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Agroecology can drive Africa’s sustainable industrial revolution

Opinion & Analysis
Africans have been slow in documenting it the way industrialisation and the industrial revolution have been documented through all their phases in which the evolution of Western food systems has also been captured

WHEN the Western Industrial Revolution spilled over into Africa, its proponents were mainly interested in raw materials and business opportunities, but ended up negatively affecting Africa’s food systems that were evolving at their own natural pace. In addition to supporting Western economies by exploiting Africa’s natural resources, the introduction of industrialisation and urbanisation in Africa changed African food systems and consumption patterns. Wage employment and earning income as a source of livelihood was used as a carrot to sway Africans from their food systems in favour of processed food produced with Western knowledge.

Turning tables with agroecology

Underlying the agroecology movement sweeping across Africa is a strong conviction that Africa’s sustainable industrial revolution cannot be driven by foreign food systems. One key realisation is that agroecology has evolved over time as part of indigenous food systems, but Africans have been slow in documenting it the way industrialisation and the industrial revolution have been documented through all their phases in which the evolution of Western food systems has also been captured.

More efforts are now being directed at packaging agroecology practices so that they anchor the continent’s sustainable industrial revolution which is different from the Western industrial revolution whose sustainability has remained questionable. Overwhelming evidence is beginning to show that agroecology and indigenous food systems have enormous potential to be growth paths for African agriculture and food systems, but they have been suppressed and replaced by industrial agriculture for many decades. That means there should be investment in recognising, supporting and protecting agroecology and indigenous food production practices. Colonial industries introduced to Africa were not related to indigenous food, but focused on making Africans a market for Western food through changing African consumption patterns. For instance, once Africans living in urban areas started eating wheat bread, they lost tastes for indigenous yams. Unaware that they were being exploited, Africans celebrated employment at the expense of natural resources whose opportunities were taken over before Africans could commercialise their indigenous food systems.

Industrialisation with an indigenous face and flair

Industrialisation is not really a bad thing. But to be relevant to the African context, it should be driven by agroecology and commercial indigenous food systems. The dominance of Western food systems in African industrialised and urbanised areas is problematic and has to be reversed through agroecology. Western food systems are not only colonising urban areas, but encroaching into rural areas as seen by how fast foods are flowing into African rural business centres and growth points in the name of modernisation. To try to roll back the influence of fast foods and Western agribusinesses that are significantly contributing to the negative impact of climate change, agroecology is inspiring a new kind of social entrepreneurship. This entrepreneurship is developing commercial business models around indigenous food systems in ways that are environmentally friendly, culturally-appropriate, nutritionally-conscious and climate sensitive.

These new business models are designed to benefit indigenous supply chain actors such as producers, mass market traders, processors and consumers as well as guarantee food sovereignty by giving appropriate value to local natural resources. To this end, African countries are witnessing the evolution of agroecology and community-driven indigenous enterprises which are not purely private, but community-driven enterprises that have strong relationships with production areas. At the heart of these enterprises is indigenous commerce which is a combination of social, political, environmental and technological elements. Environmental consciousness pays attention to the impact of food systems on the environment which is different from industrial farming which prioritise non-food commodities like tobacco that are produced with the best natural resources for the sake of earning foreign currency. The social angle looks at the impact of tobacco smoking on the population.

Need for policy shift

In light of these trends, policy makers cannot continue seating on the fence by, for instance, importing fertiliser and chemicals while supporting small grains and indigenous food.

In national programmes, this confuses extension officers and farmers as they become unsure which policy to follow. On one side African governments are supporting climate-sensitive agriculture, but on the other side is industrial agriculture. The Health ministry is preaching health eating against the cost of the long-term effects of the food systems which is exerting a burden on the fiscus. As part of reflecting on these issues, policymakers should ask themselves: What is the point of taking land and other natural resources and continue producing Western industrial food systems? To answer some of these questions, the African industrial revolution should be a package of land, natural resources, policy support and political will.

Beyond changing consumption behaviour back to indigenous food, African policymakers should use their political will to direct investments into the production of indigenous food so that commercialisation becomes worthwhile. For instance, nothing stops government from directing that each farmer devotes some land to indigenous food every farming season. That is how, eventually, small grains and tubers can replace exotic foods like wheat and Irish potatoes. Such efforts will revolutionise the identity of African food systems. Instead of leaving communities grappling with difficult decisions in a changing climate, policies can make a difference by providing relevant incentives, the same governments influence increased production of what are called strategic grains such as maize. Incentives should be provided to support indigenous food through special facilities. While some countries like Zimbabwe have introduced a horticulture fund, that fund lacks an indigenous identity because it has not been crafted in collaboration with farming communities in line with their diverse economic drivers. Incentives should also be provided to support indigenous supply chain systems that are currently driven by African mass markets and traders. That can only happen if there is appetite among policy makers, financial institutions and development agencies to study and understand these ecosystems for purposes of providing appropriate support.

Learning from African mass markets

How can African economies learn from mass markets how to ring-fence their natural resources to build growth and sustainable pathways, to the extent that they do not over-depend on external financial support, but become experts at ring-fencing their funding mechanisms. The same applies to related actors such as food vendors and transporters. If there were no mass markets, African consumers will not have access to more than 50 food commodities during a drought year but subjected to a few exotic foods that are not nutritious. As African policy makers mobilise foreign currency for food imports in order to deal with El Niño-induced drought, to what extent have they explored diverse food baskets and agricultural entrepreneurship opportunities in mass markets? By supporting the importation of maize and wheat while mass markets are full of maize, yams and other foods produced locally, African policy makers are showing their bias towards one economy that rides on the fiscus, while leaving the other economy driven by mass markets to its own fate. In Zimbabwe, traders are using their own resources to bring tonnes of sweet potato to the market from diverse production zones, but wheat production and importation is receiving support from the fiscus. This means, despite playing a huge role in mobilising food, there is no recognition, support and protection for mass markets.

Lessons from African mass markets are demonstrating the need to redefine and contextualise entrepreneurship. Due to the colonial influence, it appears the entrepreneurial culture in African economies is understood through formal companies. Micro, small and medium enterprises that are processing peanut butter and other foods are not recognised. Why should policymakers pretend there is nothing happening around food at the grassroots? Although they have developed systems and pathways for supporting resilient supply chains through culture and relationships, mass markets are left to operate without policy support.

Yet in reality, traders are individual entrepreneurs who make up an industry that is not recognised under formal chambers of commerce. Instead of just copying and pasting industrial models developed in the West, African policymakers can use lessons from the mass market to refocus attention to indigenous food as part of reclaiming and building new African industries that have an African flair and identity. Thankfully, advocates of agroecology are becoming very aggressive in making sure agroecology and indigenous food systems reclaim their rightful position in Africa’s sustainable industrial revolution.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist

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