New ways of saving the old ways
Helping countries to rescue traditional foods and crops
4 October 2004, Luve, Swaziland - When Flora Shongwe Lamatsebula, an elderly farmer, invites her grandchildren for dinner, she has a couple of fussy eaters on her hands. "If I prepare traditional dishes, they don't want them," she laments. "So there are two pots on the stove, one for me - I don't eat cooking oil and packaged soups - and one for them."
A revolution in diet is sweeping this southern African country, and causing health problems.
"We are seeing a rise in hypertension and sugar diabetes," says Nikiwe Dlamini, a government home economist. "People have turned away from indigenous food and now are eating fast food. Rural people are buying packaged food in town, such as canned fish, corned beef, packaged soups, chicken stock and soft drinks."
The Swazi Ministry of Agriculture is fighting the trend. On this bright autumn day in the village community centre, home economists and extension workers are field testing a questionnaire on traditional food crops, their preparation and qualities. Ms Lamatsebula and other farmers enthusiastically describe the properties of a long list of traditional beans, peas, nuts, cereals and pumpkins, foods that they have cooked in the traditional way for a hearty group lunch.
"We are cataloguing this knowledge and trying to find out how we can instil it in the population again and especially how we can save and multiply the seeds - they are disappearing," says Simeon Nxumalo, the extension worker who led the focus group.
The initiative is timely since at least 40 percent of Swazis - those living with the AIDS virus - need wholesome traditional foods more than ever. Nutritionists say such foods are the first medicine for those with the disease.
No seed, no crop
Zodwa Mamba, a ministry agronomist working in another part of the country, specializes in legumes, the classic sustainer of the poor. "I was looking for improved varieties and tolerance to disease, to help farmers increase yields," she recalls. "But by 1992, acreage was going down and with severe drought, the farmers were eating even the seeds. Seed companies said it wasn't worth it for them to multiply legume seeds since farmers don't buy from them regularly."
Ms Mamba began encouraging farmers to form seed associations to multiply seed for local sale.
Rebecca Ntondo Shabangu, one of nine members of one such association, says its seeds are popular: "We can't meet the demand especially for one local variety of groundnut. Last year we had more than 50 customers and sold 70 kilos of seed."
Ms Mamba was one of 25 participants invited to a workshop in Swaziland sponsored by FAO's LinKS project, a regional effort in southern Africa aimed at raising awareness about how rural men and women use and manage biological diversity. The project is called LinKS because it explores the linkages between local knowledge systems, gender roles and relationships, food provision, and the conservation and management of agrobiodiversity.
She has since received project funding for a seed production study. "LinKS training was very, very useful," Ms Mamba says. "I've now changed my research methodology to a more participatory approach and am getting better results. I learned I shouldn't just impose what I know. The farmers had lots of knowledge that was new to me. If you just come with a list of questions, the farmers tell you anything just to get it over with."
She adds that current trends favour more-productive hybrid seeds instead of open-pollinated seeds, which are often all the poor can afford to grow, and export instead of subsistence crops.
"Those with big food security problems are in danger of being left behind," she concludes.
Information Officer, FAO
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