Report: Food Imbizo on the Potentials and Risks of Indigenous Food Revival, 1.11.2023  

on 1 November, the food imbizo convened an online dialogue on the risks and potentials of indigenous food revival. A recording of the imbizo is available here.

The food imbizo was contextualised by Dr Chantell Witten (WITS university). To set the scene, Dr Witten referred to a recent news report of hungry children eating grass in the context of widespread child malnutrition. Yet despite an abundance of indigenous foods, lack of awareness, knowledge and resource access constrain their potential contribution to people’s nutrition. Simultaneously, there is increasing interest from large food corporations in indigenous foods, with a drive to capitalise on them and on the knowledge systems which developed and preserved them.

Prof Vanessa Mbhatsani (University of Venda) then presented her research on indigenous foods from Limpopo province. Micronutrient analysis revealed that many of the indigenous crops had very high nutritional density, making them a valuable addition to child nutrition. However, widespread attitudes stigmatise indigenous food as backward and unsophisticated, which is reflected and entrenched in their English names, eg “Blackjack”, “Pigweed”, “Cowpea”, etc.  Nevertheless, with adequate exposure and education, children and youth enjoyed these foods. 

This exploration of the nutritional benefits of indigenous foods was complemented by a poignant poem by Amy Brown which spoke to the cultural and ancestral value of traditional foods as a core element of healing from the trauma of coloniality. The poem also celebrated the role of the Ausi – the elder matriarchs who were custodians of this knowledge. A video recording of the poem is accessible here

Ausi Shihaam Domingo delved further into this theme, highlighting especially the ways in which traditional food, indigenous knowledge, and intergenerational learning can re-weave relations of care and familiarity between people with the land and their ancestors. She reflected on how people divorced from traditional knowledge of food are often malnourished even though surrounded by nutritious food. She spoke of how  Dreamwalks provide a direct and immersive ritual and oral way of learning about the landscape and its plants, and how this also is contributing to a revival of Khoisan cultural knowledge and identity in the Western Cape as well as a reclamation of spaces marred by a history of violent trauma.

Prof Jeremy Klaasen (UWC) then reflected on the regulatory context of traditional and indigenous food plants. He made particular reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and that the notion of indigenous people and their knowledge systems are clearly set out in these global conventions. Yet South African legislative frameworks have neglected to protect and promote these rights and serve the interests of idigenous people. Instead, private property regimes and environmental conservation law has tended to prevent access to the land and to criminalise people for accessing ancestral landscapes to harvest and utilise the plants.

Loubie Rusch, a researcher and wild food advocate, then shared her experience with local and indigenous food. She pointed out how the fact that the vast majority of food consumed in SA is based on global commodities and is thus fundamentally disconnected from the land. While acknowledging the role of the state, she emphasised the role of people in cultivating, marketing and preparing local wild foods using interactive, practical learning experiences. She urged FI members to critique the state’s initiatives to promote broadscale cultivation of traditional foods, but to provide adequate support to smaller-scale operations to cultivate these plants. For the state to promote the uptake of local foods into child nutrition education and provision, there is need for additional research to validate the nutritional and health benefits of indigenous food. Loubie also brought awareness to the Local Wild Food hub, an initiative supported by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security that seeks to convene a community of practice on local and indigenous foods.   

Prof Daniel Tevera then moderated a broader conversation of participants, inviting questions and comments. Further comments highlighted the connection of indigenous food consumption to more diversified microbiomes, as well as the difficulties of land access, of value chain development to enhance market access, and of provision of funding and training to promote broader cultivation and uptake. The lack of state recognition of indigenous crops promulgated by the minister hampers access to support services by the National Agricultural Marketing Council. However, local organisations are necessary to promote this recognition and access to resources. The need for further nutritional analysis to legitimise promotion of indigenous food was highlighted, alongside the need for collective events supported by traditional leaders to showcase and promote local foods, as well as the importance of interdepartmental collaboration. To raise awareness and to validate indigenous foods, it is important to make them more visible. There was also a call for collective accountability and responsibility with regard to indigenous knowledge at various institutions such as universities and to ensure that activists begin where they are. 

This food imbizo revealed a great deal of energy and interest in organising around further advocacy and activism to promote and protect indigenous food and the knowledge systems that have developed and preserved them. Various opportunities to take this forward include organising a Dreamwalk with local and provincial officials, establishing provincial organisations to drive recognition of indigenous crops by state institutions that could provide access to resources, and collaborating on popular media opinion pieces to enhance public awareness of this important topic. We have also set up a dedicated google group to facilitate deliberation and networking around this theme. Join the group by clicking this link.

We anticipate further interest in this theme and feel that,to build the food imbizo not only as a platform for deliberation and knowledge co-creation, but also as a space for accountability between many stakeholder groups, we would like to embed this as a programmatic theme that we will revisit and build over time to support practical action.

Please feel free to share this report with anyone who might be interested in food governance. If you are not already on our mailing list and are receiving this email because a friend or colleague forwarded it, you can join our mailing list by clicking on the sign up button below.

We look forward to further engagement by the growing membership of the food imbizo.

Florian Kroll and Prof Daniel Tevera

Food Imbizo Secretariat

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