Poor man’s food? Saving Africa’s foods, ferments and farms from the “saviours”

2009-11-09-ROAD-to-KONO-Addax-village-001-300x225We were meeting under a thatch roof at the makeshift headquarters of Addax Bioenergy in northern Sierra Leone. Aminata Koroma, Social Liaison Officer for the company, was extolling for me the virtues of the project that was transforming great swaths of farmland, grassland and woodland around us into massive sugarcane plantations. Addax Bioenergy, part of the Addax & Oryx Group headed by Swiss billionaire Jean-Claude Gandur, had recently leased more than 50,000 hectares in the area, with the intention of processing the sugarcane to produce ethanol for export to Europe, where it would be used to fuel vehicles. Koroma was more than enthusiastic about the project, despite a good deal of local opposition among farming communities.

I was challenging her about the wisdom of transforming the diverse countryside, much of it used for farming, into monocultural plantations of sugarcane. She responded that there would be “environmental corridors”, and that they were going to have a “tree-planting day”.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

I countered that I had seen the bulldozers taking down valuable indigenous leguminous trees that did not lend themselves well to planting, such as the locust bean tree, or Parkia biglobosa. This tree is cherished through West and Central Africa because of its many medicinal properties, the sweet edible yellow powder that is harvested from its pods, and its seeds that are fermented and prepared to produce an extremely nutritious and tasty condiment that has long been a mainstay in local cuisines. In Sierra Leone it’s known as kenda.

“Nobody’s planting those trees, the ones that produce kenda,” I said to Koroma. “They grow naturally, they’re not cultivated.”

“Why are you thinking about producing kenda?” she retorted. “ I mean, we call it the poorest man’s food. There is even a song that says, ‘kenda and dry rice, na poor man’s choice’.” She said that the only people in Sierra Leone who ate kenda were people who could not afford the modern alternative, the chemical-ridden Maggi cubes from Nestlé. For her, traditional foods such as kenda had no place in a modern diet. She seemed to think my defence of the condiment and the diverse local farms that produced traditional crops meant I was backward. Against progress and development.

In the Medina Market in Bamako, Mali, nutritious fermented condiments have to compete with heavily marketed, artificial flavour-enhancers such as Maggi from Nestlé

In the Medina Market in Bamako, Mali, nutritious fermented condiments have to compete with heavily marketed, artificial flavour-enhancers such as Maggi from Nestlé

But what kind of progress, what kind of development if it means people turn their backs on their own good foods? The fermented seeds of the locust bean tree – known also as dawadawa, soumbala, dadawa and iru – are one of the most important condiments in West and Central Africa.[1] Or they once were, before Maggi and other flavour-enhancing cubes and seasonings from multinational corporations began to usurp the place of local condiments in nearly all the main dishes. The artificial flavour-enhancers tend to be high in salt, monosodium glutamate and an array of artificial flavours, aromas and colouring agents. The fermented locust bean paste, in contrast, is a rich dietary source of energy, protein, and vitamins such as riboflavin, for people from Cameroon to The Gambia.[2] It is one of many local fermented delicacies with immense nutritional importance, and it is generally women who are the masters of the art of fermentation used in the making of these foods.

The intricate processes of fermentation that they use to prepare kenda are similar to the ones used to make a whole range of nutritious condiments from seeds in West Africa. There is ohpehe, prepared from the seeds from the indigenous African tree, Prosopis africana, which is also a source of many medicinal products. And there is ogiri, made with the fermented seeds of watermelons and another popular indigenous melon called egusi. Similar fermentation processes are used to transform castor oil beans and even the seeds from kapok trees, an introduced species, into protein-rich condiments in local cuisines.

The pods of the locust bean tree produce extremely valuable foods, one a sweet edible yellow powder and the other the seed that is fermented to produce a flavourful and highly nutritious condiment.

The pods of the locust bean tree produce extremely valuable foods, one a sweet edible yellow powder and the other the seed that is fermented to produce a flavourful and highly nutritious condiment.

But the condiments are just a tiny part of the fermentation story, which is a remarkable tale that involves deep wells of traditional knowledge of food processing and an amazing diversity of crops, some annual, some from trees and some harvested from the wild.  Fermentation is a generic term for the transformation of food by bacteria, fungi and the enzymes that they produce.[3]  For those who don’t grow or produce their own food, it may seem an obscure process used to produce only a handful of familiar comestibles — alcoholic drinks, bread dough and milk products. But that doesn’t even begin to cover it. Up to a third of all food that is eaten worldwide is fermented, and fermentation is one of the world’s biggest industries.[4]

African farmers and cooks use fermentation to prepare a wide range of non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, to make  a host of nutritious dairy products, and they also ferment meats and many different grains and tubers. In Sudan alone, more than ninety different foodstuffs have traditionally been fermented to improve flavour, nutrition and storability. Among them are cereals, milk, fish, meat, fruit and honey, and some unorthodox materials such as bones, hides, hooves, caterpillars, locusts, frogs and cow urine, which are fermented as delicacies and prepared as condiments for sauces.[5]

Traditional fermentation of food and beverages is an art and science that has been developed over thousands of years, and for a lot of very good reasons.[6] Fermenting can improve flavours, aromas and textures of foods. It can improve food quality by increasing protein, essential amino and fatty acids and vitamins, make foods more digestible, and make it easier for the body to utilize nutrients in the food. Fermentation is an effective way to reduce, eliminate or neutralize toxins in a food, which is why farmers and cooks in Africa have developed ways to ferment bitter cassava, high in cyanide, to produce a wide variety of different products from the tuber.  Fermenting can also reduce infestations of aflatoxins, the carcinogenic fungi found on improperly stored maize, groundnuts and other foodstuffs. Aflatoxin B is a common cause of liver cancer in Africa, so anything that reduces its prevalence in staple foods merits intense research.

Fermentation can also reduce the amount of time a dish needs to be cooked, so it reduces the amount of fuel needed to cook it, saving on labour and energy costs. And it can help increase storability and shelf lives of foods, which means less food is lost to spoilage and post-harvest losses that can reduce or wipe out a family’s food supply. Fermented products also provide valuable income, all year round, particularly for women who do so much of the fermenting.[7]

Porridge made from grains allowed to ferment increases the nutritional values so much that it reduces the risk of disease in children.[8] Intestinal flora are better able to break down and digest fermented foods, whereas overly processed and difficult-to-digest foods tend to ferment in the gut, causing intestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhoea and bloating.

The long list of impressive benefits of fermentation suggests that this traditional form of biotechnology — done by ordinary people without genetic manipulation or engineering — may be a solution for many problems afflicting Africa today. It can help combat malnutrition, food insecurity, rural poverty, losses of crops post-harvest because of lack of proper storage, and toxicity of poorly stored foods. Because fermented foods have great market potential, they can also help reduce rural poverty. [9]

Given all the above, one might think that all those working to improve food security and nutrition in Africa would be looking very closely at fermentation of diverse crops and foodstuffs from diverse farms as a powerful tool in the toolkit of solutions being developed to improve food security and nutrition on the continent. But are they?

An alphabet soup of saviours with fine intentions . . . or hidden agendas?

There is no shortage of multi-billion dollar initiatives that claim to be helping Africa tackle rural poverty and feed and nourish itself. There’s a veritable alphabet soup of such projects, initiatives and complex alliances, each with its own acronym and each with its own apparently fine intentions embodied in lofty mission statements.

One is CAADP, short for Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, a project of the African Union’s NEPAD, or New Partnership for African Development. The CAADP vision is “to ensure that growing agricultural productivity, well-integrated markets and expanded purchasing power of vulnerable groups combine to eradicate hunger, malnutrition and poverty”.[10]  Peel away the vague rhetoric and it becomes clear that CAADP aims to turn agriculture into agribusiness, eliminate peasant farming and replace it with industrial agriculture and the corporate food system it sustains. A search of the word “ferment” on its website turns up no results. An email request for an explanation on why fermenting is not included has gone unanswered.

Then there’s the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and also the Rockfeller Foundation.  Its vision is “To trigger a uniquely African Green Revolution that transforms agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, competitive and sustainable system that assures food security and lifts millions out of poverty.” [11] AGRA has been strongly criticized by farmer associations and defenders of biodiverse peasant farming and food sovereignty because of its focus on imported seed, pesticides, fertilizers, and for its lack of attention to sustainable agro-ecological agriculture. AGRA, says one critical report, is “premised on Public Private Partnerships in which African governments will shoulder the cost and burden of developing regulatory procedures and infrastructure to enable private agribusiness to profit from new African markets”.[12] AGRA focuses on a few staple crops and shows no obvious interest in the diverse local and indigenous crops that have been developed by African farmers, which have nourished people on the continent for centuries. Nor is there any acknowledgement of the importance of fermentation in enhancing these foods; the lone mention of “ferment” on the AGRA website is in relation to the production of biogas from waste on a small farm in Uganda.[13]

There is also the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched by US President Barack Obama at the G8 Summit in 2012. This Alliance has a multitude of very large corporate “partners”, including controversial biotech and agrochemical firms such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, which control much of the world’s seed supply. It boasts that it will lift “50 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by 2022”.[14] The Alliance is all about economic growth and private investment that promote value chains for a few commodity crops, locking Africa’s smallholders in the vice of producing for a ruthless global marketplace, and undermining the very foundation of Africa’s agricultural and culinary traditions. The Alliance also corners African governments, which are expected to commit to still more market-based reforms.[15] Some critics see it as structural adjustment on steroids, while numerous other critiques condemn it as an all-out assault on Africa’s farmers that fails to recognize the right to food as a human right. There is no mention of building on local know-how, promoting diversity of crops and food sovereignty, indigenous strategies to ensure food security. And no, despite its claim to be promoting nutrition, the Alliance doesn’t appear to even be aware of the nutritive value that Africa’s smallholders add to their food when they ferment it.

According to the White House, “U.S. commitments to nutrition extend beyond the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition” and encompass something called Feed the Future, as well as the Global Health Initiative and food aid programs.[16] It claims that in 2012, working in 19 countries around the world, Feed the Future reached than 12 million children through nutrition programs that reduced anaemia, supported community gardens, fostered fortification, and treated acute malnutrition. Again the approach is market-led, based on neoliberal dogma. Investments in inclusive agriculture-led growth encompass improving agricultural productivity and expanding markets and trade.[17] No mention of local fermentation technologies used to improve local foodstuffs and diets.

The US government’s Food For Peace fund runs a food-related program in Sierra Leone, called Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion – with the snappy little acronym SNAP. It funds its agricultural and nutrition work with vulnerable populations, particularly pregnant women and young children, by bringing in American foods and selling them in local markets, thereby undermining the very farming populations they claim to be helping. [18] The agricultural training is designed to transform farming into a business, and the focus is again on value chains for a handful of crops.[19] And no, SNAP does not involve the promotion of any local fermented foods from indigenous crops.

The World Food Program of the United Nations is the “world’s largest humanitarian organization fighting hunger”, and is active throughout Africa. But it tends to deal with very large corporate distributors and food corporations and governments, acquiring bulk supplies of processed palm oil, of grains such as bulgur wheat or rice, and lentils, which it makes available in emergencies and to populations it deems in need of food aid. It does not bother itself with improving nutrition using local foodstuffs and technologies such as fermentation.

“Despite the many nutritional advantages — which surpass western-style fast and processed foods — many fermented products are often associated with the stigma of being a ‘poor man’s’ food, and as soon as a family can afford to buy processed foods, it moves away from carrying out home fermentation.” Elaine Marshall and Danilo Mejia, 2011

And then there is the HarvestPlus Challenge Program, part of a research program launched in 2004 when it received funding for crop biofortification research granted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.[20]. The rationale for the program is that “The diets of the poor in developing countries usually consist of very high amounts of staple foods (such as maize, wheat, and rice) but few micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal and fish products.”[21] To counter this, HarvestPlus breeds what it calls biofortified crops, including “iron” beans and pearl millet, “Vitamin A” cassava, maize and sweet potato, and “zinc” rice and wheat. By breeding a handful of crops with these nutrients, HarvestPlus says it can reduce “hidden hunger” as part of a strategy that also includes dietary diversification, supplementation, and commercial fortification. All well and good . . . or?

Not according to its critics, who worry there is a hidden – a genetically modified – agenda behind the program.[22] They note that in 2003, the world’s largest biotech company, Monsanto issued a press release saying it was happy to participate in HarvestPlus by providing information on pro-vitamin A.[23] And among the donors is the foundation linked with another giant biotech firm, Syngenta, and the Institute for Life Sciences in Washington, an industry-funded lobby group for food manufacturers, biochemical and biotech companies.[24] Its main focus is to breed a handful of nutrient-rich crops, which would severely reduce the diversity of farms and diets.

04-woman-vendor-nere-leaves-300x225Zinc, vitamin A and iron, and many other crucial nutrients, are abundant in many traditional African crops and foods, including sesame and other seeds and nuts, indigenous red palm oil, and leafy greens such as amaranth used in daily sauces. So where malnutrition and the stunting it causes are prevalent, those claiming to be working to eradicate these would do well to look at their real causes. Poor diets cannot be blamed on individual crops lacking individual nutrients. Rather, they are caused by poverty, taboos, the erosion of crop diversity and loss of farmland to foreign investors establishing massive industrial plantations, and by less diverse diets with fewer local foods, and thus fewer fermented ones. According to a publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Despite the many nutritional advantages — which surpass western-style fast and processed foods — many fermented products are often associated with the stigma of being a ‘poor man’s’ food, and as soon as a family can afford to buy processed foods, it moves away from carrying out home fermentation.”

HarvestPlus, just like the other big initiatives that claim to be addressing food security, pays no attention to fermentation of local crops.[25] And like the others, it threatens to erode food sovereignty, the right of people to define their own food systems. Yet fermentation of a wide range of local foodstuffs does the opposite. It puts the individuals who produce, distribute and consume food at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than the corporations and market institutions that have come to dominate the global food system. Fermentation is a traditional biotechnology that encourages crop and food diversity, both of which are effective strategies to improve food security, and it has been shown to be an excellent way to biofortify foods. It can increase the content of amino acids, vitamins and minerals and antioxidant qualities of grains, seed and nuts.[26] And perhaps most importantly, it is a powerful tool that involves traditional knowledge, which could be developed to strengthen food sovereignty rather than eroding it and creating dependencies on non-local seeds.

Two decades ago, Sudanese researcher Hamid Dirar spent years looking at the myriad local foods that were fermented throughout Africa and concluded that fermentation had enormous untapped value in securing food supplies on the continent. [27] A series of FAO studies reaffirmed this through the 1990s. One study advised that because of the tremendous importance of fermented foods to the world’s food needs, there was a need for research and major efforts to preserve traditional knowledge of the practise.[28]  But those designing all these more recent initiatives and alliances portending to promote nutrition, food security and agricultural development in Africa seem not to have heard. Rather, they seem intent on creating dependencies, chaining African farmers and consumers to the corporate food system and making them servants of the global marketplace, which the moneyed “saviours” just happen to dominate.

And, eventually, just as Aminata Koroma suggested to me, healthy and nutritious and diverse local foods – and fermentation – will be viewed increasingly as poor man’s food, and disappear from African diets and cuisines.




[1] Evans, Egwim, Musa, Amanabo, Abubakar, Yahaya and Mainuna, Bello. 2013. Nigerian indigenous fermented foods: processes and prospects. IN: Agricultural and biological sciences: Mycotoxin and food safety in developing countries. Makun, Hussaini Anthony (ed). Available at: http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/44101/InTech-Nigerian_indigenous_fermented_foods_processes_and_prospects.pdf

[2] Ibid

[3] Katz, Sandor Ellix. 2012. The art of fermentation: an in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world. Chelsea Green  Publishing: White River Junction, VT

[4] Deshpande, S.S. et al. 2000. Fermented grain legumes, seeds and nuts: A global perspective. FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin Number 142. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[5]  Dirar, Hamid A. October 1993. Fermentation to secure food supply. ILEIA Newsletter 9  No. 3. http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/after-harvest/fermentation-to-secure-food-supply [accessed 11 December 2013]

[6] Steinkraus, K. H.,(e)d. 1995. Handbook of indigenous fermented foods. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

[7] Marshall, Elaine and Mejia, Danilo. 2011. Traditional fermented food and beverages for improved livelihoods. Rome: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Diversification Booklet 21.

[8] Battcock, M. and Azam-Ali, S. 1998. Fermented fruits and vegetables: A global perspective. FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin No. 134. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0560E/x0560E00.htm [accessed 13 December 2013]

[9]  Marshall, Elaine and Mejia, Danilo. 2011. Op. cit.

[10] The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) http://www.nepad-caadp.net/about-caadp.php [accessed 8 December 2013]

[12] African Centre for Biosafety. 2013. http://www.acbio.org.za/ [accessed 9 December 2013]

[13] Kato, Joshua. n.d. Simple agric. Innovations, very happy, satisfied family… AGRA.  Available at: http://www.agra.org/news-events/winner-joshua-kato-uganda/?keywords=ferment#sthash.xCkmrWSX.dpuf [accessed 8 December 2013]

[14] Fact Sheet: The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. 18 June 2013. The White House: Feed the Future (The U.S. Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative), http://feedthefuture.gov/article/fact-sheet-new-alliance-food-security-and-nutrition [accessed 9 December 2013]

[15]  Bailey, Rob. 12 June 2013. Mixed results on G8 nutrition initiatives. Chatham House. http://www.chathamhouse.org/media/comment/view/192217 [12 December 2013]

[16] Fact Sheet: The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. 18 June 2013. The White House: Feed the Future (The U.S. Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative), http://feedthefuture.gov/article/fact-sheet-new-alliance-food-security-and-nutrition [accessed 9 December 2013]

[17]  Feed the Future, Approach. http://feedthefuture.gov/approach/Inclusive–Agriculture–Sector–Growth [accessed 10 December 2013]

[18] Baxter, Joan. 19 August 2013. SNAP! The sound of American food aid to Sierra Leone helping corporate America. http://joanbaxter.ca/snap-the-sound-of-american-food-aid-to-sierra-leone-helping-corporate-america/

[19] ACDI/VOCA. Sierra Leone – Sustainable Nutrition an Agriculture Promotion (SNAP) Program. http://www.acdivoca.org/site/ID/sierraleoneSNAP [accessed 12 December 2013]

[20] HarvestPlus. http://www.harvestplus.org/content/about-harvestplus [accessed 10 December 2013]

[21] HarvestPlus. http://www.harvestplus.org/content/nutrients [accessed 10 December 2013]

[22] Eat Drink Better. Africa’s biofortified sweet potato: evangelism or heresy? http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2012/08/20/africas-biofortified-sweet-potato-evangelism-or-heresy/ [accessed 10 December 2013]

[23]  Monsanto. 14 October 2013. Monsanto donates research to help develop Provitamin A enhanced maize for Africa. http://news.monsanto.com/press-release/monsanto-donates-research-help-develop-provitamin-enhanced-maize-africa [accessed 12 December 2013]

[24]  The Center for Media and Democracy, Sourcewatch. The International Life Sciences Institute. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=International_Life_Sciences_Institute [accessed 10 December 2013]

[25] An email response to a request for information from HarvestPlus on 12 December 2013 stated, “We do not have a focus or expert on food fermentation.”

[26] Egwim Evans, et al. 2013. Op. cit.

[27] Dirar, Hamid A. 1993. The indigenous fermented foods of the Sudan. Oxon, UK: CAB International. [Today, this book is out of print and rare copies sell for more than US$ 8,000 online.]

[28] Battcock, M. and Azam-Ali, S. 1998. Op. cit.

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