My food is African: A campaign to improve health and support farmers

20Jun 2022
Zuwena Shame
The Guardian
My food is African: A campaign to improve health and support farmers

BEFORE industrial agriculture and food processing, people consumed whole grains, fruits and vegetables eaten fresh or naturally preserved for future use.

Million Belay, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) General Coordinator speaks at the organizations’ Citizens’ Working Group meeting held recently in Entebbe, Uganda. Photo courtesy of AFSA

Protein came from animals that grazed freely and lived in their natural environment. It was the same case with poultry as well as fish in those old but golden days.

Then technological development brought industrial agriculture and food processing which is fast taking over our food supply. Meal has become a product for the profit-driven food industry.

In an attempt to feed more people in an easier and more productive way, the food industry has changed the way food has been naturally produced for thousands of years. Chemical-laden food products contribute to diseases that affect people’s quality and length of life. Cases of obesity, cancer, heart diseases, high blood pressure and diabetes are at an all-time high and most of these diseases can be controlled by just controlling the food we consume.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  principles for Sustainable Food and Agriculture states that to improve efficiency in the use of resources, we have to  conserve, protect and enhance natural ecosystems;  protect and improve rural livelihoods, equity and social well-being.

In most African countries, especially in urban areas, people tend to disregard consumption of traditional foods and prefer industrial foods which to some amount don’t have natural nutrients. Not only that but also consumption of local foods helps to improve farmers’ lives because farming is the most dependable economic activity for majority.

Agroecology plays an important role in re-balancing tradition and modern food habits, bringing them together in a harmonious way that promotes healthy food production and consumption, supporting the right to adequate food. In this way, agroecology seeks to cultivate a healthy relationship between people and food.

Also, Agroecology helps increase productivity, employment and value addition in food systems, protect and enhance natural resources, improve livelihoods and foster inclusive economic growth, enhance the resilience of people, communities and ecosystems and adapt governance to new challenges.

The discipline that studies ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems is a holistic and integrated approach that simultaneously applies social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) Citizens’ Working Group (CWG) recently held a two-day physical meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, with the objective of having a deeper reflection on its activities in the past three years and develop a detailed plan of action for the next two years.

The meeting also discussed a campaign dubbed ‘My Food is African’ set for launch in September this year to reflect the pride in and diversity of African cuisines.

A four-month campaign will be launched in 10 African countries with the aim of encouraging Africans to eat more local and traditional foods not only for the benefit of their health but also support farmers.

Speaking during the meeting, AFSA General Coordinator, Million Belay, said that some of the outcomes of the CWG was to ensure follow-up from the advancing agroecology entrepreneurship conference which took place in Kampala, Uganda during which various agroecology entrepreneurs participated to showcased their products and resolved to attain territorial markets centered on equitable and sustainable development for a healthy and sustainable diet.

He said that the CWG also discussed and approved a plan for food policy work among African countries, clear plan for healthy eating campaign for 2022, roadmap to the biennial food systems meeting, way forward with food scandals work and cohesive overall concept for the group in the future.  

Belay added that some of the outcomes of the meeting were agreed harmonization of traditional foods for improved nutrition and a project to create barefoot guide to healthy eating which means an easily understandable and appealing guide to healthy nutrition.

“COVID=19 hampered this process but we took advantage of the opportunity to create a mini barefoot guide in French and English languages focusing on coping with COVID-19 through healthy eating. This has been distributed to some extent around the continent though much more needs to be done around dissemination,” he said.

“Furthermore, the guide has been translated into Spanish and is one of the documents used by the Mexican government to advice citizens to eat healthy food. Volume 1 of a more comprehensive guide to healthy eating for all Africans will be published in August this year.”

The coordinator said that AFSA is divided into four thematic working groups based on organizations’ interests whereby the CWG agroecology group is working on four projects namely dumping of food, creation of a barefoot nutrition guide, entrepreneurship in agroecology as well as food policy in Africa.

He added that the working groups are also vehicles to increase members' involvement in AFSA's work. Its secretariat provides support and facilitation to the working groups whereby the primary goal is to promote transition of African agriculture to agroecology with four thematic areas namely seed and agroecology, climate and agroecology, land and agroecology, and citizens for agroecology.

Citizens for agroecology working group works on four projects, all of which are intended to explore citizen engagement in agroecology, linking the production side of agroecology to the consumer agenda and investigates how the food produced contributes to a healthy and sustainable diet.

Activities as  food dumping and scandals in Africa involve developing a barefoot guide for healthy eating, a campaign to promote healthy food and eating, investigating the power of the market to promote agroecology and developing a food policy, both at the national and regional levels, that ultimately ensures a healthy and sustainable diet.

Commenting about the meeting and the campaign, Peter Gubbels from Grounds Well International based in Ghana, said that the meeting stimulated  discussions focused on how best to promote healthy, diverse and sustainable diets. 

“By the end of our meeting, we succeeded in preparing the foundation for 10 country grassroots campaign. We also came up with a great name for our campaign that summarized, in a few words, what we had agreed to promote ‘My Food is African’ to reflect the pride and diversity of our African cuisines” he said.

Gubbels sad that  the aim of the ‘My Food is African’ campaign is to mobilize citizens to advocate for their governments to develop agri-food policies that enable people to consume a diverse, nutritious diets consisting of culturally appropriate local foods.

“This entails persuading African ‘eaters’ or citizens to reject industrialized western meals and recipes, particularly those that depend on ultra-processed products that science shows cause an epidemic of obesity and diseases like diabetes in the West” said Gubbels, adding that the campaign is expected to be the long term solution to the growing food crisis in Africa.

He said that food crisis first reared its head with the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic whereby people barely started to recover from that when Africans were hit by high food prices and shortages caused by the war in Ukraine.

“Both events have disrupted crucial supply chains of food. This has greatly affected African countries that highly depend on imported wheat, rice and other grains to ensure their populations have enough food” added Gubbels.

Furthermore, Gubbels said that many African countries are finally realizing the crucial need to rebuild domestic food production, and regional trade systems, rather than depend on international markets and to address this requires African countries to rebuild a degree of self-sufficiency, particularly by shifting to more resilient traditional crops.

He mentioned some of the traditional foods as yams, Bambara beans, millet or sorghum, instead of rice or hybrid maize which are often not only more nutritious, and more resilient to climate change, but do not need very costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides to produce.  It also involves diversifying food consumption, and ensures a more diverse mix of local and global supplies of food.

“This is what AFSA means by ‘food sovereignty’, having more local control over our own food system and not being highly dependent on a few major sources of food controlled by outside agribusiness corporations,” he said.

“Personally, working together with so many colleagues from across Africa, hearing their stories, learning from their experiences with promoting healthy diets and traditional crops was both inspiring and motivating.”

Mariama Sonko, AFSA Board member from Senegal encouraged CWG to work on and take its commitments forward because it is a springboard for the foods Africans consume in their daily life.

Sonko said that ideas which were given during at the meeting are important for the movement; therefore, each member from each country must work hard to inspire their citizens on food and sustainable diets.

“This is like a battle. And it’s not easy to fight it alone. We must all join our hands, commit ourselves from each country to reach our goals. Together we can be advocates to change policies for the better and improve health and diets for Africans,” said Sonko.

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