Reconstructive writing can preserve indigenous food systems

Charles Dhewa

SCHOLARS and thought leaders in the Global South are realising that the best way of reversing the damage caused by colonialism on African food systems and intellectual heritage is not to continue lamenting.

Aggressive efforts should be directed at reconstructing and reclaiming African food systems including indigenous knowledge. Such reconstruction will not only salvage indigenous knowledge and food systems from oblivion, but lays a strong foundation for Africans to use their food systems and indigenous knowledge in re-asserting their identity towards participating confidently in global conversations that seek truth, knowledge and socio-economic justice.

Reconstructive documentation

In answering the call for African scholars and researchers to put together written accounts of their food systems and indigenous knowledge systems, Knowledge Transfer Africa has been pioneering a framework and methodology for documenting food baskets in Zimbabwe.

The process is anchored on dialogue with people who really understand their food systems context, including how food production zones are related to food baskets and markets.

A food basket in a particular community or district indicates commodities consumed in that community or district.

The other thread was identifying commodities produced in surplus for the market in each community or district as some local households expand their food baskets with food from distant markets. Food can travel directly from one district to the other.

The process of documenting the food basket is not just listing commodities in the community, but includes mapping and conducting supply chain analysis to show intricacies and relationships between production zones and markets. When this process reveals niche markets for particular commodities like fruits from one district, it becomes possible to do a comparative analysis showing types and amounts of food from outside the community or district.

Differences in food baskets between districts can eventually reveal supply corridors that build food baskets at different supply chain nodes. African mass markets have become part of the food basket mapping because markets are good at revealing the seasonal nature of food baskets including socio-economic and political factors influencing the structure of the food basket. More importantly, the market can answer such questions as what is the relationship between food and non-food enterprises and how do these affect indigenous food? What does the food basket look like during the festive season? All these can only be analysed from the market because the market interacts with farmers, consumers and traders in one place. Such intelligence can be used to promote African substitutes for exotic fruits that are getting into African rural communities from outside.

The capture of markets by African and non-African food can also be seen through markets, for instance, what is pushing demand for sweet potatoes and small grains in cities over the past 10 years? Is it the increase in the price of bread or knowledge about heating health and wellness? Answering these questions requires careful documentation.

At what point were the African indigenous food and related knowledge systems lost?

This is one of the most enduring contemporary questions dominating discussions on African food systems with African elders during reconstructive dialogue sessions. Old people are blaming young people for shunning indigenous food but young people are also blaming elders for not sufficiently introducing them to indigenous food. It appears there is a generation where colonisation of indigenous food gained ground.

Most African rural communities are aware that colonisation was too powerful and they are now struggling with external food systems whose production and post-harvest handling knowledge communities lack. For instance, knowledge about fall army worm and other pests is limited. Academic institutions can close critical knowledge gaps through building solid pathways for knowledge exchange. Instead of being attached at formal institutions during their internship period, African university students can add more value if attached to communities so that they use their knowledge to document local food systems.

Another big issue being witnessed and lamented by rural elders is the increasing consumption and infiltration of foreign foods at service centres through corporates. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) like agro-dealers and rural general dealer shops are said to be opening avenues for corporates by testing and developing markets for corporate processed products.

For instance, many SMEs at growth points and rural business centres now cook doughnuts, potato chips and other commodities that are changing tastes for rural consumers. This is triggering the demand for fast foods that are then pushed by corporates.

Knowledge on different indigenous food is also being lost due to limited intentional support from government. For instance, due to neglect and deforestation, some communities no longer have young baobab trees and seed is not being given time to regenerate. The communities are losing related knowledge and worse so, communities are not being supported to invest in propagating indigenous fruit trees and other foods. In communities where private seed companies are dominant, these are privately investing in gathering and patenting indigenous knowledge and seed systems.

This is how indigenous knowledge is being stolen and communities are powerless to do anything about it.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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