Indigenous foods fight back

Sifelani Tsiko
When you think of food, indigenous vegetables such as tsunga, nyevhe, mutsine, derere rebupwe and wholesome small grain (sorghum, pearl and finger millet), and other hard-to-come-by locally grown foods, you will instantly connect it with the Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe, a rural district in northeastern Zimbabwe.

Smallholder farmers at Chibika, a ward in UMP have, in partnership with local NGO Community Technology Development Trust, taken a leap towards positioning themselves as Zimbabwe’s popular indigenous food and seed showcasing destination.

Every other year, Chibika − which houses the district’s community seed bank – holds a seed fair to showcase indigenous vegetables such as tsunga, nyevhe, mutsine, derere rebupwe, regusha, rename and renyunje; and indigenous crop varieties like sorghum, pearl and finger millets, cowpeas, taro, madhumbe and bambara nuts.

These are now seen as neglected and under-utilized crop species (NUS) which farmers and public health experts argue are important in improving the nutrition of people, particularly now when there is a rise in non-communicable diseases such as cancers and diabetes.

This year’s Chibika Seed Fair attracted more than 100 smallholder farmers drawn 11 districts that included Mutoko, Murehwa, Mudzi, Tsholotsho, Matopo, Chiredzi, Rushinga, Goromonzi, UMP, Mount Darwin and Chegutu.

The farmers showcased a host of locally produced food and indigenous seed varieties.

The fair, which came ahead of World Food Day commemorations on October 16, highlighted the continuous fight by Zimbabwe’s smallholder farmers to reclaim and use traditional seeds and break dependence on commercial varieties.

“We get less rain here in Pfungwe (Natural Region IV) and our greatest hope lies in growing small grains,” says Dorothy Chiwota, a farmer from Chiunze 2 in Chibika.

“We get better yields when we grow small grains such sorghum, rapoko and pearl millet. We no longer want people to call the food traditional. We want to tell our children and all people in Zimbabwe that this is our food and it’s part of us.”

Farmers who participated at this year’s fair exchanged and shared seed, feasted and danced together with a greater dialogue focusing on how they could better utilise indigenous food and seeds to counter the effects climate change and hunger crises.

They all face similar problems.

“Drought, climate change and hunger all affect us badly. And when we gather together like this here at Chibika, we can share our burdens and get new ideas of how we can improve our yields.

“I feel extremely happy and proud of our district which is sowing the seed of crop diversity in our country. People are now seeing us as the champions and stewards of safeguarding our crop varieties.”

The farmers brought their own seeds and processed foodstuffs to showcase at the Chibika Fair.

“Our own traditional and farmer saved seeds are not bought but exchanged among the farmers,” says one farmer from Chiredzi. “Events such as this go beyond just money. There are important in building a stronger food self –reliant farmer. We have to stop heavy reliance on donor food support. It brings laziness to our people.”

With training from CTDT and other development partners, the farmers are now acutely aware of the benefits of eating healthy indigenous foods.

“People are dying in huge numbers from cancer and other heart related diseases. We have been trained about the value of our local food which are being sidelined in big cities,” says Macia Chinyerere, a farmer from Chibika.

“Our African traditional foods are nutritious and good for our bodies. They improve our health. We should not be apologetic about this. We and our children should be proud about this.”

Heavy reliance on maize, Zimbabwe’s staple, has brought distress, particular in drought prone districts.

Most farmers who relied on commercial seeds did not harvest enough as a result of their unsuitability to areas with marginal soils.

But those who planted small grains have something to put on their table.

At the fair, Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development Deputy Minister Abigail Damasane urged smallholders to preserve indigenous varieties to enhance household food security and climate change resilience.

“Government supports the growing of small grains in drought-prone areas and as farmers we must take heed of the advice we get from our local extension workers,” she said.

“We don’t want people to starve and this is one of the country’s major goals as outlined in the ZimAsset document as well as adopted in the 10 Point Plan which was launched on August 25 in 2015.”

Indigenous crop varieties are being lost at an alarming rate leading to an irretrievable loss of options to ensure food and nutrition security in the country.

At the same event, CTDT director Andrew Mushita said smallholders should practice seed preservation, growing and exchange, to foster seed variety diversity and make smallholder farms more able to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

“There is a need to save indigenous variety of seeds which are on the brink of extinction as they are facing a stiff competition from hybrid variety of seeds,” he said.

“The traditional seeds yield crops that have high nutritional content. Moreover, the traditional seeds need less irrigation and fertilizer compared to the hybrid variety of seeds.”

He called on Government to create a law that could protect and allow smallholder farmers to produce, freely exchange and save their own seed.

Current laws heavily protect established seed companies which often crowd out indigenous crop varieties.

As a result, agricultural experts say, there is a general lack of recognition of the value of farmer-saved seeds as well as their role in safeguarding Zimbabwe’s collective memory of indigenous food crops.

Agricultural experts say the world’s agro-biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate. For several major crops, up to 80–90 percent losses in variety over the past century have been reported.

Zimbabwe has lost several crop varieties to neglect, erosion of local indigenous knowledge systems, promotion of improved varieties, lack of incentives for locally adapted crops and recognition of the keepers of crop diversity among other factors.

There has been a practical disappearance from the country’s diet of vegetables such as tsunga, nyevhe, mutsine, derere rebupwe, regusha, rename, renyunje as well as small grains due to the rising consumption of exotic vegetables (cabbages, spinach, carrots, broccoli) which have been aggressively marketed and promoted.

“This drastic decline in eating indigenous vegetables is a reflection of how seriously our pallets have been colonised. How can this be addressed or reversed?” a critic said, calling on farmers and development partners to come up with strategies that could help increase production, processing and consumption of indigenous foods.

Mr Claid Mujaju, head of Seed Services in the Agriculture Ministry, once said Zimbabweans needed to change their attitudes that treat indigenous crops and vegetables as inferior.

“Indigenous vegetables are still seen as poverty crops. They are still seen as food for the poor, the lower class. We need to change our mentality and attitudes towards indigenous food if we are serious about promoting traditional vegetables,” he said.

“We need to mobilise resources to conduct extensive research on indigenous vegetables to develop new breeds that could meet new demands for taste and other properties.”

Another expert concurred: “Young people don’t want to eat mfushwa, derere or nyevhe. They will say you are giving us poison. We need to prepare tasty and appealing indigenous vegetable dishes so that our young people can eat them as well.”

Farmers here in Chibika and other districts are now adding value and processing buns, bread, pies and biscuits using small grains, tubers and other vegetables.

This is improving their livelihoods. — Zimpapers Syndication Services

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