Among other ills, colonialism began a process of the denigration of Africa’s taste buds as traditional, and even barbaric. European foods were extolled as tastier and healthier, causing many Africans to embrace imported foods as against locally grown, healthier options. The end of colonialism did little to reverse the control of the mind and the stomach of Africans by the former colonial authorities, as formerly colonized Africans are yet to recover their taste buds, decades after the end of official colonialism. Yet, recurring food insecurity across the region and other related factors point to a need to urgently wean Africa’s taste buds from cravings acquired during colonial times, and to build innovation around the continent’s indigenous foods.
For centuries, across much of Africa, south of the Sahara, communities and nations grew their own foods based on sustainable land-use practices. Demand and supply for food created self-sufficient economies where trade in agro and agro-allied products thrived. Food production included animal husbandry, oil milling, fishing and fish processing, beer, wine and sundry drink production, as well as the cultivation and processing of such staples as yam, cassava, millet, beans, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Across many communities, agricultural prowess was extolled as progressive, such that the more foods or animals an individual or family produced or reared, the wealthier they are. The nature of land-use ensured that most able-bodied individuals had access to this primary source of human sustenance. Land was treated as part of nature, and not as a resource to be exploited at will. The result was a stable system, where humans and the means of production formed part of a mutually beneficial, naturally replenishing ecosystem.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade interrupted Africa’s thriving agricultural growth trajectory through, among others, depleting much of Africa’s able human capital needed for food production. This resulted in famines which gravely affected some communities. The dawn of the industrial revolution in Europe marked the beginning of an end to the centuries-old trade in African human commodity. Europe and America no longer needed Africans as enslaved robots in their territories to cultivate their lands.
Desperately needed during the Industrial Revolution, however, were Africa’s natural resources as raw materials to feed the machines. The continent also provided overseas territories where Europe could dump substandard and/or excess finished products from its factories. These products were cheaply bartered for Africa’s natural resources, with the central and singular aim of amassing extreme profit for Europe and America.
The over six decades of dumping excess agricultural production of processed wheat flour and others in Africa had decimated the taste buds and health of the region. The African’s taste buds began to crave chapatti, bread, sambosa, spaghetti, pasta, biscuits and other processed wheat flour derivatives. Africans who once normally lived on wholesome, organically produced foods began to disdain agriculture for food production, and many considered it an endeavour for poor, backward villagers. A few converted the once flourishing farmlands into production centres for Euro-American cravings such as coffee, cocoa and tea. Preferred was the vicious scramble for few available white-collar jobs in overcrowded, poorly planned cities across the region.
With population growth, rapid urbanization and expansion of Africa’s middle class, imports of the addictive, unhealthy but easy-to-prepare processed wheat flour soared. Africa’s taste buds have become so adjusted and dependent on processed wheat flour that any drop in its imports results in food crisis. With the War in Ukraine, the wheat crisis in the world garnered global attention. Newspaper headlines in the West, ever in search of negative stories out of Africa, declared the taste bud cravings of Africans a famine. Yet, it was more a reality check for the taste buds of the continent than anything else. In 2020, Nigeria with a population of a little over 200 million, imported 4.6% of all wheat exported globally. Between 2018 and 2020, the continent of Africa’s import of wheat from Ukraine stood at US$3.7 billion, which is the equivalent of 32% of the continent’s total wheat imports. Africa craves wheat and the crisis in Ukraine is being strongly felt across the continent.
The heavy subsidization of commercial agriculture by governments across the western hemisphere ensures continuity of that kind of capital intensive food production. The continued dumping of agricultural produce in African countries is strongly backed by these governments. Many African countries have ventured into commercial wheat production and failed woefully. The heavily import-dependent nature of commercial agriculture is part of the reasons for the failure. On a separate note, however, the toxicity of the huge quantities of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides needed in commercial farming has made this failure a blessing in disguise for Africa.
While Africa continues to crave wheat, the west is now trying to flee from it. Food innovation in the Global North has made it possible for many health-conscious individuals to replace processed wheat products with other flour from healthier grains. Spaghetti, bread, pasta and cookies made from lentil, brown rice, quinoa, chickpeas and even beans, are easily available from supermarket shelves across the Global North.
Curbing Africa’s ‘taste buds’ problem must be a matter of policy-making and implementation across the region. African countries will do well to build innovation around food that grows naturally and easily within their countries. This also addresses the question of scaling out agriculture as against the age-old serially unsuccessful efforts to scale up large-scale agriculture across many parts of Africa. Many young Africans are beginning to realize that agriculture is a necessary part of human existence. Fish, poultry, pig, grasscutter, snail, goat and other forms of farming are gradually making their way back to the career list of school leavers. Food cultivation will also hopefully follow suit.
The submission here is not the perpetual subjection of the African to a narrow, bland diet of cassava ugali, garri, yam or millet porridge. Neither is it a demand for a return to antiquated farming practices or labour-intensive agriculture. Rather, this piece calls for the building of innovation around Africa’s indigenous foods and farming practices. The kind of innovation that places ubuntu, not profit first, while dignifying the land and Earth.
If many unemployed Africans or those grossly underemployed in urban areas take up farming and processing of indigenous foods, then Africa’s population will indeed be a good thing as far as food security and sustainable farming are concerned. Innovation around Africa’s indigenous food system will yield surprising benefits by having a positive snowball effect on other sectors, including infrastructure, health and social services.