Searching for food self-sufficiency through increased crop diversity

Searching for food self-sufficiency through increased crop diversity

IN the years 2018-2019 there was a massive drought in Zambia, as a result of El Nino. The corn dried up. Now, as a result of this lesson, and as a response to global warming and increasing drought, wrought by climate change, there is a move to diversify crops, within the country, to feed the citizens without importing food.

Corn, which is inigenous to Central America, was first introduced by the British to the mine areas in Zambia in the 1910s, because it required less weeding and care than sorghum or millet, and was easier for colonial farmers to grow.

As the British expanded their mining interests, millet and sorghum were also promoted as crops to local farmers because it freed up time for them to engage in wage labour. Corn has become a loved staple and most Zambians like to eat nshima (ugali) every day.

But now corn is proving too sensitive, with its higher water needs and Zambians are being encouraged to diversify away from corn.  But how should the crops be chosen? In answering this question there is interest in understanding what was being eaten in Zambia before corn was brought.

I had an interesting talk with Jeremy Farr who is a PhD candidate in archaeobotany, the study of extraction of ancient food stuffs. He is working in Zambia’s Central and Southern provinces. He explained that Africa's history and prehistory is massively understudied.

He is following his British, American, and Zambian predecessors who studied rock shelters and remains of houses discovered in the 1950s’ to 1960’s, before and after Independence. He and the team he is working with, went back to the old sites, with new techniques.

Many of these sites were mounds - which were formed layer by layer by people living at the same places for a long time.  In the mounds lots of remnants of lives lived are found, including pottery, animal bone, iron, and evidence of trade with Greater Zimbabwe and the Indian Ocean from beads made from shell or glass

The remains of their fires reveal even more about the food they ate. He takes samples of soil from the fires, and puts them in water. The charcoal and residue float to the surface, and the mixture is poured into a mesh bag. In that way he can sift out the charcoal and residue and then examine the different fractions.

Charcoal lasts for thousands of years (charcoal has been found that is 8-9000 years ago). When organics are found, they are examined and tested. They have found the charred remains of nut shells, fruit seeds and cereal grains including sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet. These grasses were domesticated in Africa across the Sahel region thousands of years ago, and have been grown together in Zambia for over a thousand years.

He found evidence that people were farming and collecting foods from the wild.  The accepted dichotomy of farming vs. hunting-gathering is not true. These things are happening simultaneously – as is still happening.  It is usual, even today, for people to farm for example corn, goats and cows, as well as collect greens, mushrooms and fruits from the wild.  The people he is studying and the remains from their fires from 1200 to 600 years ago, in many ways lived similar lives to people in rural Zambia today.

Another interesting idea that Jeremy shared was that millet and sorghum (which are undeniably African) have been staples in the Indian diet for 2000 years.  How did it get to India? I think also of the food in the USA south, where the traditional American diet is quite different from the rest of the USA. Rice itself which, has been cultivated for more than 2000 years in west Africa was brought to the Americas from Africa and tended by Africans.  Now it is called Carolina rice. Okra, yams, and black-eyed peas are only commonly used in the southern states, and cooking styles such as grilling, bar-b-q, and deep-fried fish – seems to be heavily influenced by Africa. Jeremy asked, in this proto-globalization between Asia and Africa, and between the Americas and Africa, are Africans getting credit for their part in early food globalization?

Author: Anne Outwater

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