Meet the women fighting for Africa's food future 5

Meet the women fighting for Africa’s food future

This article was first published in June 2014.

Africa is at a tipping point – soon the scale of foreign agribusiness on African soil could change who owns vast tracts of land, how food is grown there and what the average person will consume. The livelihoods of small-scale farmers who work family farms, which still make up 80 per cent of Africa’s farms, hang in the balance.

The major actors in this drama are unsurprising: Monsanto, Unilever, Diageo, Cargill and their peers. All have identified sub-Saharan African, with its fertile lands and budding consumer markets, as a place of great opportunity, rich for the picking – African countries are not referred to as ‘frontier economies’ by the West for nothing. Many African governments have signed up to this agenda. Some buy into the notion that large scale agribusiness will bring food security, others that it will bring their country economic growth, others still are just content with the short-term financial gain that such investment often brings.

(On that concept of ‘food security’, it’s worth pointing out that between 1991 and 2011 sub-Saharan African food production increased 10 per cent per person, yet in the same decade there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of undernourished people…)

So if the political representatives of these countries will not man the barricades, who will? The good news is that, while many of the youth of Africa have joined in the clamour for KFC and Subway and see fast food as a way of belonging to global (or American) culture, others are forming movements to protect and promote real food.

While in Western economies, the consumption of fast food is often seen as a sign of poverty, and organic, fresh food a sign of middle-class identity, in many African economies it is the other way round. Your ability to stump up the cash for a junk food ‘brand’ is a sign of membership of what is in numerical terms still a small elite, whereas the cash-poor and rural dwellers will tend to a healthier diet of, for example, beans and maizemeal.

Beside the socio-economic picture, there is also the threat of climate change, already being felt clearly in many parts of Africa in the form of flooding, drought and desertification. Large-scale agribusiness with synthetic inputs would likely exacerbate the situation – whereas Africa still has the chance to lead by forward-thinking example. If there is anywhere in the world with the opportunity to combine natural, small-scale food production and distribution with clean technology, it’s this fertile continent.

Three female food warriors taking centre stage in this battle are Kenya’s Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, Tanzania’s Janet Maro and South Africa’s Mariam Mayet. Between them they are teaching the health benefits of Africa’s own indigenous plants, promoting the advantages of organic agriculture, and fighting the incursions of the multinationals into Africa.

Professor Mary Abutukutsa-Onyango is professor of horticulture at Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya.

Professor Abukutsa-Onyango has been advocating the consumption of indigenous African plants for two decades now. She says Africans have forgotten about some of the local plants that offer the greatest nutrition of all – such as jute mallow, spider plant and amaranthus. These plants offer a health kick that makes spinach look about as nutritious as chips, she explains.

Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango
Professor Abukutsa-Onyango with giant Amaranthus at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

It hasn’t always been easy persuading people to eat up their greens, and for her first decade she faced an uphill battle. But now her work is gaining recognition (she recently won the prestigious Edinburgh Medal for Science and is an Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear in Kenya). She has written recipes so that people can experiment with these plants at home, a commercial seed company is stocking the seeds for the first time, and she’s hoping that these varieties will finally catch on and become mainstream. “People sometimes complain that they are bitter,” she laughs, “but I ask them do they like beer? Beer is bitter too, but they drink that…”

“The truth is that when we were colonised the white folk came with their own foods and we abandoned our own foods, but with time we realised that there was something special about them.”

If she has her way an indigenous food revolution is on its way, and those with green fingers might like to try growing and cooking these plants themselves.

Janet Maro is the founder of Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania.

At 26, Janet Maro may be relatively young but she is making a serious impact. A former agriculture student herself, she identified a need for farmers to be trained in organic agriculture in order for them to be independent and have food sovereignty – choice and control over their own food production. Telling the tale of the first group of farmers that she went to visit in a bid to prevent deforestation and slash-and-burn practices, she sadly jokes that they didn’t believe she was for real, because she hiked to see them rather than turning up in a fancy vehicle.

Janet Fares Maro and Aurelian Chuma from Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (SAT) together with Rashid Mdoka who is doing his research on teas in the SAT demonstration garden at Tushikamane Centre.
Janet Fares Maro and Aurelian Chuma from Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (SAT) together with Rashid Mdoka who is doing his research on teas in the SAT demonstration garden at Tushikamane Centre.

She runs a residential centre near Morogoro for farmers (and others interested in organic farming) where people can be taught the principles of chemical-free growing, intercropping and more. Like Professor Abukutsa-Onyango she has found several plants in her work with interesting nutritional, medicinal or farming uses.

While her work is positive and rewarding, she’s not afraid to emphasise the negative – for example, the issue of village land that has been used by families for generations being allocated for foreign investment, as formal proof of ownership does not exist in these unsurveyed areas. Kilombero and Ifakara, home of Tanzania’s most famous rice, are cases in point, she says, and she’s concerned that the future of the rice and those who farm it is in jeopardy as much of this land has now been demarcated for investment.

“In most parts of Tanzania, people depend on farming, whether it’s subsistence or they make money from it. If they don’t have land to cultivate and grow food then what else will they do to feed themselves and make some income? Maybe they will have to move to the cities, where there is unemployment because there aren’t enough industries for people to work in, and an investor for sure will come with his tractors and harvesters and planters. These all need skills, but what about a farmer who cannot read or write? Who will give him an opportunity?”

Mariam Mayet is the executive director of the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa.

Since the late 1990s, Mayet has been campaigning against genetically modified seeds and food, and she set up the African Centre for Biosafety to fight the introduction of GMOs in South Africa as well as monitoring the development of policy elsewhere on the continent.

South Africa, unlike most other African countries, is already far down the line when it comes to the industrialisation of agriculture. “Just a few big boys get to play in the system, giving them a lot of power over what is available on the market at what prices,” says Mayet. What are the solutions? They’re complex, she says, but include access to land and water as a fundamental. There is also a need to help smallholders collectively break the stranglehold of the big supermarket chains. Often persecuted urban street vendors can actually be key to making fresh, local produce available to those who commute or work long hours.

It seems odd that food, such a central part of our lives, and farming, such a core African livelihood, have taken such a low political profile. Where they are talked about, the concept of ‘food security’ is being used as a Trojan horse to persuade many nations to swallow the pill of land takeovers by foreign firms and pressure on small-scale farmers to adopt GM seed and chemical fertilisers to fill the coffers of their makers and IP owners.

Mariam Mayet
Mariam Mayet has long campaigned against GM seeds and foods in South Africa.

Says Mayet: “We see the New Alliance and AGRA as principal ways for large corporations to secure new profits in Africa while laying the burden for infrastructural and institutional development on African states, allowing them to come in and annihilate African-owned agricultural systems virtually risk-free. All in the name of philanthropy.”

Going back to Professor Abukutsa-Onyango, by far the most established of the three, having been honoured in Kenya and won African Union and international prizes, even she is scathing about these developments:

“This New Alliance is something we look at with great caution in Africa. These multinationals when they come in… in Africa, agriculture is a livelihood and not just a business. If you deny African farmers the ability to do what they need to do by bringing in multinationals, they will take over their livelihoods. Secondly, if you do not allow the farmers to grow what they want you going to end their food sovereignty – if you give them this crop and tell them to grow it, that’s not what we want, we want diversity… I want African governments not to give leeway to the multinationals.”

But have these corporations won the PR battle in Africa? Says Mayet: “To a large extent they have , their story of ‘progress’ and their ‘one-size-fits-all’ quick fix philosophy is very compelling. However they will always come undone at some point because they fail to understand just how differently agriculture works in Africa and that food is not solely a commodity but agriculture is embedded in culture and social cohesion.”

“Their neat plans and intellectual property regimes are going to be severely tested in the reality of African food production. The other issue is that industrial agriculture is capital intensive and the vast majority of farmers will simply never be involved in these projects.”

Ultimately there seems to be a disconnect. Between the reality of the way Africa has fed itself in the past, the way in which most of its population makes its living, and the way in which the future of agriculture is being conceived for the continent by the global powerbrokers who have the money and lobbying clout to force their will on others, most of the time.

But there’s a cognitive dissonance there that can’t be maintained forever, and sooner or later the pretence that large-scale agricultural growth fuelled by multinationals is in the best interests of most Africans must be seen for the illusion that it is. Abukutsa-Onyango, Maro, Mayet and those like them are the ones who will bring this enlightenment, but their efforts deserve our whole-hearted support.

What’s more, they show that what can be perceived as a negative campaign against the control of Africa’s land and natural resources by a few, is actually a positive movement towards health, food sovereignty and ultimately freedom.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Back our next investigation
Can you help us find out who really runs Scotland?