African food systems continue to be shaped by urban consumption patterns

African food systems continue to be shaped by urban consumption patterns

While rural areas produce most of the food in Africa, urban consumption patterns have been shaping African food systems for decades. Commodities from diverse production zones are aggregated and sorted in big urban markets as informed by choices from urban consumer purchasing patterns. The food is then distributed to small cities and local markets across the country as part of fulfilling orders. Urban consumption patterns also influence pricing in local markets.

Fluid classification of food commodities

If the classification of food baskets was left to formal systems, it would only comprise luxury commodities which the majority cannot afford.  On the contrary, urban mass markets have become good at classifying food into necessities, substitutes, luxuries and high value commodities, among other categories. This fluid classification is influenced by seasonality and other factors.  The high value classification is based on monetary terms in the sense of high return on a small piece of land.  For instance, the price of a cauliflower head is higher than that of a cabbage head.

High value crops tend to be relatively expensive compared to other crops like necessities. For instance, where a cup of peas (which is a high value commodity) goes for USD, the same USD1 can buy three cups of sugar beans that is used as direct relish by the majority of consumers.  Most consumers only eat high value commodities at events like weddings and parties or during festive seasons like Christmas which are associated with high expenditure.

The majority of African smallholder farmers prefer growing crops that meet basic needs as well as income. Very few grow crops just for the market.  That is why most smallholders do not patronize high value crops but want to grow what they can also use. Since high value commodities are highly perishable, farmers in production zones far from cities often hesitate to produce these crops which require unique storage and transportation infrastructure that is missing in most rural areas. If these commodities go bad, farmers in rural areas struggle to process and preserve compared to traditional leafy vegetables which can be easily dried.

The young generation driving preference for high value commodities

The young generation in African cities is driving changes in consumption by preferring high value crops and this has started to influence production patterns in irrigation schemes and village gardens as well as urban back-yard food production. One of the reasons why irrigation schemes in African have failed to transform lives of farmers is that plot sizes allocated to individual farmers have not been matched with crops in ways that ensure profitability. Each of the crops that have been recommended by government extension agencies such as sugar beans, onion and tomatoes require a large piece of land if farmers are to earn good return on investment. This is where high value crops should be promoted.  Village gardens can be reserved for necessities like leafy vegetables while irrigation schemes focus on high value crops like peas for local consumption and even export.

Every intervention should have a market

It is becoming clear that effective utilization of natural resources like land and water can be achieved through production of high value crops in irrigation schemes because this is where better return on investment can be realized unlike traditional crops that need bigger pieces of land.  In most African countries, policy makers often ignore the fact that communities have their own local markets which are fed by nutrition gardens. If each village is forced by government to set up a nutrition garden, what will the villagers do with surplus production?  If the local market in the district was already absorbing more than 90% of garden produce, there will be no market for excess produce. 

This calls for alternative ways of justifying the need to set up village nutrition gardens when there is no market for what is being produced in gardens that have existed for many years. Policy makers and development agencies promoting nutrition gardens should be very clear about the gaps they are trying to close unlike just promoting the same vegetables for saturated local consumption. Authentic development for changing livelihoods should ensure every intervention has a market. If everyone becomes a farmer, farming ceases to be a business.

Instead of introducing one model of gardens, African governments should be informed by the suitability of agricultural commodities in particular areas and ensure production is carefully targeted. Rather than promoting the same type of nutrition garden across the country, areas that are good for livestock should see setting up of paddocks for indigenous goats, chickens and plantations for indigenous fruits in line with each region’s strength.

There is no longer any doubt that African food systems are changing with consumption patterns. If no one is complaining about the absence of leafy vegetables, it means communities have their own solutions including diverse alternatives. In countries like Zimbabwe, people are not even making noise about bread because consumers have simply found alternatives, after realizing that bread has moved out their reach. The market has power to overturn any policy pronouncements.

Communities are always exploring their own alternatives and should be appreciated for producing alternative commodities.  African policy makers should devise ways of appreciating people who are producing commodities that are stabilizing prices of other commodities. For instance, groundnuts farmers are controlling the price of cooking oil by producing alternatives in the form of peanut butter which has become an amazing alternative for cooking in several communities. If consumers are not making noise about things like dairy or milk, it is not a necessity for them. No one complains about the price of beef because there are alternatives like fish and indigenous chickens.

The power of locally-driven approaches and knowledge

African politicians continue with top-down community approaches as if communities do not have resources and knowledge of what works and what does not work.  Given that they have run out of fresh ideas that can be sold to communities, politicians want to perpetuate the misconception that they are bringing development to local communities.  Now that imported knowledge and inputs are no longer sustainable, what new, contextual ideas can African politicians bring to communities for building resilience using indigenous knowledge and abundant natural resources? The main assumption is that vulnerable households are the ones prone to malnutrition as seen by how they are encouraged to do nutrition gardens. Yet the right approach should start with local knowledge that is critical for exploiting local food to build nutrition baskets.  / /

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