Africa's contributions to global food are rich — and little understood 

Africa's contributions to global food are rich — and little understood 
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The highly anticipated UN World Food Summit ended with an announcement of new coalitions to increase healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The headlines for Africa coming out of the summit are all too familiar — the continent faces mass starvation and is in dire need of food assistance to save millions of lives.

Indeed, when it comes to food, the common association with Africa is frequently exactly this, famine and foreign aid. While this is true in many cases, this narrative further perpetuates what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously coined as “the danger of a single story.” It overshadows the less often told story of Africa’s important contributions to global food systems.

The story of Africa’s strengths should be told to counter a deep-seated bias — implicit or otherwise — towards foreign solutions to the continent’s challenges.

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To unpack Africa’s contribution to global food, it is useful to think of food in three layers: food as commodities, food as cuisine, and food as commercial brands.

At commodity level the dominant narrative is Africa’s staggering food import bill of about $35-$45 billion annually. A lesser known statistic is that Africa currently exports more than $40 billion worth of food products to the rest of the world. About $12-14 billion of this is off-season supply of fruits, vegetables and nuts to Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Asia. Africa dominates the global supply of cocoa with Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire alone producing more than two thirds of the world’s cocoa beans. Remember that the next time you enjoy your chocolate.

Many of the food crops grown around the world today have their roots in Africa. Grains such as African rice, pearl millet, sorghum, teff, and fonio were first domesticated on the continent. So too were many legumes (e.g., cowpea and groundnut), vegetables (e.g., okra, watermelon, and Ethiopian kale). Many tree crops such kola nut (used in Coca-Cola), oil palm, shea and coffee are indigenous to Africa. If you had coffee or coke today, you have Africa to thank for it. 

From calulu de peixe in Angola, tangine in Morocco, jollof rice in Nigeria and Ghana, injera with tibs in Ethiopia, and sadza nenyama in my home country Zimbabwe, African cuisine is diverse, nutritious, and delicious. Along the coast, it infuses influences that date back to the time of the spice trade.

Beyond the continent, Africa’s influence is evident in popular dishes around the world. The transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century brought African cuisine to North America, the Caribbean, and South America. Today you can taste this history in America’s soul food all the way down to Brazil’s national dish, the feijoadaMore recently, migrants from Africa have introduced African foods, spices, and cooking methods to the rest of the world. Case in point, you can now find an Ethiopian restaurant in most major cities around the world.

The last gastronomic frontier that Africa is yet to conquer is the globalized world of commercial food brands. There is very little presence of African food products on supermarket shelves around the world. There are a few exceptions, such as Amarula cream liquor from South Africa and Kericho Gold tea from Kenya.

Yet this too is changing fast, thanks to a new generation of African entrepreneurs and food scientists who are pairing the home-cooked signature of African dishes with the ever-growing need for ready to eat convenience. For example, a young West African couple Perteet and Fred have successfully launched Ayo Foods in the USA with promises of “hand crafted West African dishes in less than five minutes.” You can now find their cassava leaf stew, jollof rice and egusi soup on the shelves of major American supermarkets such as Kroger, Whole Foods, and The Fresh Market.

New initiatives such as Changing Narrative Africa are supporting this movement by building networks and training African entrepreneurs who are committed to scaling their products to the world.

To be sure, the urgent need to sustainably feed 957 million hungry people, many of them in Africa, must take center stage. However, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the historic and current contribution that Africa has made to what the world eats today. As we rethink global food systems, we must create space for both narratives.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct Perteet and Fred's origin.

Ed Mabaya is a Research Professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University. He is a 2016 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow him on twitter at @EdMabaya.