Food demand, supply models and culture

In spite of climatic conditions, commodities are associated with particular communities. Hionde Valley is associated with bananas.


By Charles Dhewa

During the last few decades, food systems across Africa have faced a diverse set of challenges such as climate change­related droughts, decrease in household income and outbreak of animal diseases. However, solutions to these challenges continue to be proffered from an intensification approach that focuses on the performance of agricultural commodities on the global market.

Relying on concepts and models developed in the West is hampering a comprehensive understanding of African food systems. Opportunities to learn from the rich pool of African food practices remain limited, especially among policy makers and development agencies who continue to promote a few agricultural commodities.

However, there is a new realization that informal food markets offer new pathways for collaborating and interpreting African food systems. New pathways for collaborating and interpreting African food systems Informal markets do not just open new doors for exploring the diversity of African food practices. They also demonstrate linkages between food and people’s identity.

They are also inspiring reinterpretations of the social, political, economic, ethical and cultural characteristics of African food systems. It is through working with informal markets that food researchers and practitioners learn from culturally­rooted food supply models that have sustained local communities for generations.

Informal markets do not present food as solely market­oriented but reveal the socio­cultural aspects, manifested through solidarity between producers and consumers as well as relationships between local food traditions and consumption patterns.

Part of this rich food system is extensive wild fruit foraging with most of the fruits flowing into informal markets where they influence trading practices for particular commodities and seasons. Working from more than 20 informal agriculture markets in Zimbabwe, eMKambo is facilitating a systematic reflection of how informal food networks in Africa can be developed, practiced and theorised.

This calls for researchers from various disciplines to share insights on various issues including the diversity of informal food networks, how they are embedded in local culture as well as their motivations, capabilities and business models.

So far, in Zimbabwe, eMKambo has discovered that people’s cultural norms and values are not just transmitted through beliefs, language and rituals but agricultural commodities. Food systems of a particular group or clan are anchored around that clan’s culture. On the other hand, food trading has a much longer history than formal markets. Groups have traditionally traded food within their clans and with other clans.

The basis of informal trading continues to be anchored on how each clan or group values its commodities. For example some groups have an emotional attachment to small grains while others have an emotional attachment to livestock. Before a commodity is taken to the market, cultural considerations take precedent over the market. For instance, beer brewing for rituals is a key consideration before small grains are taken to the market.

Other key issues include using small grains as a gift to relatives who can use them as seed or as staple food. All this happens before the commodity goes to the market where it becomes the basis of pricing. These practices have little to do with costing where factors like inputs, labour, fertiliser and others are taken into account. In spite of climatic conditions, commodities are associated with particular communities.

For instance madhumbe is associated with the Ndau of Chipinge. Even though some areas like Hurungwe or Nkayi may have the same climatic conditions as Chipinge, these areas do not produce madhumbe because the commodity is not associated with local people’s culture. Honde valley communities are associated with bananas and avocadoes.

Matebeleland communities are associated with livestock and macimbi while Masvingo communities are mostly associated with livestock and small grains. All these commodities start as sources of livelihood with people putting a lot of effort into preserving them – for instance, jealously guarding forests for macimbi and wetlands for madhumbe.

Local protectionism around local commodities Behind climatic conditions are local people’s beliefs. For instance, some communities consider forests to be sacred resources which offer a fall-back position in cases of drought. As a result these communities become protectionist around their local commodities. The protectionist tendency enables them to develop in-­depth knowledge about these commodities from one generation to the next.

As they bring commodities to the market, they become the experts – ‘doctors’, ‘physicians’, ‘gynaecologists’, ‘nutritionists’, etc. These practices were developed before modern science was able to discover medicinal properties of local commodities like ginger which have been part of people’s food systems for decades. When local commodities are brought to informal food markets, marketing ceases to be just about selling but knowledge exchange and medical processes. Knowledge built through cultural exchange makes commodities from particular areas very unique.

Beliefs surrounding the commodities are passed on to customers and consumers. When it comes to tasting food, culturally, before you give a customer food or a commodity you taste it to show that you trust and believe in it.

Due to strong attachment with cultural processes like traditional beer brewing, small grains have quietly developed and sustained their value chains and niches. Consequently, small grains cannot be substituted with other commodities in conducting traditional ceremonies. Their cultural value forms a significant percentage of their business base. People who have migrated to urban centres have taken small grains consumption as part of their identity.

The story is almost the same with pearl millet whose porridge is not ordinary commercial porridge but can be mixed with herbs. Mahewu also has cultural roots although the commodity is now being commercialised. How this influences food supply models. For most communities supply models can be considered after meeting cultural needs.

While consumption for food security is also critical, socio­cultural considerations will dictate quantities of small grains that have to be reserved for traditional rituals. Some of the reserves are community-driven especially for people belonging to one clan. Even if the market is ready, a farmer cannot just harvest his/her commodities without some rituals like thanksgiving to Mother Nature through ancestors.

The market can be starved until cultural norms are satisfied. Most communities also interrogate new entrants like new seed in case it does not fit into local cultural rituals. Local people often do not want their local seed to be superseded by new varieties whose origin they are not sure about. That is why there is often some resistance against new seeds. New livestock breeds are also scrutinised before being accepted.

That is why in spite of all the resources going into developing and promoting modern broiler chickens, broilers have failed to completely replace indigenous chickens in most rural areas. Communities have become convinced that the value of livestock is not just about quick growth, meat yield or size but other intangible attributes that can see small chickens being preferred.

In spite of whatever challenges, a household will not sell what is considered a family bull although it can fetch a lot of money on the market. A household may choose to eat vegetables for a long time when chickens, goats and cattle are available. The main motivation is preserving wealth than satisfying low instincts like appetite and taste.

Whatever price you offer, you will never convince a family to sell what is considered a mother’s cow (Mombe yeUmai/ Inkomo kaMama). In every household, there is a batch of cattle that will never go to the market whatever happens. From a decision-­making perspective, culturally a cow cannot just be sold before rounds of conversations and consultations are gone through. This is basically due to the prevalent culture of building wealth.

Modern efforts to collateralise livestock have to contend with some of these cultural issues. You cannot collateralise a family bull or mombe yeumai. Out of 30 cattle, only three may be collateralised. It is important for financial institutions to understand dynamics that influence local notions of wealth before crafting selfish models. The majority of rural African communities do not believe in building wealth through money but through commodities and stocks like cattle.

Reserves are built at household and community levels as well as through preserving natural resources. A farmer can leave a certain piece of land fallow for a long time, preserving it for future generations. In terms of food security, communities also take stock of fruits that should go to the market because they respect their co­existence with wild animals which also depend on wild fruits. This prevents situations where over-­commercialisation of resources results in baboons, monkey and other wild animals running out of baobab and other fruits.

Limitations of conventional value chain notions and knowledge models Informal food supply models challenge conventional models of value chains which look at value addition from an economic sense at the exclusion of soft issues like knowledge and social factors. Insights from informal markets present knowledge sharing as a value added service more than processing because it can be about production practices and aggregation.

In addition, culture is a powerful intangible asset that determines commodities and their supply models. It does not help to continue limiting value addition to the economic definition when it is more of a cultural web. Tasting food is not the only important thing for a buying decision. It is not just about evidence but values as well. Most commodities like finger millet have not done well under contract models because of cultural uses as opposed to commercial uses.

Commodities like cotton and tobacco can easily be produced under contract arrangements because they do not have strong routes in local cultures. Contract companies and financiers need to research other uses including cultural uses before contracting farmers to produce a commodity. It should not just be about the existence of a market.

That is why commodity exchanges and barter trade becomes very important. Despite the growing presence of relationship – base informal food supply models in Africa, there is no well systematised knowledge on the development of these into powerful supply networks in order to understand their driving forces and influencing factors, their adaptability to dynamic environments and their impact on regional food systems. There have been few attempts to conceptualise these networks in African contexts.

For instance, while food fairs are common, they are more of events than deeply-­held processes. Although most resources go to formal agricultural shows which are an extension of industrial agriculture, local food fairs lack support so that they meaningfully contribute to economic development.

Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) ( whose flagship eMKambo ( has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on:; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.

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