By Charles Dhewa
The introduction of exotic crops, fruits and livestock into Africa was initially guided and informed by the way indigenous crops, livestock and fruits performed in different micro climates. Unfortunately, instead of cultivating co-existence between exotic and indigenous foods, the colonial knowledge system has sought to completely replace indigenous crops, fruits and livestock with exotic food systems.
A telling example is how African agronomists and horticultural specialists have been equipped with knowledge on promoting plantations of apples, oranges, peaches and other exotic fruits. They cannot imagine plantations of indigenous fruits like Masawu, Matohwe, Tsvubvu, Nyii and many others that respond well to a changing climate. In addition to maize and wheat, exotic leafy vegetables have also been over-researched such that there is no longer any new knowledge about these food commodities. On the other hand, thousands of indigenous crops, fruits and vegetables are yet to be researched and commercialised for the benefit of consumers.
The folly of replacing natural ecosystems with exotic foods
As seen in most rural communities, you don’t need foreign currency to produce indigenous fruits and vegetables. By embracing exotic foods at the expense of local foods, African policy makers have destroyed local knowledge about different food systems. The entire agricultural and nutrition curricular focuses more on generating knowledge about the production, processing, marketing and consumption of exotic foods whose market base is no longer expanding. Financial systems are also biased towards exotic agricultural commodities on the pretext that they have off-takers.
Rather than exploring and developing local food systems, development agencies are also supporting the production of exotic commodities, most of which have reached their ceiling. Community irrigation schemes are being compelled to produce exotic crops and fruits using inputs whose knowledge and ingredients are also exotic such that foreign currency is required if production is to continue. Development efforts have a wide pool of indigenous crops, fruits, tubers and vegetables from which to choose instead of bringing Chia and other exotic crops for production in Africa.
Having destroyed their natural resources through unregulated industrialisation, some developed countries are now curious to get new food systems from Africa. This is a huge opportunity for African countries to develop their own indigenous foods and use diaspora populations to promote consumption of African food in developed countries. Traditionally, Africans have developed tastes and preferences for foods that grew naturally without destroying local economies and ecosystems. This is what the new generation of Western consumers are craving for. African countries should not squander an opportunity to provide unique food with distinct flavour to the world just as Africa is now a haven for tourists from Asia and the West.
The role of African research institutes, universities and financial institutions
There is a limit to which African research institutes and universities can continue using exotic knowledge to produce exotic food just for the sake of earning foreign currency. An African agricultural research institution should ensure more than 90 percent of the commodities being researched on are indigenous. Exotic knowledge and methodologies have to be creatively combined with Indigenous Knowledge Systems. African gene banks should contain more local and indigenous seed and planting materials than exotic ones.
Universities and research institutes in Africa should play a leading role in regenerating indigenous natural foods as an important way of minimizing the effects of climate change and foreign currency deficit. Currently the whole African agriculture system is anchored on foreign currency yet local knowledge on natural products can be a solution to foreign currency challenges. Once developing countries are able to apply knowledge in developing natural resources they can create markets for new commodities unlike exporting commodities to countries where those commodities originate. It is not sustainable to continue earning foreign currency from commodities that originate externally.
African financial institutions like the Africa Development Bank should ensure more than 75 percent of their agricultural funding supports indigenous crops and livestock unlike promoting exotic commodities that have reached their ceiling and are no longer resilient to climate change. You will never find a European bank or an American bank financing research and production of purely indigenous crops, fruits and livestock in Africa because these institutions have vested interests in promoting hybrids and equipment from their countries. When will African financial institutions wake up to this reality?
Harnessing the power of collective community knowledge
Meanwhile, African rural communities are already using their knowledge and food systems to cope with a changing climate. On the contrary, formal research institutes continue focusing on exotic food systems and related knowledge. Unfortunately, community knowledge tends to be individualised when it should be layered the way academic knowledge is built through layers from primary school to PhD level. This is where knowledge brokers can play a fundamental role in layering local knowledge in diverse ways including by age, gender, location and culture.
The starting point in transforming African agro-based economies is obtaining comprehensive knowledge on local food systems and natural ecosystems. Where necessary, imported knowledge should be combined with local knowledge in producing and preserving natural foods and ecosystems. This can be achieved though the following activities:
- Conducting research and consolidating knowledge on indigenous foods, starting from seed, production and all the way to plantations for natural trees. Thorough research should also be conducted on livestock including guinea fowls that are game animals and very resilient.
- Introducing data gathering tools to capture supply, demand, prices, tastes, preferences, sources of indigenous fruits, tubers, vegetables and livestock flowing into the mass market across Africa.
- Establishing a basis for frequent analysis of market data to inform production and preservation.
- Exploring value addition options – porridge, snacks, flour and others in the market given that more than 90% of indigenous crops, tubers, fruits and vegetables are consumed raw.
- Initiating continuous policy papers that inform policy reviews on the promotion of indigenous foods as part of local content.
- Government funding directed at researching the extent to which exotic knowledge systems continue to substitute IKS. In all African countries, more than 80 percent of decisions are based on local indigenous knowledge while in cities less than 5% of decisions are informed by indigenous knowledge. To what extent is urbanization eroding IKS in Africa? As African countries grow their towns and growth points, to what extent are they destroying IKS?
We are not advocating for the complete reversal of the gains associated with exotic knowledge. There is no doubt that imported knowledge and technology has contributed to some measure of progress in African countries. Given that each knowledge system has its limitations, Africa is likely to benefit more through intentionally promoting co-existence between exotic and indigenous knowledge, especially in relation to food systems under threat from climate change. Eating habits, tastes and preferences are beginning to be influenced by a rapidly changing climate.