Preserving indigenous African food systems through reconstructive writing

Preserving indigenous African food systems through reconstructive writing

Scholars and thought leaders in the Global South are realizing that the best way of reversing the damage caused by colonialism on African food systems and intellectual heritage is not just to continue lamenting. Aggressive efforts should be directed at reconstructing and reappropriating African food systems including indigenous knowledge. Such reconstruction will not only salvage indigenous knowledge and food systems from oblivion, but lay a strong foundation for Africans to use their food systems and indigenous knowledge in re-asserting their identity toward participating confidently in global conversations that seek truth, knowledge and socio-economic justice.

Reconstructive documentation framework and process

In answering the call for African scholars and researchers to put together written accounts of their food systems and indigenous knowledge systems, Knowledge Transfer Africa ( has been pioneering a framework and methodology for documenting local food baskets in Zimbabwe. The process is anchored on dialogue with people who really understand their food systems context including how food production zones are related to food baskets and markets. A food basket in a particular community or district indicates commodities consumed in that community or district. The other thread was identifying commodities produced in surplus for the market in each community or district as some local households expand their food baskets with food from distant markets. Food can travel directly from one district to the other.

The process of documenting the food basket is not just listing commodities in the community but includes mapping and conducting supply chain analysis to show intricacies and relationships between production zones and markets. When this process reveals niche markets for particular commodities like fruits from one district, it becomes possible to do a comparative analysis showing types and amounts of food from outside the community or district. Differences in food baskets between districts can eventually reveal supply corridors that build food baskets at different supply chain nodes.

African mass markets have become part of the food basket mapping because markets are good at revealing the seasonal nature of food baskets including socio-economic and political factors influencing the structure of the food basket. More importantly, the market can answer questions like what is the relationship between food and non-food enterprises and how do these affect indigenous food? How does the food basket look like during the festive season? All these can only be analysed from the market because the market interacts with farmers, consumers and traders at one place. Such intelligence can be used to promote African substitutes for exotic fruits that are getting into African rural communities from outside. The capture of markets by African and non-African food can also be seen through markets, for instance, what is pushing demand for sweet potatoes and small grains in cities over the past 10 years? Is it the increase in the price of bread or knowledge about heating health and wellness? Answering these questions requires careful documentation.

At what point did loss of African indigenous food and related knowledge systems start?

This is one of the most enduring contemporary questions dominating discussions on African food systems with African elders during reconstructive dialogue sessions. Old people are blaming young people for shunning indigenous food but young people are also blaming elders for not sufficiently introducing them to indigenous food. It appears there is a generation where colonization of indigenous food gained ground. Most African rural communities are aware that colonization was too powerful and they are now struggling with external food systems whose production and post-harvest handling knowledge communities lack. For instance, knowledge about fall army worm and other pests is limited.  Academic institutions can close critical knowledge gaps through building solid pathways for knowledge exchange. Instead of being attached at formal institutions during their internship period, African university students can add more value if attached to communities so that they use their knowledge to document local food systems. 

Another big issue being witnessed and lamented by rural elders is the increasing consumption and infiltration of foreign foods in service centres through corporates. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) like agro-dealers and rural general dealer shops are said to be opening avenues for corporates by testing and developing markets for corporate processed products. For instance, many SMEs at growth points and rural business centres now cook doughnuts, potato chips and other commodities that are changing tastes for rural consumers. This is triggering the demand for fast foods that are then pushed by corporates.

Knowledge on different indigenous food is also being lost due to limited intentional support from government. For instance, due to neglect and deforestation, some communities no longer have young baobab trees and seed is not being given time to regenerate. The communities are losing related knowledge and worse so, communities are not being supported to invest in propagating indigenous fruit trees and other foods. In communities where private seed companies are dominant, these are privately investing in gathering and patenting indigenous knowledge and seed systems. This is how indigenous knowledge is being stolen but communities are powerless to do something about it.

Combining dialogue with digital tools

Knowledge Transfer Africa uses dialoguing as a central approach to capture indigenous knowledge on indigenous food systems through a stream of consciousness because of the way such knowledge is differently packaged, preserved and shared within communities. Instead of resorting only to digital tools and software like Open Data Kit, indigenous knowledge on indigenous food has to be captured in ways that enable communities to remember how they used to grow, places they used to grow and other details that are part of a stream of consciousness. That is why the documentation process resorted to open dialogue through creative facilitation that builds local people’s confidence as contributors to their own knowledge building processes.

In this approach, dialogue was about getting people to bring out what they know – a story of a particular community.  A story starts from your mind – tell us the story about small grains. Do you remember what was happening with production, uses, recipes and consumption patterns decades ago? All this forms a real-life story. The dialoguing process was like a sport where the ball is passed from one participant to the other. Historical and life experiences that were shared showed that some participants have visited some communities, some have been to cities, others never went anywhere. Some shared how and where they tasted new food. That background and the whole narrative knitted a deep story about food systems.

Through an open dialogue, the documentation process generated findings, results and further dialogue about the emerging results. Bringing together as many people as possible, each dialogue created its own pathway connecting gender, natural resources, mechanization and other aspects which shaped the story into a meandering river. In this process, some people who had not had an opportunity to discuss an issue were so eager to express issues they have never been asked. The dialogue caused some to remember what they ate during their youth days or the food they took to school when they were young. Remembering something made them feel proud. Others were compelled to remember their grandmothers, in the process re-creating the whole food system – taking the whole dialogue to how food was grown and prepared 30 years ago. That became the foundation for building new trends together with the community such that at the end there was a whole picture with fewer gaps – showing the ins and outs of the local food system.

Ultimately, the whole community in the dialogue reached the ahaa moment of truths and transformation– “This is where we are now”.  The trend showed people acknowledging what they have lost. The dialogue sessions became like bringing people together to build a road map based on their memory and then reflect new opportunities leading to questions like – do we continue with this path and pace or we need to take a step back and re-strategize around our food system?  Dialoguing also enabled the communities to realize they are rich with water, natural resources and intangible assets like culture and tradition. That realization was a good foundation and vantage point enabling them to see if they are gaining or losing value as a community. The process awakened them to the fact that at one time they had 50 indigenous vegetable varieties whose seed they controlled. These vegetables also had medicinal and nutritional properties that people could not explain scientifically. The community now has less than 10 indigenous vegetables.  From eight indigenous fruits, they now rely on three exotic fruits.

Codifying community conscious into a fluid book or publication

Reconstructive dialogue is a way of speeding up conversation within the community – as people go home, they share with their peers who were not at the meeting and within a week the whole community knows the whole issue. It is another way of raising awareness and building ownership of discussions and decisions on community food systems. Communities should be empowered to convene these dialogues on their own regularly as another way to reclaim local tradition and revive a harmonious society through food systems dialogue. Gathering information from elders scattered in a community is like picking dispersed pages of indigenous knowledge and consolidating into a single living book. In one community elder, you pick page 3, in other community you pick page 19 and the whole reconstruction processes continues meticulously until you have a complete story of African indigenous food systems.

 Utilization of collective knowledge in production and markets can start from dialogue. If the challenge is about marketing, they can decide to embrace collective market search. Conducting this process calls for deep listening and ability to relate with the subject. In such a dialogue, the facilitator may just introduce a theme around food, nudge old people to recall and within one to two hours a lot of information starts flowing as elders remember things and their memory become very active. As the conversation evolves, some of the participants can shout names of vegetables to support the memory of the one narrating the local food story. The facilitator can even say, “Women you are good with vegetables, may you get into a group and list all the vegetables you know?”  As they present ask which types of vegetables are still being consumed?

The whole dialogue naturally evolves into an incredible humane and fluid knowledge platform. Constructive documentation can highlight the role of women in protecting and promoting indigenous food systems. Among other critical roles, post-harvest and value addition is done by women as they continue to play a critical role in preserving the knowledge system. Besides enhancing social cohesion, the pride of a woman in building a rural home remains a critical part of African identity and resilience. However, with increasing urbanization and women moving to formal employment, most young women who should be receiving knowledge from mothers-in-law and grand-mothers are no longer available to receive that knowledge. Consequently, many grandmothers are dying with their knowledge. / /

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