas where there is a market. This makes it easy for food outlets to fetch millet meal and prepare it for consumers on time just as maize meal and bread processing enterprises are located in urban areas near consumers. Knowledge tends to travel through products and by-products. The prevalence of a commodity on the market all year round creates appetite for it all year round resulting in consumers not removing it from their budgets. Unfortunately, most of our traditional food is on the market for three months of the year and consumers forget about it for nine months. When these foods come back onto the market, they do so in gluts. Consumers have to have a taste of mawuyu every month and that means it should be available all year round as well as in other areas where it is not produced.
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