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African territorial mass markets define the meaning of staple food

Opinion & Analysis
A STAPLE food is basically defined as a necessary commodity whose demand is constant. Given the extent to which several food commodities, different from maize and wheat products, are now demanded constantly in most African countries, the definition of a staple is shifting rapidly.

A STAPLE food is basically defined as a necessary commodity whose demand is constant. Given the extent to which several food commodities, different from maize and wheat products, are now demanded constantly in most African countries, the definition of a staple is shifting rapidly.

These disruptive trends are being driven by territorial markets through unique aggregation and distribution prowess.

Mass markets are showing that in a dynamic modern world, the definition of a staple is subjective because it is largely defined by the consumer/buyer not by policymakers.

For someone who wants to drink tea daily, tea is a staple and for someone who wants to drink beer daily, beer becomes a staple.

For medical reasons, many African elders no longer consume white maize meal sadza/ugali/nsima, they have shifted to finger millet meals. It means maize is no longer their staple.

It is more about diversity of meals than staple food

Overwhelming evidence shows how colonial staples are losing ground to diverse foods produced in different micro climates in response to a changing climate.

Most African households in both urban and rural areas are embracing mixed meals as opposed to individual staples.

For instance, tea and related breakfast products are consumed in the morning.

Afternoon lunch is often characterised by lighter meals since most household members may not be at home but at different workplaces.

Children will be at school, where meals may not be based on maize-meal only.

The only time sadza/nsima/ugali may be consumed in large measure is during supper when most household members are at home.

Still, during supper, children prefer rice and potatoes not sadza/nsima/ugali.

Monitoring and consolidating all these consumption patterns can reveal how food choices are fast-changing in ways that redefine what is considered a staple by different people even in rural areas.

In the case of Zimbabwe, the distribution prowess of mass markets is ensuring avocadoes are now found in Binga and potatoes in Gokwe, where they did not use to be consumed because they were traditionally not grown there.

Farmers in those areas are now succeeding in planting those crops in their gardens and wetlands to ensure constant availability for consumption.

What is also becoming clear is that maize is not a staple for the young generation.

That means, when policymakers are framing a food basket, there is now need for a broader lens beyond using an urban household food basket in which margarine, cooking oil, Mazoe Orange Crush drink and sugar are mentioned as components of a food basket for a family of six.

The demand for high value crops like carrots, peas and fine beans is growing as many households access these through mass markets.

It means households consuming these foods in high-density areas can no longer fit the traditional colonial definition of low-income because they can afford diverse unique food.

Even if a family can afford bread, the fact that children no longer want bread everyday signals that bread alone will no longer be a staple for future generations.

The same applies with drinks. An increase in varieties of drinks and fruit juices implies policymakers can no longer prescribe staple drinks or juices to consumers.

Urgent need for formal systems that move diverse food

Food diversity is now characterising many African micro climates such that the biggest challenge in most African countries is no longer food production, but equitable distribution.

Instead of declaring an El Niño-induced drought when one province is overwhelmed with fruits, government departments like the Agriculture ministry should set up systems for moving those fruits to areas of deficit rather than importing grain from South America.

By not monitoring diverse food systems as well as facilitating aggregation and distribution, African governments are giving power to foreign institutions like the Famine Early Warning System to define local food systems, including calling simple food shortages caused by lack of distribution a famine.

Language like “lean season” that is used by development organisations and external organisations to describe food situations is used for accessing donor money to bring external food when what is only needed are systems for aggregating and moving food from areas of abundance to deficit areas.

To maximise benefits from agriculture and food commodities, the Agriculture ministry in each African country should have a department responsible for aggregating and distributing of all kinds of commodities not just grains.

That department can focus on assessing and monitoring where commodities are in abundance as well as seasonal availability of diverse commodities in different areas.

Such a department should seek answers to questions like: Where are commodities earning sub-economic prices? Where can commodities be taken to for better prices?

This role cannot be left to the private sector, whose actors are most interested in selected profit-oriented commodities.

For instance, in the case of grain, grain marketing boards often procure grain from farmers and hand over to millers who produce mealie-meal, which is then sold to consumers instead of other foods.

The main assumption is that consumers prefer processed mealie-meal for sadza/nsima/ugali yet in reality, households may prefer raw grain for multiple uses like mixing with groundnuts, bambara nuts and other grains to produce diverse local meals.

Why should maize distribution be limited to profit-oriented millers when maize grain has several uses?

In fact, formal millers destroy the potential growth of local small-and-medium enterprises like local grinding mills that are often part of the community social fabric.

By making choices on behalf of consumers who should be making their own choices as part of coping with shocks, millers and other formal systems undermine resilience and local responses to shocks.

Being alert and alive to this reality, mass markets ensure food availability in diverse forms.

Distributing local food reinforces resilience than cash transfers and food aid

Instead of resorting to external food aid, development organisations can foster resilience by supporting the movement of local food from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity.

While some development organisations have become fond of cash transfers, the whole notion of supporting so-called vulnerable households by giving them cash can be counter-productive.

Rather than giving people money through cash transfers, it is better to make food available in communities at affordable prices.

For instance, giving a household US$35 to buy non-existent food is not a solution, especially when that is done without fully understanding household needs.

An ideal approach should be giving people a choice between money and food. When food is available, it can be easily converted into other resources like cash for relevant uses.

Some households can sell chickens or goats to buy what they need. The demand and role of diverse commodities in building resilient food systems is evident.

The critical question is: Should people be given money to buy expensive food where food is in short supply or food should be made available at affordable prices so that communities can save and use the savings for other needs like medical bills and school fees payment?

Supporting the movement of food from high producing areas to low-producing areas generates dual benefits.

Farmers in high producing areas are able to dictate better prices for their commodities than selling in local markets where everybody has the same commodity.

On the other hand, communities in low producing areas get commodities at affordable prices and that triggers a saving culture compared to when they rely on buying a narrow range of commodities in retail shops without getting diverse commodities.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist

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