Celebrating Africa’s food and farmers

BY Joan Baxter

July 12, 2017

(This article is the first of two adapted excerpts from the book, Seven Grains of Paradise – A Culinary Journey in Africa, available in print and Kindle edition at Amazon.ca, as an e-pub globally from Amazon.com and Kobo, and in print in Canada from Nimbus.)

Seven Grains of Paradise-Proof4.oct 25Type “Why is Africa” into Google and these are the top four phrases with which it fills in the blank: “so backward,” “such a mess,” “so poor,” and “so underdeveloped.” Change the query to “Why can’t Africa,” and Google finishes that question with: “grow food.”

Depressing stuff, but it’s not Google’s fault that such negative stereotypes abound. They go back many decades, if not centuries, and obviously still persist to shape online searches. And they’re as misleading and wrong now as they’ve always been.

First, Africa is an immense and diverse continent, which is no more “backward” (whatever that really means) or more of a “mess” than many other parts of the world. Many African countries may be monetarily poor, but the continent is enormously rich in culture and resources, and parts of it are catching up, if not surpassing, other more “developed” countries, depending, of course, what exactly we mean by development.

And as for the notion that Africa can’t grow food, that’s so far off the mark that it’s hard to know where to start to debunk it. But I’ll try. In 2015, a landmark study that examined diets in 187 countries around the world in 1990 and again in 2010 found that nine of the ten healthiest were in West African nations.

The historical record also says a lot about African farming and foods. The names that early European seafaring explorers gave to chunks of West Africa’s coastline also say a lot about what they found when they plied the coastal waters from the 15th to 19th centuries.

As Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff write in their landmark 2009 book, In the shadow of slavery: Africa’s botanical legacy in the Atlantic world, the portion of the West African coastline that now belongs to Liberia, Portuguese explorers named after the wondrous “grains of paradise” or alligator peppers that abounded there; they called it the “Grain Coast.”

Just to the north, what are now the nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and The Gambia, became known as the “Rice Coast.” The Europeans must have been deeply impressed by the distinctive African crops that abounded along the west coast of the continent, to name whole territories after them.

Although today there is a tendency for many governments, the World Bank and proponents of industrial agriculture to denigrate “peasant” or “subsistence” family farming as inefficient and unproductive, this was not always the way outsiders viewed what they saw in African fields and markets.

Portuguese explorers and traders moving along the African coast admired lands full of food and livestock — rice, millet, beans, cows and goats, chickens and capons (roosters castrated to improve the meat quality), many kinds of wine. They marvelled at vast areas of croplands dotted with giant cotton trees and markets with small mountains of rice for sale.

Not only do African farmers know very well how to grow food, they produce an incredible and almost inconceivable diversity of food crops. This astonishing abundance of different food crops translates into an equally astonishing array of dishes that mix and match these ingredients in complex and rich pastes or sauces and soups. It is only in this century that researchers began documenting the approximately 7,000 plant species used by people in sub-Saharan Africa as sources of food, clothing, shelter, energy, medicines and animal feed.

Africa’s culinary gifts to the world

Isatu Sow serving delectable, rich sauce and rice in her roadside eatery, Moyamba Junction, Sierra Leone [photo: Joan Baxter]

Africa has provided more than 100 species of plants to global food supplies, including two that became the most popular beverages on the planet. Coffee (Coffea robusta), now the mainstay of so many of our days and a multi-billion dollar global industry, was first recognized as a vitalizing drink in Ethiopia nearly 3,000 years ago. As one delightful version of this discovery goes, an Ethiopian herder noticed that when his goats chewed on the red beans they became perky, and in this way, a humble pastoralist discovered coffee’s tasty and stimulating properties.

Africans also domesticated the kola nuts that provide the caffeine in Coca-Cola and the oil palm that eventually produced the oil that goes into about one in ten products on supermarket shelves. Africa gave the world tamarind that is used in Worcestershire Sauce, the hibiscus found in popular herbal teas, and the gum arabic added to so many processed foods. The continent’s farmers also deserve credit for developing and for sharing with the world a host of other food crops — pearl and finger millets, sorghum, watermelon, black-eyed peas (cowpeas), okra (gumbo), sesame, and one species of rice.

In his remarkable book, 1493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth, author Charles C. Mann documents the unprecedented wave of migration of crops between the Old and New Worlds that followed the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. He notes that some ecologists believe this was the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs. During the Exchange, maize, manioc (cassava), peanuts, tomatoes, and two species of chili pepper (Capsicum baccatum and C. pubescens) were introduced into Africa from the Americas. African farmers rapidly adapted the Mayan maize from Central America for cultivation in almost every growing region of the continent.

About 50 different African food crops also made their way across the ocean to the Americas, many in slave ships. Once in the New World, they helped to create new cuisines, with African flavours. No one is really sure just how the African captives managed to carry their culinary staples with them on the horrendous trans-Atlantic journeys.

Some stories passed down through generations of Maroons, escaped slaves in the Americas, relate how women being loaded onto slave ships hid grains of rice in their daughters’ hair, so that they had something to plant when they disembarked. This means that it was Africans themselves that introduced African rice to Brazil. Captains of the slaving ships also loaded their holds with foodstuffs to keep their human cargo alive, if only barely, and women captives prepared African dishes for the rest of the captives on board. Any excess was then offloaded when the ships arrived at their destinations in the Americas, coming ashore as precious seed.

In this way, Africans imported some of their favourite and most important crops to the Americas. Among them are the African eggplant (also known as Guinea squash and garden egg), sesame, okra, cowpeas or black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), West African sorrel, also known as krinkrin or bush okra (Corchorus olitorus), guinea sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa), Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea), Guinea pepper (Xylopia aethiopica), the lablab bean (Lablab purpureus), sorghum, millet, rice and yams. The forcefully transplanted Africans then started to cultivate their crops in the New World in gardens, which fused African and Amerindian crops and created new cuisines.

The transatlantic slave trade depopulated Africa’s agricultural societies and cast them into tragic disarray. Africa’s loss was the New World’s gain. The Americas, on the other hand, profited immensely from the labour, knowledge and crops the Africans provided to the plantation colonies.[i]

An impressive history of plant and animal domestication

Like people in Southeast Asia, the Near East, interior New Guinea and Mesoamerica, Africans were domesticating plants and animals thousands of years ago. They were experimenting and innovating to develop the cultivars that best suited their tastes, needs, local market demands, climatic conditions and soils.

Ma Coulibaly selling okra in the Medina Market, Bamako, Mali [photo: Joan Baxter]

The plants that Africans domesticated in ancient times are, through their diversity and origins, adapted to many different tropical ecosystems, including even extremely arid places. Scientists are now telling us what peasant farmers already know; crop and seed diversity are the continent’s defense against global warming and famine.

Pearl millet, a true African gem, is believed to be the most drought-tolerant cereal of all. It grows quickly during short rainy seasons and can be harvested after just a few months. Sorghum, perhaps the oldest of African cereals, was domesticated and bred over many thousands of years; today there are two dozen cultivated species of this precious food crop. Sorghum matures more slowly than pearl millet, but it can do so even after the rains end and into the dry season because of its ability to access residual moisture in the soil.

Africa also has an impressive history of livestock development and animal husbandry. Africans domesticated cattle at least 8,000 years ago and perhaps more than 10,000. Over great swaths of time, as the climate of the Sahara Desert went from dry to damp, to lush to dry again, people migrated with their portable food supply — their cattle — moving south to what is now the semi-arid Sahelian belt between Sahara and savannah. They developed the dwarf humpless cattle that are resistant to bovine sleeping sickness, which is spread by tsetse flies and can wipe out entire populations of non-resistant breeds of cattle.

About a millennium later, Africans domesticated the donkey as a transport animal. They also bred their own indigenous poultry species, the delightful and raucous (and very tasty) guinea fowl. Sheep and goats were introduced into Africa about 8,500 years ago, and were subsequently domesticated to tolerate all kinds of climatic hardship — drought, cold and intense humid heat.

When Indian zebu cattle were introduced to Africa about two millennia ago, pastoralists crossed this breed with their own long-horn ones to produce the hardy and drought-resistant breed known today as ankole in Uganda. As if all this were not enough, African pastoralists and herders were also developing and nurturing the forage and fodder grasses in the pastureland that nourished their animals.

Multi-billion-dollar schemes miss the mark

Africa’s great history of plant domestication, farming, herding and complex food cultures are often overlooked, particularly by those drawing up the current blueprints for Africa’s agricultural development that shape the future of Africa’s foods and farms –- the African Union’s Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the G7/8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and foreign investment schemes disguised as development aid that rob African farmers of their land.

These multi-billion dollar schemes see no future in peasant farming and focus instead on a handful of commodity crops, a global food regime and market, and a corporate approach to agriculture that threatens not just Africa’s family farms and food sovereignty on the continent, but also the diversity of crops that can help them cope with the ravages of climate change.

According to the ETC Group, peasant farmers have bred and still nurture 40 different livestock species and close to 8,000 breeds. Contrast that with the focus of the industrial food chain on fewer than 100 breeds of five livestock species.

And when it comes to plants, peasants also vastly outscore corporate plant breeders. While peasants have bred 5,000 crops and donated 1.9 million plant varieties to the world’s gene banks, those in the employ of the giant corporations that increasingly control the world’s food system work with a paltry 150 crops, and focus on just a dozen. Not only have they whittled down the number of the crops grown to feed the industrial food system, the corporate plant breeders have also bred about 40 percent of the nutrition out of our grains and vegetables.

Africa’s 33 million small farms produce the majority of grains, almost all root, tuber, and plantain crops, and the majority of legumes on the continent, mostly with little use of fertilizers and purchased, patented seed.

Which means that now, more than ever, is the time to showcase, promote, savour — and try to save — the diverse crops that are Africa’s culinary wealth.

[i] Freidberg, Susanne. 2005. “French beans for the masses: a modern historical geography of food in Burkina Faso.” In: Watson, James I. and Caldwell, Melissa I (eds). The cultural politics of food and eating: a reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. p 23.

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