Irrigation schemes should promote local food systems

Irrigation schemes should promote local food systems

While irrigation is touted as a solution to food and nutrition security under a changing climate, it may not be helpful if irrigation schemes set up in African dry regions focus on producing exotic or external commodities. In dry regions where small grains and small livestock grow naturally, it is common to see African governments, development organizations and the private sector promoting external crops like potatoes, sugar cane, wheat and lucerne at the expense of local food systems.

Instead of becoming a fall-back position for African communities, irrigation systems are undermining local food systems. A typical example is in an area called Nyanyadzi of Chimanimani district where more than 10 irrigation schemes produce a narrow range of commodities like sugar bean, wheat, tomatoes, onion, green mealies and, to a limited extent, cabbage. These crops are not linked to indigenous food systems but grown mostly for external markets. The main question is to what extent are Nyanyadzi communities benefitting from abundant irrigation schemes? Based on the notion of plot holders, the schemes are occupied by less than 10% of the total population. Besides producing very few crops for household consumption, the plot holders grow mostly for urban markets to meet basic needs.  During the rainfall season, production is very low in these irrigation schemes because farmers go back to farm on the dry land where there is a whole indigenous food basket comprising legumes, small grains and others. Plot holders only return to irrigation schemes during winter when there is no production on the lands and in individual gardens.  

How do we ensure irrigation schemes do not suppress local food systems?

From what is happening on the ground, it might be correct to conclude that most irrigation schemes are not really for community development or rural employment investments. When natural resources like soil and water are used to produce a few crops in a community that has more than 90% of its food basket comprising indigenous food produced through natural agroecological (AE) practices, irrigation systems become the entry point for replacing indigenous food systems.  

Instead of irrigation schemes being used as avenues for replacing indigenous food, why not use the irrigation schemes to enhance community food systems like groundnuts (fresh groundnuts all- year-round), pumpkins, muboora, munyemba and others? Why not propagate seedlings of indigenous fruits like matohwe and other foods in irrigation schemes? This would be a perfect approach in decolonizing local food systems through irrigation development. Ideally, irrigation schemes located in dry regions should be research hubs for diverse varieties of indigenous food and fruits for setting up huge plantations of indigenous food. That way, it becomes easy to commercialize indigenous varieties and foods including approaches for certifying indigenous seed using indigenous knowledge.  With enough political will, several ways can be adapted to boost agroecology using irrigation systems within communities. When irrigation is used to produce indigenous pastures and grasses, it becomes a perfect example of decolonizing livestock production and diversify food baskets.

Toward genuine avenues for building community resilience

Climate disasters like cyclones and droughts are indicating that building resilience should start with identifying key components of a community including what people have lost in their food systems which, if rebuilt, can prevent communities from depending on outsiders for everything. This can start with examining local food systems and how communities have been managing natural resources. It is also critical to look at community culture and tradition – how much of culture and tradition has been lost that was part of their community resilience? For instance, what was the role of traditional leadership that has been lost through infiltration by colonial systems. 

There is a visible trend where African indigenous vegetables, fruits, field crops and livestock have not received significant support to boast production, processing and value addition. Such support, given to exotic food, can be in terms of appropriate technology, research and documentation which is a key part of resilience and sustenance in a changing climate.  On the contrary, most African countries are supporting colonial food systems that are replacing indigenous and local food systems driven by indigenous knowledge systems. This is in spite of overwhelming evidence showing that colonial food systems are not competitive enough to be a source of resilience since production is driven by outside factors like purchased seed with a cost component including inputs like fertilizer that are imported – exposing the whole community to dependence. Communities cannot be resilient when depending on external inputs.

Need for new early warning systems

Given the increasingly fluid nature of climatic conditions and natural regions, there is definite need for African governments to invest in tracking these trends within communities through systems that can capture all knowledges within communities including indigenous knowledge systems. In addition to discussing issues that matter to their context, communities should be capacitated to answer questions like what have you seen changing in the past five years? This should reveal new agroecological boundaries, helping to reveal the extent to which climate change is re-defining community boundaries and natural features of the community.

With the current ubiquitous technology like Google maps, communities should be able to develop systems that can automatically define community natural features and how they are impacting community livelihood boundaries in line with climate conditions that emerge as those changes take place. Such fluid changes have direct impact on food systems and community resilience. Many African communities are realizing the importance of embracing crops that are resistant to shocks like legumes and others. Communities whose commercial mindsets compel them to focus on mono-crops tend to focus on a few commercial crops but expose them to shocks. Emphasis should be on crops that can grow naturally within a community instead of bringing external crops.

While local people know what is ideal for their situation, they often lack resources to promote what they believe to be the right thing. For instance, they know that poultry manure, murakwani, indigenous fruits and poultry are the best. However, due to lack of resources, they end up grudgingly accepting programs promoted by NGOs, government and private sector including narrow government extension models which provide partial solutions. Authentic transformation will happen when African governments start appreciating and acknowledging that the colonial systems that they are promoting are destroying local food systems and food sovereignty. Things that have been requested by local communities for in many years like appropriate technology and need for a market have not received meaningful attention. Government should start by becoming a market for indigenous food through national hospitals, training centres, prison services and others large departments that consume a lot of food daily. Ultimately, local food should be an integral component of food as part of building genuine resilience. / /

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