By Charles Dhewa
African countries have remained stuck in colonial food systems and structures where grain silos, abattoirs, processing centres, and other important food handling facilities are located in cities. By now, silos and processing facilities should have been established at the community level, close to production zones. Why should maize leave rural areas to cities just for milling and return back to rural consumers? Soya beans and sunflower should just be processed in production zones. Devolution will become meaningful when the same infrastructure in cities is also found in production zones.
Food security should not just be discussed at the national level
Each community should have its food security initiative, enabling it to exchange food with other communities through relationships that have been built over decades. Governments should not only continue supporting colonial institutions like grain marketing boards and industrial milling but also support local alternatives. The colonial model becomes a disadvantage to farmers and local communities when grain marketing boards aggregate grain from farmers for millers who are paid on time while farmers are paid many months down the road when their maize has already been consumed.
If the issue is about maintaining quality in milling, governments can simply formalize and standardize milling technology or practices for different types and sizes of hammer millers at the local level so that local millers provide the same quality of maize meal and milling services. Decentralizing such services closer to farmers distributes benefits to producers, unlike the current centralized food system which benefits consumers at the expense of producers. The same standardization can be introduced in oil processing and fruit processing services so that they are devolved to local levels. When that is done, maize, groundnuts sunflower and fruits will not be transported from rural areas for processing in cities only to return back more expensive for the majority of farmers and rural people. This is critical given the high cost of transporting commodities from production zones to cities. Maize, oilseeds, and fruits should just stay in the production zone and processed at the source.
Ensuring nutrition security throughout the year
Centralized food systems borrowed from colonialism undermine Africa’s capacity to meet people’s basic requirements of ensuring year-round affordable access to nutrition-rich food. Most of the nutritious commodities can only be stored and value-added at the local level. It means communities have to be empowered with appropriate resources for handling food at the community level especially at critical moments in the life cycle of agricultural commodities when maximum attention is needed.
Given the complexity of handling agricultural commodities in a bumper harvest, storage of abundant agricultural commodities should not be left to individual farmers but be escalated to the community level. Individual farmers can simply set aside the amount of food they know their households consume per given period and take the surplus to a central local warehouse centre where value addition can also be done. The community warehouse system can provide a sense of food security at the community level while also serving to provide early warnings in terms of food availability. If many farmers are seen going to get food from their community warehouse, it is a signal that their subsistence levels have gone down.
More importantly, the collective warehouse should be growth-focused and set up at a neutral venue with no political inclinations. In most countries, constituency development funds focus on building social amenities like clinics when the priority should be building food reserves like community warehouses which guarantee food and nutrition security at the local level. A community food warehouse will reduce the number of people visiting clinics for the treatment of nutrition-related diseases which could have been avoided by availing nutritious food all year round.
Decentralizing data collection and market regulation
When efficient systems of managing agricultural commodities at the community level are set up, eventually communities will be able to conduct their own food assessments by collecting local statistics. For instance, they can introduce the notion of controlled selling of agricultural commodities from the community. Due to excessive focus on production at the expense of market issues, in most African communities, extension officers, chiefs and local members of parliament have no clue how much food is sold from their communities per month or per year. No one knows whether community sales are benefiting communities or not, let alone volumes of commodities leaving the community forever.
Addressing some of these issues will require regulation and information brokers at the community level to ensure socio-economic justice through collecting and sharing local statistics on what is happening. This will prevent cases where middlemen from cities buy goats for USD10 each from the community and sell for USD40 in the city. Appropriate regulations and empowered local authorities should be able to indicate when agricultural commodities should not leave the community as evidence will show the extent to which that may compromise local food and nutrition security at given periods.
The value of a community is in its people and natural resources
Empowered communities should not just allow cattle and other key resources to be sold but will become informed enough to safeguard community resources. Local knowledge brokers should lead in educating people on the importance of preserving their resources. The value of any rural African community is its people, cattle, goats, indigenous fruits, forests and other natural resources. By allowing commodities to leave their community without asking questions, local people lose water, soil nutrients, pastures, nutrition and other resources that will have been used to produce those commodities.
Communities should also be empowered to know the genetic potential of their crops and livestock. Most African communities are aware of the limit to what can be commercialized in a communal setup where knowledge, labour, water, rivers, land and other resources are common-pool resources. For instance, in the African sense, neighbours do not really sell food to each other. They just exchange food, services and knowledge. When there is a bumper harvest it is taboo to sell food to your neighbours. Field crops like sweet reeds (Ipwa) and watermelons are not sold to neighbours. At the community level food is part of social capital and should you decide to sell, you start selling at the district level onwards.