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From old plants and old ways, a new African agriculture


How the return of Indigenous knowledge could help change how the continent farms


Posted by Alanna Mitchell on December 10, 2018

Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu (second from left) and her colleague Vedaste Ndungutse (far right) sample banana wine with locals in Musanze, Rwanda, in 2016. Rural women in Rwanda are now producing such beverages using long-neglected Indigenous knowledge. (Photo: Courtesy of Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu)

Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu is interested in vegetables. Specifically, she is interested in vegetables that don’t have English names: inyabutongo, isogo, igihaza, urudega and isosogi.

All these vitamin-packed leafy greens grow wild and easily in Rwanda, her mountainous East African home. In earlier generations, they helped feed rural families, keeping hunger and sickness at bay.

But when Germans and then Belgians colonized Rwanda more than a century ago, they started to teach Rwandans to grow the vegetables that Europeans were more familiar with: cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages.

By the time the colonizers left a few generations later, Rwandan elites had developed a taste for those same non-African vegetables. They even looked down on people who preferred the wild crops their ancestors had eaten. At the same time, international aid organizations and foreign donors began supporting not just the cultivation of foreign vegetables, but also large-scale commercial farming techniques. That meant paying for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and irrigation systems from other countries instead of relying on the old, less expensive, organic farming techniques that used plant-based pesticides plus rotting plant material and manure to grow healthy plants.

But when Ezeanya-Esiobu, a senior lecturer of business and economics at the University of Rwanda, began to examine how successful these imported farming techniques were, she discovered that they fell short. Worse still, the old techniques that had once fed families so well were falling out of practice. People were forgetting about the old plants and the old ways. “Indigenous knowledge is dying in this country,” she says.

And not just in Rwanda, but across Africa.

Ezeanya-Esiobu began to wonder what the loss of that knowledge meant for the continent. So, with the help of a Tanzanian colleague and a $300,000 grant from IDRC, she started researching.

Their two-year project, which ended in 2017, assessed how to boost the earning power of rural women by encouraging Indigenous knowledge. And it revealed something startling: Indigenous technologies hold great potential for advancing the economy of Africa as a whole, and rural communities in particular, despite the fact that they’re being ignored by government policy-makers and research agencies.

Ezeanya-Esiobu points to tassa, a traditional irrigation technology now being re-established in Niger. Farmers dig grids of small planting pits in the hard desert soil during the dry season, and then add organic manure. When the rain comes, the pits collect and hold the water, allowing crops to grow. In one study, tassa boosted yields from almost nothing to 300 to 400 kilograms of vegetables per hectare in a drought year and as much as 1,500 kilograms in a normal year.

It’s simple. It’s inexpensive. It helps improve the quality of the soil. And that means it has helped the people of Niger fend off hunger. Plus, tassa’s success stands in contrast to several foreign agricultural methods the World Bank and other agencies wanted Niger to adopt. Not only did those practices saddle the government of Niger with debt, but they didn’t increase crop yields by enough to offset the costs.

In Rwanda, some of the focus has been on helping rural women recover the old methods of making yogurt, banana wine and beer. One woman, a widow, had been reduced to begging to feed her family. She got a micro-loan of US$15 and began to make banana beer using Indigenous knowledge. Now she makes good money selling her product, Ezeanya-Esiobu says.

But it’s still hard to convince African governments and foreign agencies about the value of Indigenous knowledge. While Rwandans are proud of their heritage, they’re also eager to industrialize. And they fear that embracing homegrown technologies will take their country backward, says Ezeanya-Esiobu.

The IDRC research found that part of the solution is to convince decision-makers about the value of these time-honoured practices through published research, one-on-one meetings and workshops. Another key is to begin to teach Indigenous farming practices to students at agricultural colleges, rather than only imported techniques. The team also produced Abagorè, a documentary that demonstrates Indigenous technologies, and which villagers can watch on their mobile phones, making the knowledge accessible to those who can’t read or write.

“If Indigenous knowledge and technology is given the attention it needs,” Ezeanya-Esiobu says, “it’s going to transform the continent speedily — much more than trying to abide by someone else’s rules and regulations.”  

Watch Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu’s TED Talk about how Africa can use its traditional knowledge to drive progress.

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.

The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.