Pizza is an Italian dish made famous when the world was “made to be one” and to have similar tastes for foods. Photo: NYT
Pizza is an Italian dish made famous when the world was “made to be one” and to have similar tastes for foods. Photo: NYT

OPINION: Economics of Africa’s lost crops and food security

By Siyabonga Hadebe Time of article published Aug 27, 2018

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JOHANNESBURG – When an African takes a “pizza” or “sushi” with a hope of creating a unique product and to make billions of rand from the enterprise, you know that Africa’s economic development is very far away from earth.

Pizza is an Italian dish and sushi is a Japanese delicacy. Both were made famous when the world was “made to be one” and to have similar tastes for foods. The end goal was never to showcase the beauty of these two cultures but it was to conquer and spread capitalism.

Not that Africa is the only place under the universe to be forcefully handed these odd-looking dishes, but Africans appear to be among the worst hit as far as embracing other cultures go. Mexicans term this behaviour “malinchismo” (originally referring to a deep-rooted Mexican inferiority complex or self-hatred for the preference for all things foreign to the point of self-destruction). So far Africa does not seem to have a “fight back” strategy in order to be counted as shapers of the world’s future.

To this day, we have not realised that economic development does not come with the debt from the International Monetary Fund and or aid from the (US Agency for International Development. But it should come from what makes us unique and also who we are. The solution could be in food production, a growing phenomenon that could lead to future wars and strife if not well managed.

If you will ever get a chance to go Bavaria (Germany), Mexico, India or China, one thing will strike you – local culture drives their local economies. Perhaps you’d develop nausea from eating tacos and enchiladas when visiting Mexico City. There is little or no compromise.

These beautiful dishes are not limited to street corners but they are served in high-end restaurants and eateries in Mexico City’s plush suburbs such as Polanco and Santa Fe. As a result, they are known all over the world. Any food court at a mall, it doesn’t matter if you are in New York, Sydney or Johannesburg, has a Mexican, Chinese, Indian or Italian stall.

What about Nigerian, Ethiopian, Kenyan or South(ern) African dishes?

Nigeria has jollof rice and pounded yam, Ethiopia has injera, Kenya (nyama choma) and South Africa has mogodu, ting and mqombothi. However, all these are not known that much to the outside world. If in London, for example, you will have to search harder to find these dishes compared, say, to Chinese or Italian food.

In the case of South Africa, knowledge for great nutritional and beautiful dishes is quickly fading away at the same time as our cultures. This is a great pity because it makes Africans to be seen as underdeveloped and heavily reliant on others for survival.

From the first day the Portuguese set foot in Southern Africa in the last century, they not only expropriated treasures and knowledge but they also replaced traditional crops with foreign ones. Many people are not even aware that maize is a foreign crop.

Portuguese colonists in the 1 500s imported maize to Africa from the Americas via Europe. Maize originates from Mexico. Empirical evidence suggests that the crop was probably introduced to Africa at more than one point and at different times.

Maize was widely grown along the coast from the River Gambia to Sao Tome, around the mouth of the River Congo, and possibly in Ethiopia, in the sixteenth century. Author James C. McCann points out that, “Having spread to all corners of the continent within the relatively short period of 500 years, it (maize) is now Africa’s most important cereal crop.”

In the book titled: “Lost crops of Africa“, it is argued that there are more than 2 000 lost foods across the African continent, from Mauritania to Madagascar. These include African rice, Guinea millet, emmer (Ethiopian rare wheat) and irregular barley. May be that it is why we eat pizza and noodles…

The European colonialists were not only driven to conquer and introduce Christianity but they also wanted to integrate the African continent into global capitalism. As a result, they took people as slaves and forcefully destroyed local knowledge and productive skills as way of creating dependence by locals to survive.

One way of attaining this was to replace indigenous plants with new products. Maize was not brought to Africa in order to solve socio-economic challenges such as hunger and starvation but to change ways of living and creating a new market for European merchants. Consequently, maize had quickly replaced sorghum and malt in the 19th century.

Unfortunately, this displacement of African tastes and stomachs continues to this day in South Africa. Traditional sorghum beer was industrially packaged and sold as “chibuku” or “ijuba” brands. Sour milk (amasi) is an important product under Clover, Parmalat and others in the South African dairy market value chain.

Different kinds of teas and coffees were produced in Africa. Coffee is an Ethiopian famous export but whose global value chain lies outside the continent. Cocoa is produced in West Africa but the value add is in Europe. Indigenous teas are now represented by “rooibos”, which also is not in the hands of indigenous peoples of Africa.

Colonialism therefore did not just take scores of people out of Africa, or make locals to lose their lands. But the continent also lost products as well as skills and knowledge necessary for the natives to produce their own food.

Despite the long history of food production in Africa, the local grains have been superseded by foreign cereals for instance. In fact, Africa is now a net importer of food after the production of native grains plunged in the past recent decades. Today the continent receives food parcels from donors because its people are not capable to produce their own food.

It is unfortunate that the ongoing land reform debate in South Africa, which has caught Donald Trump’s irate fingers on Twitter, does not go deep enough to look at the historical linkages between land, food production and poverty. Instead, there is obsession with the so-called food security. 

The notion of food security as understood by AgriSA and others does not seek to solve the historical injustices by allowing Africans to again own/produce their own products and food. Instead, their argument is only about keeping Africans as empty mouths forever waiting to be fed.

A new economy in South Africa has to be developed from the countryside through indigenous knowledge. It is never to late to catch up with globalisation, which in any way has not worked in Africa’s favour. Taking one step back, there may be a need to re-learn the skills and also the products that will help us to pull out of poverty.

The downfall for South Africa going forward pertains to the persistent neglect of rural areas, which leads to a huge movement by people to cities. The ‘ruralification’ of major places like Cape Town, Durban and the city province of Gauteng is already evident and difficult to ignore. 

It is not lack of jobs as we are told that make people to relocate to urban areas but non-existence of economic opportunities in rural areas. These opportunities can be created by reviving the food production sector.

The introduction of a foreign crop in Africa represented the early stages of manufacturing of poverty in the continent. That is the reason I argue that poverty is a man-made phenomenon rather than an unfortunate occurrence as part of nature. It is a great travesty that successive post-colonial governments have not done much to solve the problem of hunger in Africa.

Addressing hunger by ensuring that there is enough food for everyone to eat results surpluses that would inevitably also allow for economic opportunities to happen. Local food producers can create value chains from production and manufacturing to retail and consumption. Policies like indiginisation (Zimbabwe and Nigeria) and black economic empowerment (South Africa) continuously prove to be incapable of transforming economic management in the different countries.

The only way to achieve this is through bringing something completely different to the world that is quickly running out of ideas. African crops can provide solutions to global food shortages and supplies – they are afterall capable to grow under conditions of water scarcity. Thus, Africa can easily beat climate change and associated shrinking resources using its natural endowment – crops and grains.

Also, Africa can free itself from the grip of global food speculation mostly done by developed countries, and by the ever dirty multinational corporations. The problem of food in Africa is excerbated by global food speculation and multinational agricultural corporations such as Monsanto Sygenta and ChemChina with their genetically modified crops.

The solution to the shortage of food in the continent and the world could lie in the development of Africa’s lost crops. 

Siyabonga Hadebe is executive manager at South Africa’s Department of Labour responsible for the management of international relations portfolio for the Department. His views do not represent his employer.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.


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