Tanzania: Searching for Food Self-Sufficiency Through Increased Crop Diversity

IN the years 2018-2019 there was a massive drought in Zambia, as a result of El Nino. The corn dried up. Now, as a result of this lesson, and as a response to global warming and increasing drought, wrought by climate change, there is a move to diversify crops, within the country, to feed the citizens without importing food.

Corn, which is inigenous to Central America, was first introduced by the British to the mine areas in Zambia in the 1910s, because it required less weeding and care than sorghum or millet, and was easier for colonial farmers to grow.

As the British expanded their mining interests, millet and sorghum were also promoted as crops to local farmers because it freed up time for them to engage in wage labour. Corn has become a loved staple and most Zambians like to eat nshima (ugali) every day.

But now corn is providing too sensitive, with its higher water needs and Zambians are being encouraged to diversify away from corn. But how should the crops be chosen? In answering this question there is interest in understanding what was being eaten in Zambia before corn was brought.

I had an interesting talk with Jeremy Farr who is a PhD candidate in archaeobotany, the study of extraction of ancient food stuffs. He is working in Zambia’s Central and Southern provinces. I have explained that Africa’s history and prehistory is massively understudied.

He is following his British, American, and Zambian predecessors who studied rock shelters and remains of houses discovered in the 1950s’ to 1960’s, before and after Independence. He and the team he is working with, went back to the old sites, with new techniques.

Many of these sites were mounds – which were formed layer by layer by people living at the same places for a long time. In the mounds lots of remnants of lives lived are found, including pottery, animal bone, iron, and evidence of trade with Greater Zimbabwe and the Indian Ocean from beads made from shell or glass

The remains of their fires reveal even more about the food they ate. He takes samples of soil from the fires, and puts them in water. The charcoal and residue float to the surface, and the mixture is poured into a mesh bag. In that way he can sift out the charcoal and residue and then examine the different fractions.

Charcoal lasts for thousands of years (charcoal has been found that is 8-9000 years ago). When organics are found, they are examined and tested. They have found the charred remains of nut shells, fruit seeds and cereal grains including sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet. These grasses were domesticated in Africa across the Sahel region thousands of years ago, and have been grown together in Zambia for over a thousand years.