In South Africa, indigenous crops and traditional foods have been so downgraded that we have forgotten the tastes and even some of the names of these foods. Sadly, this means we’re missing out on some readily available health benefits.
The perception that indigenous crops are “rural” or “poverty” foods has taken precedence over the underrated benefits they hold. That said, in many countries including South Africa a number of voices are advocating for communities to embrace their food heritage. Agriculturalists and food activists highlight how communities are nourished and sustained by indigenous foods. Some of the highlights are how these crops provide nutrients and variety in people’s diets, as well as sustained economic activity in those communities.
Indigenous crops – in our context – are food crops that have their origin in South Africa or that were introduced into the country from elsewhere and have been naturalised. For example, the Cape gooseberry, which originated in Peru, is now considered a traditional South African fruit.
Urbanisation and the “western diet” have, to some extent, robbed us of great wisdom of and relationship with food. In most communities where food heritage is embraced, people recognise their unique cultural identity and they strongly self-identify as a result of their preserved culture. On the other hand, those communities who shy away from indigenous or traditional foods have generally seen an increase in diet-related illnesses and other health challenges.
“One of the greatest benefits of growing indigenous crops is that they are relatively adapted to the climate and land of the regions in which they grow naturally. For example, crops like millet and sorghum are more drought tolerant than maize. These crops are also able to give a good yield under low input conditions.” – Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Benefits of Consuming Indigenous Foods
From several research articles, it is evident that maintaining or incorporating a diet of indigenous foods has many benefits other than health. Indigenous people would perceive the concept of health in a holistic way, which included social, physical, emotional and spiritual foundations. When harmony and balance are achieved, health and wellbeing follows. Could Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have borrowed from the First peoples?
In addition to health and wellbeing, a diet of varied indigenous foods is relatively low in cost especially if you grow your own or buy from your local small-scale farmer. The traditions around seed exchange, planting and harvesting add to physical activity and socio-cultural activities, which brings people closer and provides a sense of community. These are all elements said to be beneficial to one’s emotional and mental state.
If the scientists are right about how Africa will be among the most hard-hit by the climate crisis, growing indigenous foods will place us in a better position where food security is concerned. Most indigenous crops grow naturally in the wild, so start foraging. “Indigenous crops are resistant to drought, pests and diseases, they are highly nutritious, require very little effort and they adapt very easily in marginal areas.” – Agribook
Although indigenous knowledge has been a taboo subject in some regards, it is slowly being taken seriously again and the onus is on us to make sure that it becomes topical and we use it for our mutual benefit. Let’s have conversations, seek information from our elders and start practicing indigenous knowledge. Try some of the indigenous foods in your region to increase the diversity of nutrients in your diet and help support agricultural communities around the country. Check out our article on Indigenous Foods that are Excellent for Health here.
Resources & Further Reading
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