The value of delinking African food systems from foreign currency
A major lesson for African leaders from the Russia-Ukraine conflict is that they should accelerate the development of food systems that have no direct link with foreign currency. African agriculture has remained thinly defined for decades as shown by how agricultural policies focus on less than five percent of African food systems that can only be seen in mass food markets.
As long as African policy makers and technocrats continue using imported knowledge and inputs to drive their food systems, they will not escape the foreign currency burden. If they are really serious about building transformative food systems, they should identify food systems that can be produced without using foreign currency. Such an inquiry can start from understanding what is needed to produce a food commodity or product. For every commodity whose production demands foreign currency, African countries are forced to sell that commodity in foreign currency. If that happens, local employees and consumer will also demand foreign currency in order to afford that commodity. This is because the push factor from depending on foreign currency and imports for agriculture production triggers the demand for foreign currency in all value chain nodes. Farmers will also expect to be paid in foreign currency because manufacturers and dealers in inputs will sell their inputs in foreign currency.
Avenues for escaping the foreign currency trap
African countries have remained in the grip of foreign currency-dependent food system because they have paid lip service to develop and manage food systems that have no direct link with foreign currency. With hundreds of universities and scientists why is it taking long for African countries to design pathways of de-linking their food systems from over-dependence on foreign currency? Students cannot continue to study just for passing examinations without extending what they learn to indigenous knowledge-based action research that solve specific problems around food systems.
A key process for breaking away from depending on food commodities that are associated with foreign currency should see African policy makers and researchers engaging local communities. Such a consultative process should seek answers to questions like: What do you want done around agriculture and food systems in your area/community? Which food commodities can be easily produced without external inputs? These are fundamental questions because communities know better about their food systems including indigenous fruits, exotic fruits that have been domesticated, small grains, indigenous livestock and many other commodities. A deep conversation with communities can map and explore the whole food chain for each commodity from production to market pathways.
Shifts within African food systems
If African researchers and universities were alert to what is happening to local food systems, they would have noticed a number of fascinating trends including how shifts in food systems have been quietly re-defining the meaning of indigenous food. For instance, several exotic commodities are being domesticated by farmers, communities and consumers to become indigenous. Some of the commodities that came into African food ecosystems as luxuries are transitioning to become part of indigenous food. For example, as African consumers domesticate and see more value in squash butternuts, carrots and cucumbers which were originally associated with Western salads, more farmers are now producing these commodities for the majority. Instead of being regarded only as salads, alternative uses are fast being fashioned for cucumbers, carrots, butternuts and potatoes which are all moving into mainstream menus in combination with some indigenous menus.
However, due to lack of interest from academic academics and researchers, the speed at which exotic commodities are being domesticated has not been matched by seed propagation efforts so that seed can be fully domesticated and de-linked from use of foreign currency to import what can be produced locally. Leafy vegetables like Covo, Rape, Cabbage and many others have long become part of indigenous food systems but seed continue to be imported from the West where they originated.
Competition between exotic and indigenous foods within mass food markets is an inviting area of research for African academics and researchers. For instance, when sweet potatoes are in season, the demand for squash butternuts is suppressed in the market. It is in African mass food markets where curious farmers, policy makers and researchers can learn from traders and consumers how potatoes grown in red soils have a better taste and longer shelf life than those grown in other soils.
Efforts to control foods that are becoming part of indigenous food
Investment in appropriate research and technology including value addition and preservation will enable Africans to control and develop new pathways for external foods that are being domesticated to become part of indigenous food systems. For instance, while African communities have domesticated tomatoes and other imported vegetables to become part of indigenous food systems, there has not been much policy support for farmers and farming communities to propagate the seed. This is too important to be left to profit-oriented commercial seed producers.
Through African mass food markets, African researchers can learn how indigenous sweet potato has moved up the rank to become a high value commodity with significant commercial value but farmers are still struggling with some pests and diseases whose solution should have been generated from African research institutions and universities by now. Driven by changing consumption patterns and urbanization, many Africans have moved away from sources of indigenous food to urban centres. The old generation which grew up consuming indigenous fruits and vegetables is now accessing these commodities through mass food markets.
A key question for African researchers and universities is: How do we commercialize the movement of indigenous food into the mainstream food system? Much of these indigenous foods are a source of resilience for drought-prone areas and if these commodities are ignored by policy, communities in those areas remain vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity. A comprehensive look at African food systems should not just focus on maize, wheat and a few selected grains at the expense of areas and communities where indigenous fruits can be a source of livelihood.
When African countries and development organizations ignore or undermine indigenous or communal food systems, communities where these food systems thrive will remain vulnerable. Instead of introducing exotic vegetables, fruits, chickens, goats and other foods in communal or rural areas, policy makers should guide development agencies toward enhancing the production and commercialization of local food systems. Most development projects related to agriculture and food system fail as soon as development agencies move out because they try to change the local food ecosystem. When the project ends, communities go back to their indigenous food systems.
Government interventions should not promote citrus at the expense of indigenous fruits. Communities have their own indigenous fruits which should be promoted. Oranges and other citrus do well in a few African micro climates. Policy makers should map and support fruits that grow naturally in particular areas or communities with no need for imported fertilizer and chemicals. Although an exotic fruit, mango has naturally evolved into an indigenous fruit and it is a good example of successful domestication. The same applies with banana. Areas with natural environments appropriate for these fruits should be supported. In some areas, avocadoes have become indigenous but are now being replaced with imported varieties, unfortunately.
One of the most unfortunate dimensions is that indigenous fruits are fast falling into the non-renewable resources category because Africans are not propagating them. Intentional propagation policies are completely missing. The definition of non-renewable resources should be expanded to include indigenous seed which Africans will be unable to grow in the near future unless corrective action is taken. Most indigenous fruits are becoming extinct due to lack of policy attention.
A case for mowing away from colonial food systems
There is no reason why African countries like Zimbabwe and many others that have taken ownership of their land should continue investing more in colonial food systems and crops like wheat which benefit a few colonial industries that control the bread value chains. More attention should shift to horticulture which has a direct impact on the majority of people through consumption and selling surplus. In addition, the cost of producing wheat is too high compared to other critical food commodities. African countries should either allow private players like to grow their own wheat or import the wheat from Ukraine and other sources.
Another important way of assessing the value of commodities within food systems is to examine employment creation potential. From that angle, it will become clear that the wheat value chain has limited employment creation potential – it is all mechanized with employment creation only emerging at selling bread. Looking at employment creation along the value chain can show African policy makers the extent to which they are earning sufficient Return on Investing in particular food commodities. For transformation purposes, it is critical to see percentage of employment coming from a ton of a particular commodity when value addition is done. Attention should not just be on food security but employment creation with food systems.
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