What makes African food African – Some of the Unique Characteristics

What makes African food African – Some of the Unique Characteristics

The best way of defining any food system is to examine its characteristics because it is characteristics that distinguish one food system from another. Characteristics also provide a unique selling proposition for each food system. Countries in the Global North have managed to define and characterize their food systems as a way of expanding their market by drawing attention to their food.  On the other hand, African countries have not done anything to package African food for purposes of drawing attention to it and expanding its market across the globe. 

Some of the key food characteristics that have been prioritized countries in the Global North include articulation of nutrition content and food preparation methods (for instance, how to cook spaghetti). African countries have not done the same for their food systems and as a result the young generation has continued to consume Western food because that is what they know in terms of taste, nutrition, ingredients and preparation. Knowledge about African food systems exists but it has not been packaged into books and menus that can be globalized like what the West has done.

Contextual and natural

A major defining characteristic of African food is that it is natural and contextual, not produced through laboratories like much of the Western food. That is why for purposes of recognition and demonstrating uniqueness, the African food basket has to be associated with contextual identity from communities to countries and sub-regions. Ideally, characterising African food should start from framing the whole food basket in terms of what makes a food basket for a household. For instance, substitutes for maize meal in the African context include small grains, tubers, rice and sweet potatoes, among others.

Wild and natural growth patterns

What also makes African food systems African is that they have more wild and natural characteristics. They can grow well without chemicals or fertilizers, for instance, small grains are like natural grasses. Cassava can grow naturally in the wild, same applies with indigenous rice and sweet potato which, if left in the forest can grow on its own. The same cannot be done with maize and other crops that have originated from the West.

Another element of naturality is within indigenous vegetables like Nyevhe andMutsine whichcan easily grow naturally using the same type of retained seed. This is different from Covo, rape, sugar loaf, cabbage and others whose seed originated from Western laboratories and cannot grow well naturally without complements such as chemicals and fertilizers.

In the poultry category, naturality is found in indigenous chickens that can grow and forage naturally without supplements in the form of chemicals and feed. They can survive on indigenous grains, crickets and grasses. This is different from imported poultry genetics which cannot be easily reproduced naturally. For instance, naturality of propagation is a key characteristic of indigenous poultry compared to broilers which cannot propagate because they are not natural.

Teas have another uniquely African food component. For example, African tea like Makoni tea and Zumbani are natural.  However, Africans have allowed much of African food systems knowledge to be characterized and packaged by the West so that we think Rooibos is superior to Zumbani.

Beverages and drinks – The African market has become dominated by carbonated drinks produced using western formula which ordinary people do not know. Africans had their own mahewu which has been hijacked into a laboratory product fermented using modern science. What has been abandoned is the African indigenous way mahewu and milk were ferment naturally.

The fruit category is also well-defined in the African context. Most African indigenous fruits are natural although some have been domesticated, for example masawu, matohwe, mawuyu and others. Most of the fruits grown with western science are difficult to propagate. For example, you cannot propagate orange seed. 

Edible insects like Makurwe, ishwa, Macimbi and others comprise another African food category.

Resilience and better response to shocks

The fact that African foods grow and adapt to natural environments has enabled them to respond better to natural shocks like droughts. Terms like drought-prone have been abused to describe conditions in which imported foods or commodities cannot grow with little rains and no fertilizer. Why are these areas called drought-prone when they are suitable for indigenous African foods like Mashona cattle, goats and indigenous chickens and donkeys?  Wild fruits like baobab and other also do well in these areas. There is no reason to stigmatize dry regions merely because they are not suitable for imported food systems that do not grow naturally without external inputs.

It is unfortunate that African countries have not developed systems for aggregating, packaging and distributing African food systems which are naturally contextualized.  A key advantage is that, being natural, these foods have a longer shelf life and very simple preservation methods associated to utilization of natural resources like using then sun to dry mufushwa, chimukuyu as well as traditional pfimbi methods of preserving sweet potatoes, among other food preservation methods. On the other hand, you cannot dry imported fruits like apples and oranges. Finger millet can be preserved for more than 30 years with no need for chemical preservation but the same cannot be done with maize and other western foods. 

The use of retained seed in propagation is another critical advantage associated with African food.  This can be a solution in cases where African countries are struggling to feed their people and grow their economies due to too much dependence on western food and technologies. These countries are also squandering their non-renewable resources like fertile souls and gold for purposes of buying western food knowledge and developing western markets. For instance, they are using their own water to irrigate tobacco so that we buy maize, wheat and rice. What will happen if natural resources like fertile soils, water and minerals are depleted forever?

Failure to harness science

A major knowledge gap is that African countries have not invested in the science of African food systems. Science is not bad but Africans have not taken advantage of it by setting up laboratories and seed for indigenous food. Consequently, African natural resources are supporting western food systems through importing seed, chemicals, fertilizers and related knowledge. The Global North is using African imports to build more industries that make more seed, chemicals and fertilizers which Africans are buying through selling/depleting natural resources like water and fertile soils. Why should every household be given citrus fruits when there are indigenous fruits that grow naturally in the community being orphaned from a policy and resource allocation perspective?

What are African institutions of higher learning doing?

In each African country, almost every region or province now has a university but these higher learning institutions are not investing their academic prowess in harnessing indigenous knowledge on local food systems and blending local knowledge with global knowledge. Ideally, universities should be leading the packaging of African food and stimulating indigenous food-related industries for the benefit of local communities. For instance, in Zimbabwe, Masvingo province is characterized by small grains but there are no industries related to small grains yet Great Zimbabwe University is churning out graduates every year and spitting them onto the job market.

Unless something is done, African educational curricula will remain a history of people than the history of food.  The issue is not that people are not eating African food but there are several push factors against African food that should be researched and addressed by institutions of higher learning. For instance, African consumers may want the food but if the food is not available when they need, they end up resorting to imported food which may be readily available. Food should not just be promoted for purposes of consumption but also creating livelihood opportunities and broadening choices. African countries do not need anyone’s permission to establish farms for indigenous goats and chickens where these do well naturally and then set up abattoirs for these indigenous foods. It is a question of political will to build authentic national food sovereignty.

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

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

Mobile: 0772 137 717/ 0774 430 309/ 0712 737 430