In Africa, the “Powerful, Political Act” of Agroecological Farming Is Being Supported by the Slow Food Movement
Red amaranth, which provides a protein boost for pregnant mothers; spider plant, which is believed to inhibit the growth of cancer cells; and eggobe, which is said to be handy for treating diabetes and hypertension.
These are just some of the fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and other produce sold by farmers at a recent ‘Earth Market’ in Nkokonjeru, a trading centre to the east of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. The weekly market (which, at the time of publishing this article, is on hiatus) allows local growers to sell their agroecological produce – including those that are at risk of extinction, rare or Indigenous – directly to buyers.
Earth Markets were set up across the east African country by Slow Food, a global grassroots organisation that promotes “good, clean and fair food for all”. Founded in 1989, the network encourages biodiversity, food activism and the preservation of local food traditions, and the growing of traditional crops that are slowly dying out as food becomes increasingly homogenised. Although its headquarters are based in Bra, north-west Italy, Slow Food is spreading across Africa, with over 3,600 kitchen gardens shooting up since 2011.
Slow Food’s footprint in Africa was cemented last year when the organisation elected 36-year-old Ugandan farmer, food activist and agronomist Edie Mukiibi to head Slow Food globally.
“With the appointment of a young Ugandan agronomist to lead the movement, Slow Food wanted to draw attention to the African continent as an expression of the greatest contradictions and environmental challenges facing humanity,” Mukiibi tells Equal Times. He says that there is also a desire to “recognise the achievements of the African network with the appointment of an African at the highest level, shifting the weight from the Global North to the Global South”.
With severe drought in the Horn of Africa, global food price inflation, the grain crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, and not to mention the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 20 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa (some 282 million people) face insecurity and undernourishment, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, more than double the share of any other region.
“These shocks and crises represent a major wake-up call as to the fragility of our food systems,” says Mukiibi. “But they are becoming less resilient: biodiversity in food and agriculture is declining, the climate crisis is becoming more critical, while food-related health diseases are becoming epidemical.” The key to turning this around, in fact the only way to deeply change the food system, is agroecology, insists Mukiibi, which in essence, means sustainable, socially equitable farming and food systems.
Biodiversity: the foundation of a healthy food system
According to Uganda’s most recent Annual Agricultural Survey, just over seven million households, representing around 80 per cent of the national total, either cultivated land and/or reared livestock in 2020. But the agricultural sector in Uganda faces many of the same challenges impacting food systems across the world.
“One of our main tasks is to protect biodiversity as the foundation of our food system. Many local varieties of crops are disappearing, and widespread chemical use is sending many species into extinction,” says Mukiibi. He says the Slow Food movement in Uganda is made up of “ordinary Ugandans who care about the future of food in this country and the health of its citizens as well as the environment which is being threatened daily by expanding monocultures”. They advocate for those “who are affected most by unfair seed policies, whose land is being grabbed, whose water is being poisoned by the expanding palm oil farms on the islands of Lake Victoria, whose native food species are being replaced by single-use hybrid seeds controlled by large companies, and whose children are at risk of being fed on unhealthy eggs, chickens and aflatoxin-loaded maize.”
In Uganda, the new Earth Market in Nkokonjeru brings the country’s total number of such markets to five and the global total to 94. The idea for the markets emerged from local producers who wanted to increase access to their diverse products and guarantee the survival of traditional knowledge about Indigenous food species that were gradually disappearing.
As such, in Nkokonjeru, shoppers can buy Mirandano passion fruit, which grows well in harsh environments and is highly resistant to disease, the ancient Kisansa variety of coffee beans, and Nakitembe bananas, used in Uganda’s staple dish matooke and also as a ceremonial gift during weddings.
All of these foods belong to the Ark of Taste, which Slow Food describes as an online “living catalogue of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction”.
Samuel Mwebe, a farmer and father of five who lives close to Nkokonjeru and has been selling his produce at the Earth Market there, initially started off as a teacher, but quit in 2008. “There was more money in farming,” he says. Today, he makes close to 1.5 million Ugandan shillings (approximately €370 a month), which is significantly more than the 300,000 Ugandan shillings (approximately €74) that local crop farmers earn on average, according to Slow Food Uganda.
Green gold and going forward
A bit further south of Uganda, Theresa Bwalya coordinates the Slow Food Youth Network in Zambia, which has 115 members aged between 18 and 26. The group have worked on various initiatives from setting up food gardens in schools to establishing a seed bank to conserve Indigenous crop seed varieties.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have long been banned in Zambia and agriculture has always been a mainstay of the country’s economy, but Slow Food is working with local farmers to improve the production of crops like maize, sorghum and millet. According to Bwalya, in Zambia – where agriculture comprises about 20 per cent of GDP and employs more than half of the country’s workforce – maize “is like the new green gold”. She continues: “Over the years Zambia’s economy has depended on extractive industries, on the mining of copper and other minerals, but we’re seeing an opportunity for us to shift the dependency on minerals and go towards agriculture. It’s one of the economic drivers that I would say has the potential to grow Zambia’s economy.”
Going forward, Slow Food want to create thousands of gardens across African schools and communities to raise awareness amongst younger generations about the importance of biodiversity and access to healthy, fresh food. This will mean establishing new Presidia (Slow Food communities working to preserve Indigenous livestock breeds, local fruit and vegetables, breads, sweets and more) and Earth Markets. They hope these partnerships will help African farmers, herders and fishers organise educational activities in schools, as well as getting local communities to actively participate in agroecology, particularly young people and women.
But they won’t support the use of GMOs to achieve any of this. With fast-growing populations, more and more African countries are looking at GMOs as a way of boosting food production and tackling food insecurity.
Neighbouring Kenya approved GMO crops after a ten-year ban late last year, while Uganda reportedly has the largest number of GMO crops being tested in Africa, according to news reports. But Uganda’s president is yet to sign a law allowing GMOs and several legislators are said to be planning to introduce a law to prohibit them.
With regards to Slow Food’s anti-GMO stance, Mukiibi says that Africa must not be treated “as a guinea pig for the trial of experimental methods, nor as a dumping site for technologies that have failed elsewhere”. He says that agroecology and the conservation of biodiversity are the “only viable solutions” to climate change, environmental degradation and any attempt to “break away from imperialistic and extractive production systems”. He concludes: “Starting an agroecological garden is a powerful political act.”
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist who has reported from Australia, the UK, Africa and Asia, on a variety of topics, including human rights and international development. You can see more of her work at www.amyfallon.com.
Equal Times is a trilingual news and opinion website focusing on labour, human rights, culture, development, the environment, politics and the economy from a social justice perspective.