In the previous two parts on ancient African foods, we discussed food security in Africa and how ancient food plants that are not cultivated anymore can help to add nutrients to the African diet. Modern foodplants do not provide enough nutrients, which leads to several disorders, including stunted growth and obesity. We also considered how different occurrences in history influenced the disappearance of these ancient foods from the African menu.
In this part, we consider how these plants can be brought back to popularity to contribute to a healthier population.
Jurie van der Walt, who has studied the value of ancient plants in the African diet, believes reinstating these food-plants on the African menu depends on changes in policy.
“The majority of farmers in Africa are small-scale farmers with less than five hectares of land available to them,” says Jurie. “Therefore, policies that touch on farming systems at the subsistence level have a direct effect on food availability and consumption.
“Policies that aim to rediscover lost native food crops will have strong and direct impacts on access to sustainable food. The loss of native food crops means loss of culinary identity, but by harnessing and rediscovering African native food plants, African societies have a chance to make a meaningful, lasting improvement to food security and the health and prosperity that accompanies it.”
Besides some research and small rural experiments, no large-scale and government-supported campaigns have been carried in Africa. Some effort has however been made in Kenya and Brazil.
The Brazilian example
Brazil has done a lot to promote the importance of neglected and under-utilised plant species (NUS), including promoting a variety of NUS plants in dietary guidelines, supporting production of these species through public procurement strategies, including for school feeding systems, and prioritising these species in national strategies and action plans as well as agriculture and nutrition policies.
Native food species with nutritional value are officially defined and formally recognised. This means that these species are cultivated or sustainably managed and wild-harvested by local communities. By formally recognising the value of these foodplants, they can be used for public food procurement, such as for school meals.
School feeding schemes
Millions of school children all over the world are fed daily through feeding schemes. This provides an opportunity to provide and promote healthy foods, resetting eating norms in favour of nutrition.
“As homegrown school feeding programmes are currently being endorsed in many countries — with the aim of procuring food locally and encouraging agricultural development — there are progressively more opportunities to encourage sustainable and healthy sourcing of NUS,” says Jurie.
In Kenya, pilot projects have shown that underutilised, nutrient-rich African leafy vegetables can play a role in linking local farmer groups to school markets.
A newly endorsed biodiversity conservation policy in the Busia County of Kenya recognises the importance of NUS foodplants for better nutrition and food security.
Certain areas have been set aside for conserving regional food biodiversity and for incorporation of these plants into school meals. This will also link smallholder farmers to formal markets. As of 2018, 1,5 million children across Kenya receive a nourishing meal at school every day.
Brazil has employed a national platform of experts to collect data on the nutritional value of NUS foodplants, to document traditional recipes and develop modern NUS-based recipes.
These experts worked with the health ministry to disseminate revised dietary guidelines based on regional foods, with information on the inclusion of biodiversity for the sake of nutrition.
Annual culinary festivals, where celebrity chefs and other high-profile individuals prepare food with local foodplants, is another way to spread the good news about NUS foodplants.
One such a festival is the annual Alaçatı Herb Festival on the Western coast of Turkey. This area is famous for its wide variety of nutritious herbs and edible greens.
The festival was started in 2010 to revive cultural values and preserving them for future generations. Every year for four days in April the festival attracts thousands of visitors who enjoy delicious dishes prepared with the local plants and herbs that naturally grow in the region.
While visitors enjoy the food, they also learn about the diversity and nutrition of the plants, and how to use these plants in recipes through seminars, exhibitions, workshops, and the selling of local products.
In Sri Lanka, the Hela Bojun true Sri Lankan Taste refers to market outlets run by rural women who sell traditional food. It was initiated by the Extension and Communication Centre of the Department of Agriculture and the Wayamba University with the aim to empower women to earn money by preparing and selling traditional Sri Lankan food based on local plants.
The project proved to be a great success and women can earn a sufficient income to become financially independent.
Chefs and food activists
A growing number of chefs and food activists are popularising NUS food-plants through restaurants and other food activities, initiatives, and campaigns. These include initiatives such as Chefs for Development, Culinary Breeding Network, the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance, and Earth Markets.
Chefs for Development (Chefs4Dev) is, for example, an initiative that aims to promote links between value chain actors in the food and agriculture sectors. They highlight the value of healthier, locally sourced food and agricultural products on menus in food establishments in the Caribbean, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean cultures.
The Slow Food Earth Markets project started in 2004 and there are presently 24 Earth Markets around the world, which all adhere to international guidelines.
The objectives are to give access to local, seasonal, short chain products which were grown and prepared with respect for the environment and the rights of workers.
The markets create marketing opportunities for small-scale producers who are usually excluded from commercial markets.
They bring together the producer and consumer to exchange knowledge, skills, education of correct nutrition, and awareness of the environment, thereby creating a sense of community.
All these ways to popularise locally sourced foodplants can be duplicated within the African context and can contribute to bringing back neglected and underutilised species of foodplants that have been forgotten but are waiting to be reintroduced to African gardens and dinner tables.
Benlier, A. (March 2019). A nourishing expedition at the “Alaçatı Herb Festival”. Itinari https://www.itinari.com/a-nourishing-expedition-at-the-alacati-herb-festivalvwml
Chefs for Development. https://chefs4dev.org/index.html
Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/
Warner (2018, November 15). Hela Bojun – empowering women through Sri Lankan food. Wale & Me Conscious & ethical lifestyle & travel https://waleandme.com/hela-bojun/