The hand that feeds you rules your world

In the minds of many, Africa and food form an incongruous twosome, an unlikely duo that should not belong together, two concepts destined not to mix – like oil and water.

Peering through my African lens though, I see an entirely different reality. What strikes me as absurd is not so much the wide acceptance of the above claim, but rather that the story of food in Africa is riddled with inconsistencies and gaping holes.

Consider the following three contradictions, for example.

  1. Africa, the cradle of humanity… but not that of food?

Years ago, I visited an agriculture museum in Europe – South of France to be precise. The centerpiece on display sought to show the birthplaces of the world’s major food crops. Arrows crisscrossed the globe, tracing back food crops to their points of origin and following them on their journey through time and space.

One important element was glaringly amiss, however.

None of the arrows connecting one point to the other on the world’s food map originated from Africa. The continent was completely bypassed as if it was an invisible space. No mention was made of any kind of food crops from this region. Instead, a number of the arrows pointed to Africa, as if they have chosen the continent as their final resting place.

What a grotesque travesty of reality!

How come Africa the cradle of humankind cannot be featured as one of the birthplaces of food? Perhaps, our common ancestors were much stronger after all to have survived on water and air alone!

Jokes aside, I asked myself if this was a case of plain ignorance about Africa’s food wealth. Or, is there a deliberate attempt by outsiders, namely the West, to delink Africa from food, to erase from collective memory the continent’s role and contribution to world food?

  1. Poverty amidst plenty

The one thing any African citizen and any foreigner who has set foot on the continent know for sure is this: Blessed with bountiful natural resources, Africa is the richest continent on the planet.

Home to huge expanses of fertile land irrigated by abundant waterways, a coastline stretching thousands of kilometers, a region conveniently located in the tropical zone, Africa offers the most ideal conditions for growing a wide variety of food crops, all year around. Its seas, lakes and rivers are replete with fish while its livestock resources hold tremendous promise as a primary food source.

Surely, no one could possibly go hungry on this continent of plenty!

Sadly, the reality on the ground is different.

On one side, we have Africa as the major purveyor of prime products such as coffee, cocoa, nuts, seeds and spices, tropical fruits and vegetables, live animals, fish and seafood, shipped in large volumes to foreign markets. The continent is increasingly touted as the world’s next food frontier for its potential to feed the entire planet.

On the flip side, there is hardly any talk about adequate food production destined for African markets. Where are those vast fields of maize, African rice, teff, sorghum, millet? Where are those fruits and vegetables, those fish catches and animal products that should be flooding our markets and kitchens?

When it comes to food in Africa, all we ever hear about is failed crops, harvest losses, disease outbreaks, food shortages, skyrocketing prices, explosive population growth, and the obvious duet of drought and hunger. We are told that Africa’s domestic food supply is beset by a host of challenges, threats and vulnerabilities, which are believed to hamper the continent’s ability to feed itself.

Yet, millions of African citizens continue to be malnourished and underfed, while scores go hungry every day.

And so, we have the Africa of plenty and the Africa of poverty as the two sides of the same food coin.

How can Africa be so poor in the midst of plenty? How come Africa with so much food to offer the world has so little to give its own people? How can the next ‘bread basket’ of the world remain a ‘basket case’ when it comes to feeding itself?

  1. Africa rising but hungry

As I was scrolling down my twitter feed a couple of months ago, a particular tweet grabbed my attention. It asked: ‘How is Africa rising? Is it by inhalation of helium or a generous dash of baking yeast?’

The tweet might sound sarcastic at first, but it raises a fundamental question about the Africa rising story and the hype surrounding it. It echoes the growing sentiment of many African citizens who are challenging the narrative that glosses over their daily struggle for food and who are saying, loud and clear, that ‘they cannot eat growth’.

Is trouble brewing in Africa rising paradise?

Despite posting one of the world’s fastest economic growth over the last decade (Where is the Growth? Africa), Africa is having a tough time tackling its stubborn food crisis. And in a time of changing climate, hunger has begun to cast its eerie shadow on African citizens, threatening to reverse the continent’s progress.

Bumper harvests in good years become easily undone at the slightest dry spell, flash flood, or locust invasion. The fragile food situation lays bare the flaws of the growth model currently pursued by the continent.

In its hurry to move up the development ladder, Africa seems to have put the cart before the ox. It looks like the continent has skipped an important step in laying down the unshakable foundations of a strong economy. Food, which should have formed the bedrock of any logical growth model, finds itself relegated to the lowest ranks of many African countries’ development agenda.

How can Africa claim to have achieved growth when it is failing to feed its people? How can it tell the Africa rising story without giving the right answer to the food question, without correcting its food narrative?

The above examples are the kind of contradictions that plague the story of food in Africa. Without realizing it, such inconsistencies and gaps have distorted our perspectives, our decisions and our actions about food in Africa.

For the longest time, African food resources have been put down, frowned upon and tossed aside, because considered unfit for human consumption by the West. We were made to view them as less valuable, as less nutritious. We were told to reject them, shift our diets, and embrace the ‘modern’, ‘sophisticated’ food, narrowing down our choices to what is deemed acceptable by Western standards.

We were led to think that food policies inherited from colonial times – and still very much alive today – work in our favor. So, we dedicate our money, time and energy to produce the food we don’t eat, instead of the food we eat.

We never second-guessed when we were instructed to remove much-needed subsidies for our domestic food production systems, when these same subsidies continue to provide a vital lifeline to farmers across the European Union (‘Sans aide, point de salut’, journal TV5 monde, 25 January 16). As a result, our food chain has remained weak and brittle.

In recent years, we have engaged in a fierce race to the bottom, fighting against each other in a bid to attract foreign investments to Africa. Our land is served on a platter to sweeten investment deals, even as it is sold very cheap to Western and emerging countries alike to grow their own food.

Why should the need to feed ourselves be expendable whereas outsiders’ food need is made indispensable?

Meanwhile, we were tricked into believing that we need not worry about producing our own food, since there is an invisible, foreign hand that would take care of our needs. This is why we have become eternal beggars relying on food handouts whenever some stroke of bad luck hits us. This is why we don’t hesitate to spend the ridiculous amount of USD 35 billion every year on food imports from outside, food we can produce ourselves.

To make matters worse, our coasts and waters are easy targets for rogue predators, which are robbing us in broad day light. Large-scale illegal fishing carried out by foreign ships are systematically depleting our fish resources and living us bone dry.

Our own agricultural biodiversity and knowledge are on the brink of extinction because of our neglect, while our door is wide open to ruthless vultures on the lookout for any opportunity to steal our food wealth through scam operations (How Ethiopia Lost Control of its Teff Genetic Resources).

This brings me to the central question: Why? What is at stake here?

Much has been written about food in Africa in a way that fits the Western narrative, mostly from the angle of scarcity and helplessness.

Since independence, the African continent has been an open-air laboratory, a testing ground for a wide range of what the West likes to call ‘development solutions’.

However, none of them were modeled after the famous Chinese saying:  ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him a lifetime.’ None of them were successful enough to bring about the much sought-after Green Revolution for Africa, to find a lasting solution to the seemingly perennial food issue of the continent.

Laced in a potent dose of politics and money, these solutions were never designed to lift permanently African citizens out of hunger and food poverty. No wonder they are a recipe for disaster!

In times of crisis, the holes and gaps in our food systems are filled by food aid procured essentially from external sources. But very few know about the dark side of food aid as much as Africans citizens do.

Experience shows that food aid always comes too little, too late for those most in need. In addition, it has destroyed African food production systems, created a debilitating mentality of dependence (The Challenge of African Economic Recovery and Development), and changed the eating habits of African citizens.

Instead of an image problem, the credibility of food aid, motivated largely by vested interests, is undermined by serious ethical considerations.

Certainly, questioning food aid would be tantamount to shaking a beehive at the risk of being met by deadly bee stings. Food aid is big business and this booming industry is not likely to go bust anytime soon.

Is it not high time for us to do some house cleaning instead of shining our begging bowls, to stop resorting to food aid as an easy shortcut, a band aid to cover up our failure to meet our people’s food needs, to stop importing food and start investing our hard-earned currencies to develop our food systems?

As it stands now, the hand that is feeding us is not ours but somebody else’s.

How could we entrust something so fundamental – food, the most basic of human needs – into the hands of others?

The taboo we need to break is to ask where the power over our food actually resides.

African citizens who think they have a say in their food should take a hard look at the bigger picture. They will find out, much to their dismay, that they are just a fragment in this grand scheme of things, an instrument to outsiders that hold the true power.

Food is one of the most powerful tools of control, and we have to take that control back.

To do so requires that we put ourselves back into the food game. We have to question the myopic vision and the short-terms gains that cloud our judgment. We have to start the food recipe from scratch, by getting rid of harmful ingredients and practices in order to get it right. In other words, we have to be willing to ‘walk the talk’ and get our hands dirty to resolve our food equation.

If we are serious in taking steps into the right direction, we should look no further than China as an example to emulate.

China’s famous mantra of ‘one bowl of rice a day for every citizen’ catalyzed the spectacular transformation of its food system, making the country with over a billion people food independent. By focusing on feeding its people first, China was able to start on the right foot and embark on the formidable task of developing its economy.

In the same manner, we have to go back to the basics and begin our rise from the bottom of the pyramid of needs. We must first feed ourselves before trying to feed others, before forcing the development agenda onto African citizens. No human being is able to think straight on an empty stomach!

Food should feature prominently on every African government’s priority list. In my view, it should be the first criteria for assessing a country’s socio-economic achievements.

For Africa to become a continent of abundance, we have to mend our broken food chain by turning our food systems into profitable business ventures, by rolling out adequate infrastructure to support the entire food chain, and by supplying good quality and affordable food to local, national and regional markets.

Indeed, why should we buy Indian or Chinese rice, when we have locally grown African rice? Why should we spend more on Italian-packaged coffee when we can buy the best coffee in the world right from the source, Ethiopia?

Fortunately, things are looking up.

Trailblazers are offering reason for hope, as a number of African investors are betting big on the food industry (Dangote opens Nigeria Tomato Factory to vie with Chinese Imports).

Africa’s previously denigrated food resources have recently been given a new lease on life, hailed as the new ‘wonder food’ in the West. Africa’s lost crops are also making a timid comeback onto the African food scene.

We should revive and nurture our original food resources, not because of a change of heart on the part of the West, but because they form an essential part of our food. They also happen to be better suited to our environments, our digestive systems, and probably even our genetic makeup.

Still, we need to be mindful that the change we are seeking does not come at our expense. We have to question the value, the limitations and the practicalities of the change involved prior to taking actions.

Supporting the modernization of our food system should not be a losing game.

If we look at the thorny issue of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) – a fancier name for plant breeding – we need to understand that it is not about a battle between those supporting and those opposing the technique. Rather, the whole debate is about ownership, about the power struggle between the rightful owners of the food resources and those wishing to control them using technology as an excuse.

Is this not the source of controversies surrounding the work of Monsanto and even Gates Foundation in African agriculture?

Technology should in no way seek to replace but rather should complement the wealth of knowledge that we have in our hands, knowledge that has passed the test of time. We have to document it and undertake further research to be able to make the most of it in our effort to modernize our food systems.

Most importantly, we need to ensure that we are – and remain –  the gatekeepers of our food and biodiversity resources as we have been for millennia. Therefore, we have to be willing to give our people whatever it takes to safeguard this wealth for generations to come.

Stuck between a world of abundance and a world of deprivation, we have completely failed to tell our food story, above all to ourselves. One way to change that is by building bridges between the two worlds in order to write our new food narrative that is aligned with the needs and aspirations of our people.

Feeding Africa may seem to be an uphill battle, a foregone conclusion. But it is possible – as long as there are heaps of strong will and commitment from our side.

We have all the elements of the solution in our hands and we should not let it slip between our fingers.

The choice rests with you, African citizens, to decide whether you wish to become the main actors in your food story, to be the owners of the hand that feeds you.

The promise of taking this decision is freedom, because our independence as countries is intimately linked to the power we have on our food systems.

The peril for failing to act is servitude, for the hand that feeds you rules your world.

The hand that gives, rules’ – Bantu proverb, quoted by Patrice Lumumba

(31 March 2016)

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