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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.

Prof. JS (Pat) Heslop-Harrison University of Leicester, United Kingdom
JS (Pat)

Yeasts and Bacteria. Indiginous methods for food preparation are important. Can I ask for an important aspect of food preparation to be considered in responses: how are yeast and bacterial cultures maintained and treated? Their nature and quality are of course critical to breads, beers, yogurts and cheeses, with impact on digestibilty, uses, and safety of foods. There is usually involvment of local strains, perhaps not formally cultured but carried to the food product from skin, earthenware or leather containers, or the local environment. Others are maintained as cultures or by keeping back some mixture each time the food is prepared. 'Modernization' will threaten microbial strains introduced in food preparation.

Edward Mutandwa Mississippi State University, United States of America

Dear Forum members,

Once again, I would like to thank you for your contributions. The centrality of the market mechanism in shaping the role of indeginous foods has been emphasized by experiences from West Africa, Brazil and Costa Rica (Gerardo). However, the forces of urbanization and Western diets are likely to result in loss of local knowledge. Laura highlights that markets for products such as fufu, garri and cassava are still rudimentary in West Africa. She reiterates the need for education for example through the use of celebrity chefs to train local communities about indeginous food preparation methods. Other other hand, Francisca from Zambia observes that too much boiling results in loss of nutritional value for instance in cabbages. This was also pointed out by Gill earlier on. Francisca further suggests that elders are important in the transmission of local knowledge from generation to generation (KV Peter). Carla refers to a multisectoral approach which is encapsulated in the UNDP report for Brazil. An interesting aspect of this discussion are the different types of foods including garri, fufu, sweet potato chips, cassava bread and a different array of fruits and the interesting methods of food preparation. Francisca indicated that sweet potato chips are sliced, salted and dried. This can take up to six months and therefore provide and important strategy for alleviating transitory food shocks that households face during the dry season. Although it seems that public institutions are supportive of efforts to promote indeginous food preparation methods, do you have any experiences of any legislative frameworks created in this regard? Another related aspect to this discussion is the role of insects in the food security because most are prepared using locally known methods of preparation (FAO report).

Thanks and well appreciated,






Carla Mejia UN World Food Programme, Thailand

Thanks so much Edward for bringing up this topic.

The UNDP report that summarizes the food security policy context in Brazil, has a good summary of the three elements that have been found to be basic for the development and implementation of programs that target food security and nutrition of indigenous groups: 1) policy frameworks and subsequently budgets that enable programs to be created, 2) multi-sectorial participation that allows input and discussion of the guidelines and priorities and 3) adequate monitoring and evaluation of the programs and/or policies (ref:

This type of approach has served to the development of various initiatives that have in fact applied technology and practices typical of the indigenous populations like the program that assessed the use of terraces recuperation in Peru (,1303.html?id=pe-t1165#doc), and has also prompted the characterization of various crops traditionally used by indigenous communities in the Andean region ( , However, the long term effects of these initiatives has been proven to be not as successful as expected as chronic malnutrition and water and food borne diseases are still highly prevalent in indigenous populations of Latin America, especially in children. Moreover, the focus has been on 1) primary production 2) characterization solely at a gastronomic level (, and 3) transformation of the crop at the semi industrial scale through the development of processed foods that could be consumed by a majority ( The actual indigenous preparation practices and its effects on the subsequent potential nutritional value has not been well characterized nor assessed; nor has been assessed the meaning of these preparations for the populations identity and preservation.

Francisca Mwanda Zambia Agricultural Research Institute, Zambia

Good day,

I would like to first start by introducing myself. My name is Mwanda Francisa. I work at the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute in Zambia as a research scientist.I got this information from a friend who is a forum member and I thought the topic was very interesting and therefore thought I could contribute.

*. Can we consider indigenous methods of food preparation as a viable means of achieving food security and nutrition in rural poor communities?

Firstly my answer to the above question is yes and no. Let me elaborate

Some methods of indigenous food preparation involve too much boiling which in the end reduces the nutritional value of the food. If for example we take vegetables such as cabbage, it is normally recommended that it is taken raw to ensure the realization of all its nutritional benefits (roughage, vitamins etc). However in most rural homes, this vegetable is boiled and this causes it to lose its nutritional value, thereby making it less nutrition and not adding to the general food security of a household. So in this particular case, an indigenous food preparation method fails to result in nutrition and food security.

Some methods of food preparation include a component of long term food preservation which is very important in maintaining nutrition and food security of poor rural households. Poor rural households usually do not own refrigerators or other preservation instruments to preserve food. They have come up with methods of preservation that have been passed on from generation to generation. A good example is preservation of cooked sweet potato chips providing nutrition and adding to household food security.

1. Are there lively examples of indigenous methods of food preparation and how do they influence food security and nutrition?

I will echo the example I gave above where a particular preparation method also includes preservation. Sweet potatoes are washed and boiled. A pinch of salt may be added to enhance the taste,however this is optional. The cooked sweet potatoes are then sliced to make chips and dried. These dried chips can be taken even after six months. In Zambia  they are normally referred to as ' Shilengwa or Insemwa". These potato chips are are high in caloric nutritional value and there ability to last long is a plus to food security. Many rural poor communities have caloric deficiencies in Zambia so food preparation methods that include preservation are very important. (Reutlinger S and Alderman H, Prevalence of caloric-Deficient diets) 

2. What informal strategies have been put in place to ensure this knowledge is not lost?

In my culture, such information is passed on from generation to generation by the family elders. In my case, my grand mother taught me how to prepare Insemwa or Shilengwa and I hope to also teach my children. 

3. What is the perception of formal public institutes in your country towards IKS in food preparation programs? Are there any opportunities for modifying some methods for example for child nutrition based programs?

The perception in my work place an Agricultural research institute is that IKS are important and they can be used in certain cases to improve agricultural production. Opprtunities for modifying some methods are indeed plenty.

4. If indeed indigenous methods are important, what can governments do to create incentives for their continued use?

Governments can begin with creating awareness on some of the methods highlighting their benefits to society through different ministries as well as public media. Institutions that have a good understanding of the methods could also take it up to train trainers who will also train those who may not know the methods.

Thank you.

Laura Pereira University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Laura Pereira

Edward, I wanted to thank you so much for bringing this important topic up for discussion- I think we can learn a lot about increasing food security by focussing on indigenous knowledge. I'm currently working on a project that focusses on innovation for underutilised and 'orphan' crops in SSA with a specific focus on the types of dishes and even products can be developed that can benefit local food security as well as increase livelihoods and income for the farmers growing or harvesting these foods. A very interesting element is what Gill mentioned regarding the increase in urbanisation and a shift towards more Western diets, which is resulting in health implications, loss of knowledge about these crops, how to eat them and also the agro-biodiversity that they bring to the system.

My current focus is on cassava in Nigeria- and the case of cassava bread that is a new 'technology' being promoted by the government as a type of import subsitutition policy for wheat flour. During this research I've become fascinated with the different types of cuisine that involve cassava- from its native Latin America, across different regions of Africa through to South-East Asia. What's even more interesting is the nutritional aspect that you mentioned- cassava is a great source of carbohydrates (once it is prepared post-harvest to get rid of its cyanide content), but it is severely lacking in protein. However, the leaves contain a high protein content and it's interesting that many cooking practices in Central and East Africa (as you mentioned) involve usuing the leaves in food preparation. The 'markets' for these products, however, remain at the village or household level, whereas in West Africa there is a much larger industry for processed cassavatubers  in the form of fufu and garri. Latin America and Brazil in particular lies at the other extreme where cassava is very much a part of the formal market and varieties of cassava based products exist- whether it's the street food from Minas: Pao de queijo, farofa or even povilho that is made from very fine cassava flour.

Thus I think an important aspect for increasing nutritional benefits in urban environments as well as for maintaing local culture and encouraging agro-biodiversity that a focus on indigenous knowledge in food preparation is key. However, the next step needs to be taken for it to become successful in the market- whether through processing of the products making them easier to store and less time-consuming to make or whether it requires more of an education and marketing campaign taken on by, for example, a celebrity chef.

I'm interested to hear what you find out in your project- as you can see this is a topic close to my heart!

Edward Mutandwa Mississippi State University, United States of America

Hello FSN members,

Thank you very much for the interesting contributions made so far. There are about three themes emerging hitherto. First, is that some indigenous methods of food preparation have disappeared mainly because of urbanization (Gill, and Robert). I certainly agree on this point because the more a society becomes urbanized, the more they are exposed to fast foods and the less likely they will continue to eat indigenous food. Constraints include high fuel cost which creates as disincentive for some people but could be reduced for example by shredding leaves (Gill).  Secondly, members agree that indigenous foods will remain important as long as they are adapted to a changing environment characterized by dynamic tastes and preferences. Therefore, the main issue is how to add value (Robert and Ahmad) through appropriate technologies. Third, KV Peter indicates that most of the food is prepared by "mama and grandmother" and so they represent an important source of information related to food preparation. But how do we ensure that their knowledge is passed on to future generations? Finally, a very important issue highlighted by Robert is the need to exploit branding opportunities in export markets. Tell us more about your local foods. I really appreciate your comments and hope to recieve more suggestions from you!






Robert A Best West Indian Projects , Trinidad and Tobago
Robert A


This is a very interesting set of questions.

Let me add another dimension which addresses another dimension of food security .. the ability to earn income from indigenous foods.

In much of the Caribbean (CARICOM) incomes are growing so most of our countries are no longer low income. And as incomes grow, urbanization quickens, more women work and access to international communication grows tastes and food eating patterns are changing. Women don’t have the time to cook indigenous foods and young people are more interested in international fast food and snacks.

So the food import bill is growing, not of foods which compete with our foods and less is being bought from our farmers in rural communities. The challenge is how to transform the indigenous food preparation and cooking processes into one that meets the needs of urban consumers. The Trinidad and Tobago Agribusiness Association has addressed this by processing tropical roots (and other F&V)  into frozen, cubed, packaged and branded product which urban house wife and young people who no longer can select quality roots in the fresh markets can conveniently purchase together with their groceries. Also they have introduced dried root crops into mixed flour breads. See Based on this increased demand they are able to increase volumes with contract farmers.

In addition, indigenous foods create a powerful platform for branding especially for exports as is seen in Jamaican pepper and jerk sauces which are leading the explosive growth of ethnic foods in the UK and creating a demand for raw peppers in the rural communities of Jamaica.

So improving the productivity of preparing indigenous food in households but by extension in SME processing operations can be an important way of improving food security, in rural households, urban households and through exports, increase the demand for local products from farming communities.

Trust you find this useful


Kuruppacharil V.Peter World Noni Research Foundation, India
Kuruppacharil V.Peter

The most popular and most cherished indigenous method of food preparation is the one by mamma (mother) and grandamma (grandmother) based on the likeness and preferences of family members.
Culinary preferences,availability of raw materials,and above all zero wastage are the characteristics of such diets. Special diets are served fresh and hot to the disabled members.
A documentation of such indigenous foods will be welcome.
Dr K V Peter

Hamid Ahmad Pakistan Society of Food Scientists & Technologists (PSFST),Lahore ...
Hamid Ahmad

About 3  decades ago a process of development of Appropriate Technologies entities in most of the developing countries was initiated. It often included the food and nutrition sector. It was an highly positive direction for researchers to tap and use processes and technologies based on traditional wisdoms and to filter or polish these for more effective use in policy making mechanisms.
Slowly the entities may have faded away and now coming up with different nomenclatures. So, surely the approach has a weight of knowledge base and traditions to fit in more appropriately in development countries. I would like to reinforce this line of approach and further action. 

Gerardo Enrique Paniagua Rodríguez, Costa Rica
Gerardo Enrique Paniagua Rodríguez

En Costa Rica los hemanos indígenas consumen muchos productos de raíz como yuca, ñanpi, tiquizque en sopas o verduras acompañados de carnes, las ensaladas no pueden faltar, mezclan tomates o coles con las flores del Itabo, o las flores del Poró de las cuales se come tan solo la parte externa ya que la interna contiene un fuerte veneno, las frutas como la guayaba, la arazá, los limones, naranjas, mandarinas no pueden faltar, estos productos se adicionan al arroz. Los frijoles, el platano o banano cocinado acompañado de aguadulce o de un vaso de chocolate caliente, en algunas regiones se acostumbra mucho las tortillas de maíz blanco, los elotes tiernos cocinados en caldo de huesitos de res o algun animalito silvestre como el tepescuintle, la tortuga o un delicioso pescado.