WHILE global food systems comprise plants, animals and sea food, African indigenous food systems have a bigger component of naturalness associated with specific areas or micro climates.
For instance, small grains like finger millet have a greater characteristic of being natural grasses and are often dominant in dry regions. The same applies to some indigenous vegetables and fruits that are part of certain communities, mountains and rivers including wetlands.
These foods are now considered indigenous foods in communities where they have been dominant for centuries.
Co-existence and infiltration
Due to colonialism and other historical events, indigenous foods no longer exist in isolation but co-exist with imported foods that have been infiltrating African communities for decades. For instance, broiler chickens have been infiltrating rural communities at the expense of indigenous chickens.
The more indigenous chickens are fed processed feed like chicken mash or layers’ mash, the more they lose their indigenous identity. On the other hand, most of the imported foods have their origin within science and laboratories where their seeds are propagated.
There is no reason why African researchers should not use science to deepen their understanding and characterisation of indigenous food systems. Such effort can reveal where African indigenous foods are coming from and where they are going.
There are key elements for sustaining African indigenous foods.
Managing natural resources
This is the first key element in sustaining the existence of indigenous food systems. Indigenous foods do well in the natural environment with little or no industrial inputs added to their existence. Such indigenous foods include: Nyevhe, Muboora, Impwa, Manhanga, Mbambaira, small grains, indigenous goats, chickens and cattle. Much of their co-existence with the natural environment enable them to reproduce using available natural resources.
Any depletion of the natural environment due to industrial development imposes an opportunity cost for indigenous food systems.
For instance, in many African countries, construction and mining industries are undermining indigenous fruits. Before developing residential areas, it is critical for policy makers to take stock of existing natural forests and trees.
It is unfortunate that after destroying natural forests to build urban houses, most Africans grow foreign trees and non-food plants like exotic flowers instead of trying to replant natural trees that existed before.
This is a second key sustainability factor. Once a product has a market, potential for re-investment and expanding production increases. In recent decades, some Zimbabwean rural communities have seen indigenous fruits like baobab fruit and Nyii from their areas becoming a source of income and livelihood.
Such trends have incentivised these communities to protect indigenous forests and trees. By creating space for indigenous food, African mass markets have also increased the value of indigenous food systems, leading to some people replacing exotic fruit trees with indigenous fruit trees in their gardens and orchards.
However, a major knowledge gap relates to valuation of indigenous fruits in the market so that they get authentic value. For instance, why should a 20-litre tin of baobab fruit be sold for US$3-4, the same price for a bucket of mangoes although baobab is said to be more nutritious?
How do academics cost a product that is growing naturally? Indigenous food systems depend on natural resources like nutrients and soils which are also being depleted. How can these be restored?
Another key sustainability element is the governance system. In pre-colonial Africa, a time-honoured role for traditional leadership was preserving natural food systems in the natural environment like forests, rivers, wetlands and mountains.
Traditional leaders appreciated the value of natural resources in building community resilience, including the survival of wild animals, which are not able to produce their own food. For instance, they discouraged over-harvesting of wild fruits and grasses so that wild animals would also have something to survive on.
Unfortunately, over the years, African traditional leaders have lost control over natural resources and habitats to imported governance systems that have taken over the role of licensing land for mining and construction of residential areas without recognising the importance of indigenous food systems.
Linking indigenous food systems with indigenous knowledge systems – This is another avenue for sustaining indigenous food systems. It is important for African academics, researchers and policy makers to know how much knowledge communities have about their indigenous food systems.
Much of the food science taught in African formal education systems is about imported food systems. Nothing is taught about the nutritious benefits of indigenous food and fruits like Masawu, Mazhanje and others from diverse micro climates.
How much are African governments investing in natural science behind indigenous foods that now anchor resilience? By now it should be clear which indigenous foods do well during droughts in particular areas. Some of the indigenous food systems have traditionally been used to forecast the forthcoming season.
Unfortunately, such indigenous knowledge systems are largely not documented to ascertain accuracy against modern science like the Meteorological Service Department. Building and packaging indigenous knowledge systems will enable passing on of the knowledge to future generations, the same way curricula is used to embed modern knowledge in the future generation.
Part of identity
Instead of being famous for a few colonial value chains such as cocoa, cotton, sugar cane and tobacco, African countries should strive to build their originality and identity around their indigenous food systems.
Why should Ivory Coast be known only for cocoa and Zimbabwe be famous only for tobacco when the countries have more than 100 indigenous foods?
It is known that much of the industrial development started with food which inspired manufacturing of products and related equipment as well as science around seed, genetics and appropriate water provisioning like irrigation.
African research institutions and universities should reflect on and examine the relevance of indigenous science in protecting, promoting and sustaining indigenous food systems including African identity.
There is a lot of undocumented indigenous knowledge systems that were used by African ancestors to preserve food and seed but such knowledge is being lost to imported knowledge.
Need for political will
Political will to sustain indigenous food systems can only be demonstrated when African countries set up government departments responsible for indigenous foods.
Among other mandates, such departments should be responsible for preserving indigenous foods to enhance availability throughout the year and securing the monetary value of indigenous foods, most of which are seasonal.
Preservation will regulate supplies and ensure indigenous foods are released to the market at a price worth the nutrition and other benefits associated with indigenous foods.
Without a dedicated government department, it is impossible for African countries to develop pathways for sustaining indigenous food systems and unpack the entire benefits of consuming indigenous foods.
Currently, most of the indigenous foods are only visible at exhibitions like agricultural shows and trade fairs but there is no full-scale commercial imperative that would ensure they are available as nutritious food baskets for consumption at household and institutions like hospitals, boarding schools, colleges and canteens of government departments. Building nutritious and healthy food baskets together with recipes and appropriate ingredients is a key part of knowledge and market development.
It can turn indigenous foods into products that can be always available on the market irrespective of production season.