African mass markets continue to function as templates for local nutrition

African mass markets continue to function as templates for local nutrition

In spite of most resources being directed at promoting imported food systems using commercially-oriented agricultural shows and trade fairs, mass markets continue to influence food choices and consumption patterns across the African continent. Coincidentally, COVID19 has increased the relevance and reliability of these food sources for the majority. Low food production in some communities due to climate change induced droughts or floods means many people have to depend on mass markets for food grown in distant communities and distributed closer home by the markets.

Influencing household menus

By influencing household menus in most communities, mass markets have become templates for nutrition and meals. That is why nutritionists should not use scientific terms like carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins when expressing nutrition to ordinary people but use existing food which communities know. By combining commodities from different production zones, mass markets are good at putting in place a template comprising a menu of diverse commodities.  If every community was to depend on its own local food, there would be no balanced nutrition because there are areas where some commodities do not grow naturally and it means nutrition gaps have to be filled by food from other areas. Fortunately, mass markets have several ways of facilitating exchange between communities that have depended on each other for generations.

Food systems as an expression of identity

More importantly, mass markets enable people to appreciate their identity through the diversity of food which is also an avenue for knowledge generation, synthesis, and translation. The availability and use of reliable information on food is anchored on a community’s understanding of its identity and integrity of existing knowledge sharing practices around food. There is also a strong correlation between food and dressing as identity. Countries with abundant wild animals like elephants and crocodiles should have big industries on elephant skins and crocodile skins among other animals whose skins should be part of national dress. This would avoid the current militarization of conservation when wild life is considered a source of food, identity and wealth creation.

In addition, food as identity is a very important part of tourism. Business models should be built around indigenous food systems, translating to food tourism. The same way African countries market man-made tourist destinations like the Pyramids of Egypt and Great Zimbabwe Ruins that were built with local indigenous knowledge should see African food being promoted as a critical part of tourism. That can only happen if countries apply research on natural food systems, creatively commercialize and export while also paying attention to preservation and patenting of existing knowledge.

Awareness is meaningless without alternatives

Most climate change messages are focusing on telling communities what to do without providing alternative solutions. It is not enough to discourage communities from cutting down trees or hunting wild animals when they need to survive. Why not help communities to see the benefits of natural resources through setting up baobab fruit plantations as well as plantations of several other indigenous fruits the same way resources are thrown at establishing plantations of exotic fruits? That way, communities can see reasons for protecting forests. The whole ecosystem can benefit including wild animals like birds. For generations, African communities have known the extent to which wild birds benefit from small grains and that is why they have not devised poisons to kill the birds but used scare-crows and other methods like ensnaring which do not kill all birds.

Imported products are not a renewable example of a home-grown solution. Long-term sustainability is about keeping a certain percentage of local knowledge rather than depending entirely on foreign knowledge. It is better to preserve indigenous knowledge on natural resources so that such knowledge can be used to deal with climate change. A simple approach can begin with asking communities to map indigenous food systems in their area – which wild fruits are available in your area during different seasons of the year?  Such a question can generate a lot existing knowledge.

If communities do not participate in mapping and tracking their own food systems, they will not know or explain how climate change is affecting their natural food systems. They will continue to associate good harvests with heavy rains when there are other crops or commodities which do not do well in heavy rains but in less rainfall seasons.  With adequate knowledge, communities can begin to question the way imported food systems have been used to define natural farming regions in Africa.  For instance, natural phenomena like amount of rainfall has been used to label some districts drought-prone, yet such districts are good for small grains, edible insects and indigenous fruits that are a key component of local nutrition.

Rainfall-driven measurements were designed to influence the promotion of hybrids like Maize yet some indigenous crops and wild fruits actually do well with less than 200mm of rainfall. That explains abundance of wild fruits in many districts of Zimbabwe like Buhera, Chivi, Gokwe and Zaka.  Finger millet has been doing well in Chivi district for decades under conditions of low rainfall such that when there is too much rainfall it does not do well.  Livestock like goats and cattle continue to do well in Gwanda and Binga districts in spite of these districts being considered drought-prone because they receive less rainfall. In some areas 600mm of rainfall actually causes flooding.

Promoting value chains for natural foods

With many people associating indigenous food with natural remedies, African policy makers should ensure science is used to promote the entire value chain for natural foods. Questions to be answered by science include: What happens to the nutrition or shelf life of indigenous fruits like Tsvubvu when put in a fridge? What is the appropriate packaging for indigenous fruits?  Why is it that in the whole country, Harurwa only does well in Bikita?  Apart from cultural explanations, science has remained silent on this question.  Why is there no project setting up plantations of Mopane trees so that Mopane worms can survive and be produced in large quantities for export?  African countries have been promoting imported trees like eucalyptus and Jatropha ignoring Mopane and other important local natural trees that should be part of home-grown solutions.  / /

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