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Africans may soon start importing indigenous fruits, vegetables

Opinion & Analysis
In every African mass market, that is ironically shunned by the African middle class in preference for supermarkets, it is common to see Chinese nationals buying local food and taking samples for research.

BY Charles Dhewa Hate them or like them, the Chinese have become adept at quietly studying African natural resources such as local food systems. In every African mass market, that is ironically shunned by the African middle class in preference for supermarkets, it is common to see Chinese nationals buying local food and taking samples for research. Since that level of curiosity is lacking among African academics, it may not be surprising to see African countries importing seeds of indigenous fruits and vegetables from China and other foreign countries in the next few years.

Most vegetable seed grown in Africa is imported

If African researchers were as curious as the Chinese and other nationalities who are thirst for knowledge about natural resources and food systems, seed for most vegetable grown in African countries would by now be produced locally.  African food systems would by now showing the necessary uniqueness associated with community-led food systems. Currently, the way food is produced in East Africa is similar to processes followed in West Africa and Southern Africa. There is just no uniqueness at all.  Some level of uniqueness will become visible when, for instance, people start attending field days for huge hectares of commercially grown Ulude/Nyevhe or any similar local indigenous vegetables in particular African countries, the same way imported crops attract many people to field days.

Limitations of supply-side approaches

Although African governments and development agencies have supported supply-side food production approaches for decades at the expense of demand-side interventions, several knowledge gaps in the food systems still exist, leading to dependence on imports. For instance, the lead time between planting a commodity and its availability on the market is still not understood by many food producers and policymakers. Also missing is acute knowledge on the dynamics surrounding food production in different seasons such as autumn, spring and winter. Summer production is known to almost everybody because it is largely naturally rainfall-dependent.

Very few farmers know that winter slows down the rate at which crops grow and that has a bearing on several factors like inputs, other resources needed and when the commodity will reach the market.  Many crops are very much seasonal and are time-specific in terms of planting and market demand.  With the onset of winter, crop growth rates slow down and that extends maturity days in ways that delay market delivery schedules. That is why early planting is often necessary in order to meet the requirements of markets which pay better.

Using nurseries or direct planting?

Differences in performance between vegetables grown through nurseries and those directly planted are also largely unknown. Some vegetables are better planted in nurseries and then transplanted onto the field.  Such crops can take 1,5 months in the nursery before being transplanted onto the field where 2,5 to three months can be consumed during growing, maturing before availability on the market.

These crops can then be on the market for at least four months. In most cases, consumers do not care about all these lead times because what they just want is food on the table.

The onus is on farmers to know these dynamics. Where farmers lack the knowledge, African academics should fill the gaps instead of leaving everything to chance.

The value of proper sequencing

Proper sequencing of food production is very important if farmers are to meet market requirements in sustainable ways that also ensure resilient food and nutrition security.  Relying on imported seed renders most African countries vulnerable to external shocks. For instance, farmers may plan to grown carrots only for carrots seed to be unavailable in the country due to limited foreign currency needed for importing the seed.

For most food crops, shortage of foreign currency to import specific types of seeds can seriously delay field planting times to enable the market to get food on time. This is one way consistency in food supply is disrupted, leading to persistent hunger and malnutrition.

Investing in local seed research and production can be the best solution instead of depending entirely on imports.  High levels of curiosity are needed among African academics and researchers.

  • Charles Dhewa is the knowledge Transfer Africa chief executive officer and eMkambo founder. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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