News / Africa

NGO tries to ‘Rediscover’ Traditional African Food

International NGO Slow Food embarks on major project to get Africans to farm and eat more local produce

Darren Taylor

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series: Innovations in African Farming
Continue to Part:  1 / 2 / 3 /4 /5


Production of local kinds of crops and breeds of animals is severely threatened in Africa, says Serena Milano, a food biodiversity expert at Slow Food International.

The Rome-based NGO is fighting a global battle to save local food traditions and to get people to develop healthier eating habits. Food produced locally is better than food brought in from elsewhere, it says.

An international food NGO is warning that indigenous animal breeds around the world, such as these Ethiopian cattle, are dying out … largely as a result of the world’s increasingly industrialized food production system
An international food NGO is warning that indigenous animal breeds around the world, such as these Ethiopian cattle, are dying out … largely as a result of the world’s increasingly industrialized food production system

“Over the last century over three-quarters of the genetic diversity in crop varieties has been lost. A third of [the world’s native] sheep and pig breeds are extinct or dying out,” said Milano. “The same thing is happening in cheese, wine and meat, and many other foods.”

Slow Food International says indigenous types of grain are also threatened with extinction
Slow Food International says indigenous types of grain are also threatened with extinction

She explained that in contrast to mass produced food that isn’t indigenous, locally grown crops don’t have to be grown with the use of chemical pesticides, and locally bred stock animals don’t have to be treated with antibiotics to protect them against local diseases.

“Local plant varieties and local breeds of animals have been selected by farmers through the centuries to adapt to specific areas and specific climates,” Milano said. “This adaptation protects them against illness.”

But she added that large-scale industrial agricultural production is “breaking this delicate balance” and the results include “pollution, water conflicts, obesity in the northern hemisphere and hunger in the developing countries.”

Rice loss

As an example of the dangers facing local food types, Milano cited rice in Guinea Bissau. This small country once fed itself and its West African neighbors with surplus rice of “many traditional varieties,” she said.

But now, Milano explained, Guinea Bissau is importing cheap, mass produced rice from Thailand. “The national production [of rice] has declined and a lot of traditional varieties and a lot of traditional techniques have been abandoned,” she said. “This is happening in many African countries, in Senegal too, in Mali too.”

A boy works in a rice field in Madagascar. Cheap rice imports from Asia threaten traditional African rice varieties
A boy works in a rice field in Madagascar. Cheap rice imports from Asia threaten traditional African rice varieties

Most African governments, Milano said, are “fixated” on growing export crops to earn foreign currency and are “not interested” in safeguarding local food. Thus, they often ignore the welfare of their people.

“In Ethiopia, for example, the government is giving hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to Saudi Arabia and India. These countries are using the land to grow crops to export food,” she pointed out. “So one of the poorest countries in the world is giving away land and food. African governments are selling fishing licenses to European fleets and so the local fishermen cannot work anymore.”

Milano commented that throughout Africa farmers are rejecting traditional food varieties to grow “foreign” export crops such as cashew nuts and palm oil. To cultivate these in Africa, she said, “widespread use” of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is necessary, thus reducing biodiversity.

A fishing port in Mauritania … Slow Food says the world’s attempts to harvest as much food as possible as fast as possible is also placing the livelihoods of African fishermen in jeopardy
A fishing port in Mauritania … Slow Food says the world’s attempts to harvest as much food as possible as fast as possible is also placing the livelihoods of African fishermen in jeopardy


“This is a model of agriculture that has a big cost. An economic cost, because farmers are obliged to buy all these expensive things like pesticides. And an environmental cost, because the chemical products destroy the fertility of the soil,” Milano said.



No local food available

These days, she said, it’s extremely rare to find local food on most African supermarket shelves, for several reasons. “Imported products cost less. Secondly, local communities don’t have the resources to transport, package and distribute food. In Africa most people travel by foot or use donkeys or bicycles, so it’s very difficult to distribute food.

 

A woman carries fresh produce on her head through the streets of Accra … African farmers don’t have the resources to rapidly transport local food to markets, and so indigenous food types are replaced by imported food in most African supermarkets
A woman carries fresh produce on her head through the streets of Accra … African farmers don’t have the resources to rapidly transport local food to markets, and so indigenous food types are replaced by imported food in most African supermarkets

Also, there’s often no electricity and therefore no fridges to keep food fresh in Africa. Staple food like corn is often flown thousands of miles into Africa from the United States, Milano said. “People in African cities are now used to imported foods and they are suspicious of local foods,” Milano said. However, she added, local traditional food is “almost always” healthier.

To ease this “crisis,” she said, Slow Food is working with “many schools and children and parents” in Africa “to promote traditional products and recipes and to explain that traditional products are better from a nutritional point of view.”

Milano said her NGO is “creating 1,000 gardens in 20 [African] countries, in schools, in communities. We are working with hundreds of local people to create very special gardens. In these kinds of gardens we will only use local crop varieties. We will not grow with help of any chemicals, but only compost.

Attempts are underway to teach African children the value of growing local food
Attempts are underway to teach African children the value of growing local food

Scientific research has revealed that African vegetables are rich in vitamins and natural mineral salts. “For example, fruit from the baobab tree contains more calcium than milk,” said Milano, and African free range beef is some of the best in the world, with the most vitamins and the least fat when compared to beef from other regions.

“Meanwhile poor quality, imported, processed foods [contain high quantities of] salt, fat and sugar and they often are responsible for malnutrition within communities,” she added.

Dogon of Mali and their unique seasonings

In Mali, Milano said, the Dogon people are “specialists” in collecting wild herbs, seeds, flowers and plants. From these, Dogon women produce many unique seasonings, called some.

“They produce seasonings with dried okra – that’s a local vegetable; with baobab leaves; with different varieties of local peppers; with different varieties of local onions,” she explained. In the past, some was a basic ingredient in most Dogon cuisine. But in recent times the people have abandoned their traditional food in favor of cheap and convenient imported stock cubes “full of unhealthy preservatives,” said Milano.

Slow Food International wants Africans to eat more local food, such as these indigenous Tanzanian tomatoes
Slow Food International wants Africans to eat more local food, such as these indigenous Tanzanian tomatoes

Slow Food has now launched a project to “rediscover” some, to get the Dogon and other Malians to eat healthy foods again, she said.

“We are working with 60 Dogon women to promote their special seasonings. Later this year we will create a small laboratory to package the different seasonings and we will try to sell them all over the country, in all the main cities in Mali,” Milano told VOA.

The Dogon also plan to sell their seasonings at food fairs in Europe, supported by some top European chefs.

Ethiopian coffee to follow example of wine

Milano said increasing numbers of Africans, like the coffee farmers of Ethiopia’s southern highlands, are dedicated to reinvigorating neglected local, traditional produce.

“Ethiopia is the only place in the world where you find wild coffee plants and very high quality coffee,” she said. But the producers of the southern highlands are isolated. They pick the coffee cherries and sell them at very low prices to traders. “This forces them to focus on quantity rather than the quality processing that could allow them get a higher price at market,” Milano explained.

 

The NGO is helping Ethiopian farmers to grow better quality coffee, and so get higher prices for their produce
The NGO is helping Ethiopian farmers to grow better quality coffee, and so get higher prices for their produce

Slow Food has now organized 700 coffee farmers into an association. “We are trying to work with them to improve the quality [of their coffee] and [for them] to sell directly to the roasters in Europe and the US,” she said.

The farmers are learning how to protect their plants, to fertilize them with organic compost, “and process them to retain the qualities savored by coffee drinkers,” said Milano.

Her group trains communities to pick the berries only when ripe and to dry them carefully, using frames made from locally available materials. “These sorts of innovations not only make coffee taste better, they help farmers earn more,” Milano explained, adding that the farmers’ coffee has “a lot of potential.”

Slow Food is developing a system to label their different coffee varieties, in much the same way different types of wines are labeled throughout the world.

Milano said a “new day is dawning” in African agriculture – one that will enable traditional food to take its “rightful place” in the continent’s supermarkets and to compete with, and hopefully replace, imported mass produced ingredients.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs