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Indigenous methods of food preparation: what is their impact on food security and nutrition?

Dear FSN Forum members,

I am very happy to be the facilitator of this online discussion on indigenous methods of food preparation. I must highlight that this forum held an interesting previous discussion on how indigenous knowledge systems can be used to improve agricultural productivity and food security among rural poor communities. However, we did not touch on how communities use this knowledge that is passed from generation to generation to prepare their food and the possible implications on the socio-economic dynamics of a typical rural household.

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Edward Mutandwa and I am a graduate research assistant at Mississippi State University’s College of Forestry in the US. I have previously worked in Rwanda at the Higher Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (French acronym ISAE), a public institution focusing on improvement of rural livelihoods. During that time I had the opportunity to work with rural communities and this current topic emanates from those experiences. I have also personally seen how some methods like using grass, soil and ash can be useful in preserving sweet potatoes (article in African Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9, No 3, 2007). Before going any further, it is important to define indigenous knowledge. It is the knowledge that is unique to a given culture and provides a basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, education, natural-resource management, and a host of other activities in rural communities (Warren 1991, Flavier et al 1995, , Kolawole, 2001, Maikhuri, et al, 1999). Unfortunately, this knowledge is usually not taken seriously as a viable alternative for ensuring food security and nutrition. Many people rely on methods based on the scientific approach and thus IKS may be at the verge of extinction. 

Rwanda is a small country in East Africa which has experienced tremendous strides in the areas of agricultural and food security. At the same time, culture and tradition still remain vivid aspects of their day to day lives. There are some very popular foods like “isombe” which is prepared from cassava leaves. However, one thing that is striking about this delicacy is the seemingly high opportunity cost of time that women spend preparing it. It can actually be prepared for 5 or more hours (grinding) and then an extra 2 to 3 hours of cooking. There are other food classes in the same category. This has several implications on household socio-economic setup. First, since food preparation is done by women, the amount of labour time available for other activities in the household is limited. Since the household operates under constrained optimization conditions, what can be done to ensure efficient use of limited labour resources? Secondly, after spending so much time from grinding leaves to cooking, it is not clear whether the nutritional content is maintained or reduced. Third, it would be interesting to see if there are any formalized studies carried out to determine the nutritional contents of foods prepared in an indigenous way.

Let me state the questions of interest more formally:

More broadly can we consider indigenous methods of food preparation as a viable means for achieving food security and nutrition in rural poor communities? I am specifically interested in hearing from the diverse base of FSN Forum members on the following issues:

  1. Are there any lively examples of indigenous methods of food preparation and how do they influence food security and nutrition? Formal published research will be welcome on this point
  2. What informal strategies have been put in place by local communities to ensure that this knowledge is not lost?
  3.  What is the perception of formal public institutes in your country towards integrating IKS in food preparation programs? Are there any opportunities for modifying some methods for example for child nutrition based programs?
  4. If indeed indigenous methods are important, what can governments do to create incentives for their continued use?

I would like to thank you in advance for taking your time to participate in this discussion.


This discussion is now closed. Please contact for any further information.

Dr. Violet Kadenyeka Mugalavai Chepkoilel University College, Kenya
Violet Kadenyeka

I would like to add my voice to this discussion as it comes to closure.

Indigenous knowledge systems in the aspect of food need to be preserved continously for future generations to tap into them. We also have migrations or change of context  due to employment, or cultural tourists who would be interested in sampling traditional foods of different communities. This may lead to economic gains for the indigenous host and enables social integration and allows learning, fantasy and discovery and eventual acculturation of individuals or groups.  This  process of cross cultural adoption enables people to perceive, figure out the relative advantage of the food, compare the food they are experiencing with their own existing belief and value systems through various stages such as observations over time in the process of acculturation so as to reduce ethnic discrimination, figure out the complexity involved in the preparation, the symbolic and cultural perspective of the different foods and the enjoyment of the culture together with the other codes and cluster of attributes that go with the context within which indigenous foods are experienced and enjoyed through the subject-object interaction.

Thank you.

Prof. Gregory Ziegler Penn State University, United States of America

I want to thank Prof. Harriet Kuhnlein for her introduction to this thread. I only found out about it yesterday, so I have not been able to read it in its entirety. I did want to introduce myself to the group and let you know that I am interested in indigenous methods of food processing and preparation, particularly in Africa. Related to this topic, I have been working mostly in Ethiopia for the last few years. In Edward’s introduction he stated, “Many people rely on methods based on the scientific approach and thus IKS may be at the verge of extinction.” I would hope that we didn’t consider science and IKS as mutually exclusive. I believe many of the indigenous ways of food preparation reflect years of womankind’s curiosity creativity focused on the acquisition of a sufficiently healthful diet, not so different from the same curiosity that drives much of science.

Edward Mutandwa Mississippi State University, United States of America

Dear FSN members,

I would to take this opportunity to thank all contributors and the interest generated in this discussion. Many experts believe that indigenous knowledge (IK) is an important tool for achieving food security and nutrition in rural poor communities especially in semi-arid areas and therefore, it should be taken seriously at the policy level. This has been illustrated by the numerous examples from different countries and contexts. A significant number of culturally important methods of food preparation have disappeared mainly because of the forces of urbanization, the emergence of a technologically advanced food processing system which has ushered in fast foods. This reduces the time spent on food preparation and unlocks opportunities in other productive areas for women. Furthermore, constraints like high fuel cost creates a disincentive for people to stick to methods based on IK. Thus is important to ensure that indigenous foods are prepared in a way that meets the needs of a changing environment characterized by dynamic tastes and preferences. This can be achieved through value addition, branding and linkages to local and international markets.

Many interesting, lively and relevant examples of indigenous food preparation were given and more could be provided. For example unique ways of preparing garri, fufu, sweet potato chips, cassava bread, Molinga Olifera, Gundruk, Injera, smoked meat with soda, blood and plantain bananas. Food preparation methods are anchored on culture and they have symbolic, economic, social and spiritual values. Nevertheless, some methods result in loss of nutrients for example through overheating which can be avoided for example by shredding leaves. Knowledge on food preparation is usually passed from generation to generation (in rudimentary communities) through informal mechanisms such as the elderly people in the society (grandmother and mama). Such a method of passing information is important but not reliable. Therefore, there is need for formal documentation of these methods. Many organizations have been actively involved in this process but results are scattered.

A lot of research has been and is being conducted to improve food preparation methods based on IK. A good example is that of cassava preparation proposed by Dr Julie Cliff and Howard Bradbury, which reduces cyanogens substantially and ensures that food, is safe to consume. Many public institutions are supportive of efforts to promote indigenous food preparation methods through documentation of food recipes such as FAO recipes for high Andean products. A multi-sectoral strategy involving government and non government institutions will help to integrate IK into food security and nutrition programs. An issue that remains unanswered is related to the nature and structure of incentives necessary for governments to consider IK in food and nutrition policies and strategies.

Thank you,


Lizzy Nneka Igbine Nigerian Women Farmers Association, Nigeria
Lizzy Nneka

Indigenous methods are what we are born with. They are good and we have survived with them over the years. While growing up, I used to visit my grandmother in the village and we plucked mango in the bush and we start eating them.

Today we have discovered better ways of eating and staying healthy. We are now eating better and have less sicknesses, diseases and better living.

This shows development and improvement of life. As life improves, we look forward to use of better and healthier ways to eat our food. We know where we are coming from and we look forward to improved life. Our growth leads us to Science, research and studies. These attempts leads to invention and innovations.

We will not throw away innovation for ignorance and so our growth must be matched with new ideas. This leads us to change though our good old ways before to better ways of doing things.
Indigenous methods of food practice should be upgraded to faster, better, and cleaner modern methods without prejudice or regret as Science is to enhance life and better living.

Lizzy Igbine
Nigerian women agro allied farmers association.

Patricia Tendi UN FAO, Italy
Patricia Tendi

As you close your discussion, I highlight a couple of paragraphs from the keynote statement of Ms Mirna Cunningham Kain, UN Permanent Forum Member, delivered at the FAO International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition, 13 May 2013.

Ms. Cunningham’s full statement is available at this link:

... Supplies of wood fuels influence nutrition through their impact on the availabilityof cooked food. If there is less fuel (or time) for cooking, consumption of uncookedand reheated food may increase. This may cause a serious rise in disease incidence as some uncooked foods may not be properly digested, and cooking is necessary toremove parasites. A decrease in the number of meals provided may have a particularly damaging effect on child nutrition

Since the First World Conference in Rio de Janero in June 2012, Indigenous Peoples have continued to underscore the inextricable link between Sustainable Development, the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the traditional knowledge, cultural understandings and practices that are the basis for the full exercise and enjoyment of our Food Security. All of these elements are included in Indigenous Peoples’ definition of Food Sovereignty developed at the 1st Indigenous Peoples’ Global Consultation on Food Sovereignty and the Right to Food and affirmed in a number of Indigenous Peoples’ International Declarations:

Food Sovereignty is the right of Peoples to define their own policies andstrategies for sustainable production, distribution, and consumption of food, with respect for their own cultures and their own systems of managing natural resources and rural areas, and is considered to be a precondition for Food Security. 2

17. Food Sovereignty, as affirmed in the Declaration of Atitlan, is referenced as acomponent of the international legal framework used by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.3 It has been affirmed as a fundamental principle in a number of international Indigenous Peoples’ declarations ...

Thank you and regards,

Patricia Tendi,

Forestry Department, FAO

Dr. Tim Cavagnaro Monash University, Australia

The cassava processing technique discussed by Howard Bradbury is an extremely valuable tool for detoxifying cassava, thereby helping to ensure that cassava is safe to consume.

We recently found that levels of cyanogens in the leaves and tubers of cassava can higher under drought conditions (vandergeer et al, 2012). The increased incidence of konzo (due to excess consumption of cyanogens) during times of drought may be explained by the increased cyanogen concentrations in the plants. It may also be due to increased cassava consumption due to the failure of other less drought tolerant crops and/or decreased availability of water for the detoxification of cassava foodstuffs. Consequently, efforts promoting cassava as a suitable crop in areas likely to become drier with climate change must be accompanied by development activities that help to ensure that growers of cassava are aware of the need for, and appropriate methods to, detoxify cassava.

These issues are discussed further in the following references:

1.     van der Geer R, Miller RE, Bain, M, Gleadow, RM, Cavagnaro TR. (2013). Drought adversely affects tuber development and nutritional quality of the staple crop cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz). Functional Plant Biology. 40: 195-200.
2.     Burns A, Gleadow RM, Cliff J, Zacarias A, Cavagnaro TR. (2010). Cassava: the drought, war and famine crop in a changing world. Sustainability. 2: 3572-3607.


Peter Steele Independent Consultant Agricultural Engineer, Italy
Peter Steele

New Crops, novel technologies and new opportunities for boosting food security in traditional societies - potatoes feed the world

Reflections on improved lives

My earlier contribution to the debate focused upon opportunities for food production, handling, processing and storage that arise as the result of technical innovation, which is then quickly taken up by local people as a result of socio-economic progress within local communities. This, I suggested, reflected the increased urbanization of people everywhere; people were (and remain) only too pleased to escape the sometimes archaic traditional practices followed by their parents, and particularly when this releases them from the drudgery imposed. It results in more productive lives.

Edward Mutandwa of MSU summarizes developments of this kind as leading to the abandonment and loss of potentially valuable knowledge, skills, technologies and more. This raises the rhetorical question of ‘value to whom’.

Power from steam no longer dominates our society; it’s been replaced by more efficient resources and appropriate technologies that better suit our modern-day societies. In our inter-connected and inter-dependent world, why would you want to continue to promote a 19th century technology?

Interest and enjoyment of new foods

This second contribution promotes the humble Irish potato representing, as it does, the opportunities that arise from the introduction of new foods into a community; new foods, by definition, do not always have a traditional background in the community.

The name ‘potato’ can sometimes be confusing. Whereas Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes share similarities in form and appearance when harvested and can be used for much the same culinary purposes, there is no botanical relationship between them. Both crops, however, are important foods. Irish potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), respectively, rank #4 and #7 in global food production indices. The descriptor ‘Irish’ once used to differentiate potatoes from the more familiar sweet potatoes available in tropical regions has become less common as production has expanded in recent years.

Potential of potatoes

Potatoes represent food (and food security) from the most important of the non-cereal staples that feed the world. High water content, and timeliness and care required with handling and storage largely precludes ware potatoes from large-scale international trading, and thus fluctuations in price are affected more by local and national market impact. This is typical, for example, of East Africa – a region that is doing surprisingly well economically – with encouraging socio-political development.

As rural communities seek higher productivity from their land, potatoes become a logical choice – but optimal climate, soil fertility, water and crop management is required. Fail to make the best choices – varieties, timing, etc. and blight, for example, can decimate the crop. Get the choices correct and earnings, employment and food security out-perform all other basic smallholder food crops. You only have to explore the development of this crop, for example, in Malawi and/or Rwanda to appreciate the value of food crop intensification – the boosted productivity of small blocks of land – and the security of food supplies that follows.

But there is also much to be gained by further investment in production and post-production. Potatoes have the potential to produce ten times more food per unit area than cereals. Potatoes, moreover, have high nutritional value and, importantly, they match those changing demands of urban lifestyles for foods that are novel, quick and easy to prepare - and which project a sense of modern change. The future of urban foods in Africa, I suggest, has a chip-shaped crinkle and great taste (and snaps satisfyingly in the mouth).

Considering the value chain – not the crop/technology

But you need to consider the ‘value chain’ approach to crop development. Value chains provide us with a convenient means of exploring opportunities but, in the low-income countries, they are generally poorly understood and little supported. There is a paucity of services in support of growers, markets and processors in most places. Productivity in East Africa, for example, is half that of the best producers in Africa – in Egypt and South Africa; and 20% that of the best international producers who regularly harvest 40-50 tonnes/hectare.

This represents a considerable loss of potential, but one that is unlikely to change in the short-term given industrial performance that continues to focus upon minimum risk, limited investment and lack of coordination. Governments regular promote the viability of export opportunities – and these exist – but they fail to provide more than limited resources for R&D, extension and market information support, and none at all for agro-industrial investment.

Role for the private sector

National potato industries (NPIs) in the industrial countries are dominated by the private sector – all production, all services, all management and all markets. This contrasts with NPIs in East Africa, for example, where the traditional responsibilities of the public sector continue to prevail. Where Coops/NGOs have been established in support of growers however, and contact made with franchised restaurants in urban centres – to provide one example of potential – productivity has more than doubled. The key issue is one of producing to market demand – choice of variety, production to set quality standards of ware and delivery to set schedules.

Develop an action plan

It is not sufficient to monitor status, to determine the constraints to progress and to note opportunities for making a difference. Given the disorganized nature of NPIs in the low-income countries, the lack of investment available and the skewed nature of domestic production – many thousands of growers producing for household consumption and selling small surpluses into markets dominated by traders – planning is required; and the logical starting point is an ‘action plan’. In reality there are two objectives with planning of this kind. The first is focus upon people and their socio-economic welfare, which can be defined as objective #1:

Objective #1. Socio-economic investment. To improve the productivity of the potato industry and the quality of potatoes grown and sold and, by so-doing, to improve the socio-economic welfare and confidence of the rural potato-growing communities involved.

And, similarly, a second objective that focuses upon NPIs in the context of national investments, but within regional opportunities; that everyone benefits:

Objective #2. Regional agro-industrial investment. To integrate NPIs planning into the longer-term requirements of a regional potato industry that will boost efficiency of farm supplies, production, transport and processing, and enable regional industries to compete successfully in home and export markets for ware potatoes and processed products.

Summary in one paragraph

The productivity of the potato crop has demonstrated a capacity to boost food security in areas where it can be grown satisfactorily. Where the crop is new to people in the low-income countries, support is required with which to introduce it. This will require planning and investment. On the one hand – there are the industrial realities, the increasing role of ware potatoes in local diets as populations expand and cultivated land per capita continues to shrink, dramatic trends in urbanization, and growing demand for processed ware potatoes. And, on the other hand – there is the low productivity of NPIs, lack of public and/or private sector support, failure to adopt good agricultural practices and production of low-quality ware potatoes.

Summary in one sentence

Full exploitation of the potato crop has yet to be realized; it has the potential to dramatically boost food security in low-income countries where it can be grown.

This has been a pro-potato contribution in support of food security in low-income communities. I make no apologies to the current debate in further promoting the future of novel food crops, technologies and opportunities. There are few reasons for looking back.

Peter Steele
Agricultural Engineer
29 May 2013

Prof. Harriet Kuhnlein McGill University, Canada

                I have greatly enjoyed reading the submission to the questions introduced by Edward.  Globally, we are indeed faced with daily loss of biodiversity in the world of food and by simultaneous loss in knowledge of methods of preservation and preparation of these foods.  As a student of many indigenous elders in the techniques of local food harvest, preservation and preparations for family enjoyment and nutrition, I am convinced the only way forward is to do everything possible to document this diversity as best we can. This knowledge is useful  for the future generations within a culture, as well as for all of us. With increased documentation and increasing communication technology for sharing this information, we have the potential to take advantage of this vast knowledge known and used by Indigenous Peoples to improve their nutrition and health at the local level and also to provide knowledge to benefit all humanity.  With this knowledge we have at least some tools to cope with increasing loss of food species diversity and food shortages in the future.

                Please note that the FAO and the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill University in Montreal has just released the third book in a series resulting from 10 years of research with Indigenous Peoples and their food systems.  The first two books define the process to document local food resources ( and describe the food species and their various methods of preparation and use in 12 diverse rural areas of different parts of the world (  Indigenous Peoples’ food systems & well-being: interventions & policies for healthy communities ) is the third of the series, released just this past weekend (May 25, 2013)at the United Nations in New York City.  Collectively this work presents ways to assist Indigenous Peoples in using their local and traditional food systems in community nutrition and health promotion. 

                While we support Indigenous Peoples in preserving their culture and resources, we should learn from their knowledge and experience, preserved so far thanks to strong cultural identities. The lessons drawn by this collective work should be taken as an encouragement to pursue the promotion of more sustainable and healthy food systems, adapted to modern life’s necessities and inspired by the sustainable food systems preserved throughout generations by Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

                Finding alternatives to preserve these sustainable food systems and the knowledge, expertise and biodiversity linked to them is of crucial importance to finding solutions to feed a growing humanity today and in the future.  I believe that the FAO should take the lead in the huge task of documenting local food knowledge—species identifications, methods of preservation, methods of preparation, food composition, and uses in cuisine-- as it now exists and for our future needs.  At the same time, steps for honoring intellectual property rights and using prior and informed consent for documenting this valuable knowledge should be implemented.

                Thank you, Edward, for bringing this discussion forward in the FSN Forum.

Howard Bradbury Australian National University, Australia
FSN Forum

Dr Edward Mutandwa
Dear Edward

Dr Julie Cliff, who has sent you some material on processing of cassava leaves, has suggested that I send you results of our experience on processing to remove cyanide compounds from cassava flour and cassava leaves.
1. Cassava flour.
The wetting method that we developed for removing cyanogens from cassava flour is very simple as follows:
Cassava flour is placed in a basin and the height of the flour is marked on the inside of the basin. Water is added with stirring and the volume of the flour decreases and then increases again as more water is added, until it comes up to the mark on the basin. The wet flour is then spread in a thin layer not more than 1 cm deep on a mat or basket and left in the shade for 5 hours or the sun for 2 hours, which allows the enzyme linamarase to break down the linamartin to hydrogen cyanide gas, which escapes through the thin layer of flour. The damp flour is then used to make the thick porridge  called ugali in East Africa and fufu in DRC.  The method has been used for 3 years in DRC and is being used in DRC to control konzo, see attachment, and is being used in Mozambique in a collaborative project with Dr Julie Cliff. The fufu is as good as that made from chickwangue. It tastes much better due to removal of bitter linamarin and stores better than fufu made from untreated flour, and best of all the women like using the wetting method. Its use is spreading from one village to another by word of mouth.
2. Cassava leaves.
The current method of grinding the leaves followed by boiling for at least 30 min removes all the cyanogens from the leaves, but unfortunately the prolonged boiling also removes many of the vitamins and some amino acids from the protein rich leaves.  We are still working on methods for removing the cyanogens from cassava leaves either at room temperature or at a temperature of 50 degrees C, see attachment.  Our best published method is to pound the leaves for 10 min followed by washing the leaves in water at ambient temperature. The total cyanide content of the pounded, washed leaves is reduced to 8% after two washes and 3% after a total of 4 washes.  This process removes virtually all the cyanogens from pounded cassava leaves without breaking down the vitamins and protein present in the leaves.

Control of konzo in DRC using the wetting method on cassava flour

Mild methods of processing cassava leaves to remove cyanogens and conserve
key nutrients

I hope that you may be able to include this submission in your Global Forum, even although it is submitted just before your deadline.

With best wishes.
Dr Howard Bradbury.

Dr. Julie Cliff Mozambique

Thanks for the interesting example of the time taken in the preparation of cassava leaves. In the case of cassava leaves, grinding has a purpose, as it removes cyanogens, which are often present in high concentrations.

The grinding thus prevents cyanide poisoning.

A recent report of a simpler preparation method also refers to the literature on nutrient content and preparation of cassava leaves:

Bradbury JH, Denton IC (2011) Mild methods of processing cassava leaves to remove cyanogens and conserve key nutrients. Food Chemistry 127: 1755-9.

Cassava roots may also contain high concentrations of cyanogens. 

For both cassava roots and leaves, removal of cyanogens is an important part of food preparation.