Traditional is the dish at seed and food fair

Small but important steps are being taken in Zimbabwe not only to encourage farmers to grow indigenous edible crops, but also to enjoy the delicious and healthy meals they can produce.

With a bit of flourish and in quick succession, Nkosilathi Ndlovu lifted the lids off several pots that were arranged on a table in front of him, inviting onlookers to try the variety of meals he had prepared with the help of his wife.

Among the dishes was the staple sadza, or isitshwala as it is known in isiNdebele, but it was made not from the usual white maize meal but using sorghum and pearl millet instead. Then there was traditional chicken but sans the common additives like cooking oil, exotic powdered soups or spices. The variety of indigenous vegetables drew remarks of “very delicious” from the guests who had accepted the sampling invitation.

Ndlovu is one of a dozen farmers in Kombo village, about 70km northwest of Zimbabwe’s second-biggest city, Bulawayo, who took part in the cooking segment of a seed and food fair that was held in May in the Insiza district of Matabeleland South province for the first time. 

26 May 2021: A yoghurt made from baobab fruit and fresh milk attracts the attention of a visitor to the seed and food fair. (Photograph by Kudzanai Musengi)

Ndlovu grew up in a family of mostly boys and so he got used to cooking at an early age. He proudly revealed that he is the one who prepares most meals in his home. “As I was growing up, my siblings and I would take turns to help our mother with the cooking and other chores. I also learnt quite a great deal from my grandmother, who would teach us how to cook various traditional meals. In my household we have such meals most of the time, and I’m usually the one who cooks most of them,” Ndlovu said.

His wife, Monica Dube, once had a stint as a chef’s assistant at a restaurant in the city that specialised in vegetarian dishes. She, too, learnt how to cook traditional dishes from her grandmother, but she described her husband as the “master chef in indigenous meals”.

Nearly 30 communal farmers who took part in the fair showed off their culinary skills in preparing local indigenous or traditional cuisine as well as various beverages, and also displayed the seeds of traditional food crops they grow, such as sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet (rapoko).

Breaking the maize cycle

The seed and food fair is the initiative of the Zimbabwe Project Trust, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that focuses on sustainable farming and food security. The trust’s programmes officer, Violet Moyo, says while the objective of the fair is to urge communal farmers to grow crops that are native to the area, it also aims to raise awareness about the various foods derived from such crops.

“The aim of this event is to encourage farmers to grow traditional crops due to climate change. From research, we realise that maize is not suited for this area, but this notwithstanding, it has become the staple here and in most places across the country. This shouldn’t be the case, because we have got our own traditional crops like sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet, groundnuts and the like, which are more suitable to the local conditions. So, we are encouraging the farmers to grow these.”

Moyo says many communal farmers are impoverished and dependent on food aid as they are reluctant to grow small grains. These farmers have often been compelled to fork out money they hardly have in order to buy hybrid maize seed and fertilisers. Her organisation is seeking to break this cycle.

26 May 2021: Participants at the seed and food fair make last-minute changes to their display of indigenous crops. (Photograph supplied by the Zimbabwe Project Trust)

“Despite the encouragement to grow such crops by different actors, including the government and various NGOs, the uptake is still very low. Here in this ward in Insiza, you can count only a few farmers who are growing the small grains consistently. What we have noticed is that the farmers may not have sufficient information or knowledge about how to process the crops and the different kinds of foods that can be derived from these crops, and hence the decision to have this event,” Moyo said.

“People who were resettled here originated from different parts of the country, and they have traditional crops and foods that are peculiar to those areas. Bringing them together helps them to exchange notes or share experiences. All the other years we’ve been having seed fairs, but this is the first time that we are incorporating the food component to have a seed and food fair. The aim is to encourage the growing of traditional crops and their consumption in order to help enhance food security and avert hunger.” 

Traditional or indigenous crops and the foods that are produced from them have been known to be beneficial in a number of ways to communal farmers. But over the years, the growing of these crops as well as the consumption of such foods have been dwindling owing to a variety of reasons, including attitude or perception and the temptation to grow so-called cash crops that may not always be suitable to particular areas.

The smart option 

Martin Moyo, an agricultural scientist and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics’ country representative in Zimbabwe, says crops such as sorghum, millets and groundnuts are “smart foods”. The institute, which has its regional headquarters on the outskirts of Bulawayo, carries out research in dryland farming. 

He acknowledges there are several barriers for farmers to overcome before they will embrace these crops, but says their growing and consumption must be promoted. “They have numerous health benefits and are also ecofriendly because they have a lower water footprint as they need less water to be produced, and they are also good for the soil as they extract less nutrients and also require less fertiliser than other crops.” 

Food scientist and university lecturer Makhosi Mahlangu, who undertook a part of his studies in Italy, says Zimbabweans – and Africans across the continent – should take a leaf from Italians and the French, who are very proud of their world-famous food heritage.

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“It’s sad that many locals believe that eating Western food is some kind of a status symbol and hence you often see long queues at fast-food joints, people lining up to buy what is essentially junk food. The statistics may not be readily available, but we now have more locals suffering from non-communicable diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, which are often attributable to our eating habits. We only go back to eating our traditional foods after getting advice from the doctor, but this shouldn’t be the case,” Mahlangu said.

United States-based Zimbabwean physician Simbiso Ranga says the jury may still be out on the real health benefits of indigenous crops or foods, because not much research has been carried out in this regard. He does, however, believe traditional foods are healthier than processed foods.

“It is important for locals to revert to their traditional foods because they come as organic foods that are not genetically engineered. Therefore, the chances of diseases like cancer, which has been linked to some of the genetically engineered foods that are consumed in the Western world, become less,” said Ranga.

According to historian and cultural activist Phatisa Nyathi, politics and ideology play a role in food issues globally because there is a lot of money to be made – from the manufacturing of hybrid seed to the processing of food that ends up on the supermarket shelves.

“The agenda of global corporations making big profits will obviously include dissuading farmers and consumers from growing and eating what’s readily available on the land so that they can continue to make money. It’s a huge scam, and the sooner we realise that it is in our best interests to go back to our traditional foods the better,” Nyathi said.

It may be early days yet, but seed and food fairs like the one being championed by the Zimbabwe Project Trust may go some way in helping to reawaken farmers and the public to the many benefits of producing and consuming indigenous food crops.

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