Which is more important owning land or controlling food systems?

Which is more important owning land or controlling food systems?

It is becoming obvious that owning land is pointless without controlling food systems. The main motivation for colonization was controlling and exploiting natural resources such as land. Colonialists knew that once they control land, they control African food systems. In most cases, where colonialists displaced local food systems, they brought their substitutes in the form of Western foods and diets.  While this triggered struggles for independence across Africa, African leaders narrowed their focus to removing colonial leadership rather than bringing back African food systems.

A food production base for the West

Besides substituting and controlling African food systems, colonialists wanted to create a food production base for their Western population. Secondly, they wanted to build businesses around agriculture and food systems. Even today, some forms of investment are about displacing people and controlling natural such as land and minerals. It is not a coincidence that much investment by foreign companies has been in African agriculture. Once they invest in agriculture then they control food systems and local people because everybody needs food.

Much of what is produced by investors in African agriculture is for the market they have identified in their countries, not for Africans. This means African food systems continue to be replaced by colonial food systems. The majority of African producers are still being pushed to poor soils that are not able to produce enough indigenous food. This has ensured Africans become a big market for foreign food systems.

What is preventing African governments from bringing back indigenous food systems?

Instead of reclaiming African food systems, African countries like Zimbabwe that have repossessed their land have continued to produce colonial crops and livestock. What will it take for African leaders to start bringing back African food systems? There is widespread awareness that displacement and replacement of African food systems was done through:

  • Introducing external seed, breeds and other inputs like fertilizer.
  • Promoting imported technologies to produce food for Western countries and for Africans who have been deprived of their fertile land.

The whole process was designed to substitute African food varieties with imported products, starting with seed. But sadly, within the imported food systems was knowledge which, however, was not designed in such a way that Africans could fully understand and apply. For example, how to come up with hybrid indigenous seeds. Africans have a lot of knowledge on their food systems but there is no political will to support such knowledge in formal education systems.

Imported and colonial knowledge on production continue to be used to replace African indigenous knowledge and technology. For instance, Africans continue to be coerced and persuaded to shun investing in small grains about which Africans have a lot of knowledge. That is why there is no appropriate technology for planting, weeding, harvesting and processing small grains. Instead, there is abundant knowledge and technology for imported seed like maize and wheat which Africans do not control.

Colonialists made sure there is no processing and preservation technology for indigenous seed and food systems. In addition of bringing their own seed and knowledge, colonialists turned Africans into implementers or producers of imported seed. They also stole some indigenous knowledge systems, ideas and inventions, some of which they used to add value to their own knowledge.  For example, they stole and commercialized traditional beer brewing knowledge which has become part of western knowledge, yet beer brewing is a time-honoured tradition across Africa for centuries. A lot of the industrial processing is now in the hands of colonizers who can use capital to displace original owners. 

Entry point for decolonizing African food systems

The process of decolonizing food systems should answer the question: Now that Africans control land, labour and other resources, how can they generate their own food systems-related knowledge, inventions and innovations in order to come up with their own food systems? If it is not political will, what is preventing Africans from using their own knowledge and resources to control the whole food system from seed to market?  For example, they can start from developing their own indigenous seed, their own chemicals and other technologies.

Young Africans now have land and knowledge but lack capital. How can Africans support their mass markets to replace imported market systems as part of restoring African food sovereignty? Without controlling food systemslike investment in infrastructure, innovation, seed, chemicals and processing, most Africans remain vulnerable to drought and pandemics which are characterized by restrictions in importation of food. Deprivation of African food systems has seen farmers buying seed every year – a serious form of colonization which treats seed as a consumable.

Demand or consumption side

In much of Africa, everything associated with imported knowledge and technologies is considered modern and this includes imported technologies like use of fertilizers and chemicals but no one is talking about the side effects on soils, the environment and people’s health.  As long Africans do not control their own consumption patterns, they will remain colonized and stuck in prescriptive consumption patterns like breakfast – mid morning tea – lunch – dinner. When you are told what to eat and when, you are not in charge of managing your consumption patterns.

Colonial consumption patterns were meant to develop markets for food whose knowledge colonialists had developed. Innovations and inventions around food were meant to create a market by tying consumption to time so that time of the day influences demand for particular food as in bread and breakfast-related food in the morning, some types of food for lunch and others for dinner as well as snacks and teas in between. This is how time has been used to determine household purchasing decisions irrespective of the nature of work members of the household are doing.

The low hanging opportunity

Within the mission to decolonize African food systems, the low hanging process should start with food systems whose indigenous knowledge Africans already possess and control. Then they can move to generating new knowledge around existing food systems. How much knowledge do Africans have on the whole maize production process?  If Africans cannot control maize germplasm, then they are not independent. For example, most African countries are blessed with abundant indigenous like brown rice and related knowledge. Much of that knowledge is with indigenous Africans.  imported rice. Is it not time to use ancestral and indigenous knowledge to promote the production of brown rice and other indigenous foods?

Political will can be demonstrated by setting up seed houses for local foods like brown rice, small grains, sesame, sweet potatoes, indigenous groundnuts with different names attached to them and many other crops. Whose permission do African need to build seed houses for their wild fruits, indigenous herbs, yams and many other foods?  There is a lot of indigenous knowledge on these foods in several communities and production zones.

Setting up supportive institutions can be the best starting point in decolonizing and restoring African food systems. As long as Africans do not control technologies in their food systems, they will remain under pressure to import technologies. This is why foreign currency remains a treasured commodity in African countries as African governments compete to get foreign currencies backed by natural resources.  For how long will African policy makers be proud of valuing their natural resources using foreign currency?

charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

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