An ideal market is more than a few companies buying from thousands of farmers
Every marketing season (March to August) in East and Southern Africa is characterized by people from cities camping in rural areas to buy agricultural commodities cheaply. Farmers will have produced surplus commodities but with no capacity or space to store, process or preserve. Many buyers from cities take used clothes, shoes, kitchen utensils and other items for bartering with maize, groundnuts, sugar beans, chickens, goats and other commodities. The fact that this practice has persisted for decades is a sign that formal marketing systems have failed to meet the needs of the majority.
Local markets as foundation for local economies
In most cases, urban buyers and middlemen who mobilize grain and other commodities from rural farmers, masquerade as farmers and sell the commodities to marketing boards, benefiting from prices gazetted by governments in favour of authentic farmers. This demonstrates the extent to which colonial marketing systems preferred by African governments are rigged against smallholder farmers. Most policies are in favour of middlemen and consumers.
A more viable solution is building strong local markets to anchor local economies and ensure value addition happens in local production zones. African governments should get rid of the colonial model where one or two companies buy commodities from thousands of farmers for a song and go on to do all the value addition in the city. Building the collective common wealth of farmers is about empowering them to do most of the value addition and earning more from their sweat.
A case for data collection and interpretation at local level
Since much of the value addition happens in cities, nutrition knowledge tends to be concentrated in cities and as you go down to rural communities there is less talk about nutrition. Food diversity is also more pronounced in cities where markets aggregate as opposed to rural communities which may be stuck with their particular food. Mass markets and processing companies aggregate food for urban dwellers already embedded in nutrition.
Instead of treating farmers and rural communities as data sources only, policy makers should ensure data interpretation happens at community level where impact should be visible. This means parastatals like ZIMSTAT have to change the way they present data to show what the data means in terms of nutrition at local level, for instance. Data should be interpreted at community levels. When that happens early warnings will no longer just be about deficits of staples but the entire food basket from community to national levels. Appropriate data collection and interpretation tools should be at community knowledge hubs where information from various sources can be consolidated and adapted.
Local communities are generators of indigenous knowledge. They also play a fundamental role in disseminating what is coming from local experts, local leaders at the grassroots and outsiders. When they own the data collection and interpretation process, farmers and rural communities will participate in processing indigenous knowledge and creatively combining it with external knowledge for the benefit of local communities.
Demystifying nutrition at community level
A major barrier to the adoption of nutrition messages is the scientific language in which nutrition is largely conveyed to ordinary people. This is worsened by the fact that African countries have not invested academic knowledge into indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, nutrition and related knowledge is abundant in indigenous fruits, herbs, vegetables and other commodities but the amount of quantities someone should consume in order to attain the right nutrition balance remains under-researched and unknown.
When communities are part of data collection and processing, they will assist in demystifying nutrition from being considered a science to a living practice. Working with communities will enable governments to identify their own indigenous food systems. It is easy to facilitate consumption of commodities which local people are already consuming. To that end, identifying nutrition in existing commodities is a good entry point than, for instance, introducing peas to communities that know nothing about the new commodity. Nutrition is part of people’s food systems but what lacks is identification and expression of nutrition in what communities are already consuming. It is as if nutrition is only found in imported foods.
The Western world has taken time to align its food systems with nutrition. Western countries, food systems are derived from processing of food, for instance, into tinned beef, vegetables and other processed foods produced by experts using academic research and expertise. Conversely most African food systems have not subjected to experiments like processing by experts. For at least 99% of the food consumed in Africa, consumers do not know if they are meeting or surpassing nutrition requirements. Imported energy drinks are flooding African markets but people just consume irrespective of energy deficiency levels.
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