Indigenous knowledge should drive transformation of African food systems

African countries can only change the persistent negative image of Africa as a net importer of food when they start looking at food systems as more than agriculture. Most African food systems continue to be influenced by Western tastes and preferences. In addition to exploiting natural resources, colonization transformed African food systems for the purposes of supplementing western food baskets and creating a market for Western industrial products.

A reminder on how colonization deformed African food systems

The entry point was through changing land use patterns by appropriating land and creating large scale commercial farms where Africans were turned into labourers. Small pieces of infertile land were left for Africans to produce for subsistence. After land appropriation, the next step was bringing western inputs and equipment to support the production of food and non-food crops like flowers and tobacco to meet Western tastes and preferences. This was buttressed by increasing importation of equipment, seed and chemicals for Western-oriented production and building a market for Western seeds, chemicals and equipment. The whole process was designed to replace African food systems with Western food systems as well as replacing indigenous knowledge around food production with Western knowledge which was also introduced into academic systems.

Post-Independence, most African countries just adopted the foreign food systems including equipment, seed and chemicals. Enormous appetite for foreign currency has pushed African countries to continue using imported Western inputs produced with scientific excellence which African countries cannot use to improve their own indigenous inputs such as seed and others. Most African countries are compelled to continuously use foreign currency to imports inputs. Consequently, African food systems and production practices have continued to be controlled by foreign knowledge.

Negative impact of depending on foreign food and knowledge

Over-dependence on imported food systems and knowledge has shown up in several negative consequences in Africa. The first one is a serious threat to food and nutrition security as African countries devote the best land, water and labour to non-food foreign currency earning commodities like tobacco. No investment has been directed at assessing the opportunity costs of giving the best natural resources to non-food commodities for meeting the needs of foreign markets.

Another impact is imported inflation due to African countries using foreign currency-denominated/determined currencies especially for importing inputs.  Much of the inflation in African food systems is due to foreign exchange rates because most African currencies have much low value than foreign currencies like the USD. This translates to high cost of inputs which increases the cost of food commodities as inputs push the price of the final commodity.

Embracing imported knowledge has constrained the capacity of African countries to invest in appropriate processing and preservation technologies for indigenous food systems like wild fruits, small grains, tubers, sweet potatoes, edible insects as well as indigenous livestock like poultry, goats and wild animals. Western countries from which African countries import knowledge, equipment and technology have made sure imported knowledge and technologies focus on processing exotic commodities for purposes of supplementing Western food systems as well as changing tastes and preferences of African consumers as part of expanding demand for Western products.

Limited investment in indigenous commodities value addition technologies has also been a strategy by Western countries for African countries to continue selling raw commodities to the West at very low prices. The same commodities are processed in the West and sold back to African countries at more than 100 times the price of raw materials. Changes in African food systems using imported knowledge, tastes and preferences has also resulted in food-related diseases which are costing African countries a lot of money as eminent African always visit Western countries for treatment.

However, all hope is not lost

As revealed through the diversity food and knowledge in African mass markets, there is still scope to reverse the dominance of Western food and knowledge in Africa.  African academics and experts have a role to work with African communities in generating, analysing and interpreting indigenous knowledge for the benefit of African food systems. With the right orientation, African experts can persuade policy makers to invest in long-term transformation of African food systems starting with recognizing champions in promoting indigenous food and knowledge.  Some of these champions undermined by imported food systems include smallholder farmers who continue to feed more than 70% of the population, SMEs who employ more than 80% of the poor and mass markets which distribute more than 90% of indigenous food and knowledge with no support from policy makers.  / /

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