Writes Charles Dhewa
Facing the limitations of industrial agriculture, many governments and global organizations are beginning to embrace agroecology and other alternative ways of producing food. Being the application of ecological concepts and principles in farming, agroecology considers the relationships between all the plant, animal, and human elements in a system. There is some emerging consensus that when kept in balance, these relationships establish healthy and thriving ecosystems.
Contextualization agroecology of an enterprises
One of the issues mentioned by proponents of industrial agriculture against agroecology is that it cannot feed the increasing global population and create many jobs. On the contrary, industrial agriculture has not succeeded in addressing unemployment in most African countries where youth unemployment is shooting through the roof. It does not look like industrial agriculture-driven industries like the production of chemical inputs and manufacturing of mono-crops will solve unemployment challenges in the near future. It is in this context that attention is shifting to alternative approaches such as agroecology that have several strengths including food diversity which can be the basis of unique entrepreneurship for youth in the Global South.
However, given that entrepreneurship related to agriculture and food systems has been driven by industrial agriculture for centuries, entrepreneurship around agroecology is still at its infancy in the Global South. For instance, there is no industrial agroecology to anchor agroecology entrepreneurship. On the positive side, agroecology has refined a set of principles that can be used to drive entrepreneurship. Cultivating entrepreneurship through agroecology principles can start by identifying sources of agroecology commodities. Where are agroecology commodities coming from? For instance, if agroecology commodities are coming from the Chimanimani district, how many of the products are produced using agroecology practices? What are the distribution pathways and are there processors in the supply chain of commodities with significant embedment of agroecology principles?
Where does agroecology entrepreneurship start?
The process of answering the above question can be very educative and informative because it is critical to unpack the meaning of entrepreneurship in the agroecological context. Does agroecology entrepreneurship only start at processing? Does it have to be defined by formality such as registration or location such as rural and urban? What if agroecology is intensified at the production level only to be lost at value addition or processing when some entrepreneurs start adding preservatives? This is a typical problem when commodities move along supply chains where infiltration from industrial components is common. Much of this happens in food processing and preparation like catering.
Agroecology entrepreneurship starts from income generation which ensures smallholder farmers have greater financial independence and value addition opportunities while enabling them to respond to demand from consumers. To the extent this is about business and surplus, this commences at the market level. After identifying sources of commodities that are produced agro ecologically, it becomes possible to identify entrepreneurs, markets, and consumers already patronizing those commodities including levels of knowledge co-creation within the ecosystem. Farmers who are producing surplus indigenous vegetables for the market using agroecology principles can rightly call themselves agroecology entrepreneurs.
Agroecology at different supply chain nodes
At production, the question can be what types of enterprises are found at this stage? Moving to the market, different traders trading commodities that are produced using agroecology principles can be identified and profiled. Targeted interrogation of commodities and farmers coming to the market can help because entrepreneurship for farmers starts when they produce surplus for the market. The entrepreneurship lens can also classify farmers according to production practices and this will lead to synergies along agroecology supply chains. For instance, to what extent are production methods adhering to agroecology principles and how significant is the quantity of agroecology commodities getting into the mass food markets? This has a bearing on the level of value addition that can invite meaningful entrepreneurship. Some agroecology principles are dominant at the production stage.
Agroecology entrepreneurship opportunities around food preservation
What has not been adequately explored in most developing countries is agroecology entrepreneurship around preservation of indigenous food. That is where opportunities remain untapped as explained below.
Indigenous vegetables – muboora, munyevhe and mutsine
Rural communities continue to use their own rudimentary ways of preserving muboora, munyevhe and mutsine. For most African countries, these vegetables are found across the whole country, mostly preserved through sun-drying or cooking and then drying. Due to lack of scientific knowledge and support, not much research has been done to ascertain the amount of nutrition that is lost through drying or cooking the vegetables for some hours before sun-drying. Also unknown is the amount of moisture that should not be lost for proper preservation. In most cases, due to rudimentary drying and preservation, the vegetables do not last until the next season. From observations and research done by eMKambo, most African communities would like to consume their vegetable commodities in a raw or fresh state rather than dried.
Tubers – Sweet potatoes (mbambaira) & Yams (madhumbe & magogoya)
For centuries, African communities have tried to come up with ways of preserving sweet potato tubers using pfimbi and other methods. The multipurpose nature of sweet potatoes and yams has also increased as they are consumed for breakfast and as snacks for lunch. Sweet potatoes and yams have also become very close substitutes for bread. More importantly, on the production side, sweet potatoes and yams are not produced with a lot of chemicals and that make them less costly to produce for most smallholder farmers.
If preserved, sweet potatoes and yams can become an integral part of national food security throughout the year. As an example of loss of economic value, during peak periods in Zimbabwe, sweet potatoes are sold at USD2-3/bucket but during the off-season, the bucket goes up to USD20-25 which is almost ten-fold. This shows the economic loss that is caused by the absence of preservation technology, forcing farmers to push all the volumes to the market at the same time.
Another key challenge in most communal areas where mixed farming is practiced is that cattle are allowed to graze crop leftovers from the fields. That forces sweet potato farmers to remove the crop from the field much earlier quickly, even if the market is not ready, to avoid destruction by cattle. The option available is to preserve sweet potatoes by leaving them in the field soils where they are grown. But if potatoes are kept in the ground, the tubers are attacked by pests like Pongwe. It means farmers have to find other ways of storing the crop to avoid losses.
Gourds – mapudzi and magaka eminzwa
These have become a very close alternate substitute to sweet potatoes and bread. When in season they last for less than two months because they quickly ripen (anokomba). Preserving this food will be a game changer for most communities.
Horned cucumbers (magaka eminzwa)– Over the past few years these have become very popular food in urban markets when in season. They have also been scientifically proven to be very nutritious but preservation for the purposes of prolonging the shelf life is a challenge.
Indigenous fruits (mango, masawu, tsubvu, nyii and mazhanje)
The market for indigenous fruits has been growing and providing a livelihood as resilience to supplying producing communities. Unfortunately, like many indigenous commodities, their supply is very seasonal with more than half of the year not being available on the market and even in producing communities for own consumption.
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