Over-dependency on foreign currency is a new form of colonisation that is preventing African countries from developing their own agriculture and food systems. For instance, countries like Zimbabwe are producing commodities using foreign currency to sell those commodities for earning foreign currency, used for the next cycle of production and the vicious cycle continues endlessly.
Wheat is also produced using foreign currency in the form of imported chemicals and other inputs.
Citizens are expected to buy wheat bread using incomes from other sources including selling small grains, indigenous fruits and tubers.
This foreign currency trap means foreign producers are producing food for African citizens.
Producing indigenous food does not need foreign currency
The fact that indigenous food is not produced using foreign currency is a blessing for most African communities. With sufficient political will and investment in appropriate technology, indigenous food systems can anchor home-grown production systems that maximise indigenous knowledge systems with no need for foreign currency. Why should African countries import seed as a product instead of importing knowledge to produce their own seed? Rather than import fertiliser, does it not make a tonne of sense to import knowledge for producing local fertiliser?
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Another dilemma is seen when African countries import food from each other. Who benefits when Zimbabwe imports maize or wheat from a fellow African country like Zambia or South Africa?
The beneficiaries are producers of foreign food in those countries not producers of indigenous food like small grains which are part of a shared diet among several African countries. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) should promote trading of commodities with a 90% indigenous comparative advantage. For instance, what can each African country or a number of countries sharing similar micro climates produce based on comparative advantages?
Why is it difficult for African countries to trade using their own local currencies?
What makes it difficult for the Zambian Kwacha to trade with the Zimbabwe dollar without need for an intermediary currency like the United States dollar? The main reason is that Zambia needs the US dollar from Zimbabwe for use in importing some products. Otherwise, local currencies should be trading with each other. A country whose consumers spend more than 90% of their income on imported food systems suffers significant losses by being a consumer and labourer of foreign food systems. If more than 30% of the fiscus is going to salaries for civil servants and the civil servants spend 90% of their salaries on foreign food systems, it means the government is the one buying foreign food systems for civil servants because salaries come from the government.
When African consumers depend on rice from Asia and wheat from Ukraine, it means African labour is working for Asia and Ukraine. If more than 40% of maize production goes towards imported seed, chemicals and fertiliser, it means that 40% is going to foreigners. African policymakers should ask themselves how local is their food when they are paying 40% for imported food?
What are the cost components that go towards foreign inputs or cost of production influenced by the outside world?
Food as culture and identity
Genuine transformation will happen when African policymakers stop obsession with foreign currency. Unless that happens, African countries will get to a point where indigenous food will be difficult to distinguish from other food. That is why there is urgent need to come up with several ways of packaging indigenous food in line with culture and identity. African policymakers should urgently position themselves to understand the whole indigenous food systems — where the foods come from, seed, how the food is produced, processed and other parameters. It does not help policymakers to just pick a few crops through academic methods of identifying commodities without fully understanding indigenous food systems. Some of the critical questions include: How do small grains relate to fruits? What about seasonality? How do these foods and communities address resilience? Policies that are pro-indigenous food are long overdue in all African countries.
Need for aggressive promotion of indigenous food
It is unfortunate that institutions and parastatals promoting foreign trade like ZimTrade are not seen creating markets for indigenous crops, indigenous chickens and others. African policymakers should create space for indigenous food against increasing competition from external food systems.
Most countries have policies that talk about value addition, agroecology and nutrition but not much is happening on the ground to implement these policies to the letter. The dominance of imports and processed food systems continue to push indigenous food to the margins of consumption patterns.
As more towns were developed and forests cleared, indigenous food was pushed to remote areas.
On the positive side, urbanisation is developing markets for indigenous food. There is an increasing trend in demand but there is need to protect what is available especially production areas which are shrinking due to urbanisation and rural to urban migration. More importantly, African countries have to start developing meaningful rural industries for indigenous food through investing in appropriate labour-saving technologies that are also attractive to the young generation. Another opportunity is tapping into the African diaspora community as part of globalising indigenous food systems. The good thing is that indigenous food follows its consumers. For instance, madhumbe has followed consumers from Manicaland to Harare, indigenous fruits like tsvubvu and mazhanje are following consumers from rural areas to cities.
- Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist. He writes here in his personal capacity.