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SANKOFA: EMBRACING THE PAST FOR THE FUTURES OF FOOD SECURITY

Updated: 3 days ago

By Fisayo Oyewale

As our world grapples with a growing population, economic volatility, and the looming threat of climate change, the issue of food security is as much of global concern as it is a personal one — touching each of our lives intimately. In a bid to meet rising food needs and to address these challenges, various approaches have been proposed from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to advanced agronomic techniques, often prioritizing quantity over quality. Yet, amidst all of these modern solutions, there remains a critical oversight: localization.  


LOCALIZATION

Localization refers to the process of tailoring solutions or interventions to address specific needs and challenges. It involves translating ideas or solutions originally designed for a particular group, while actively engaging with that group to incorporate their insights and expertise, thereby empowering them with agency in the process. 


However, when we discuss localization, it is frequently misinterpreted as just the importation of external ideologies, solutions, and technologies, into a different environment without the consideration and inclusion of the targeted group. This notion proposes a savior metaphor, overlooking the critical knowledge of the indigenous peoples who live these realities on a day-to-day basis. 


Without a deeper reflection on the role traditional knowledge plays in addressing contemporary challenges, opportunities for holistically tackling these issues are often missed out on. As such, in our pursuit of novel solutions, the wealth of wisdom embedded in our histories is neither accounted for nor accommodated. In these histories, there are indigenous knowledge that has guided farming practices leading to quality farm produce and a harmonious relationship with the environment. Traditional farming practices, passed down through generations, offer insights into sustainable approaches that prioritize not only production but also the well-being of the environment and communities. Yet, the emphasis in contemporary discourse often skews towards optimizing processes and maximizing resources, neglecting the vital role of farmers as stewards of the land. This often makes me wonder and imagine a future where technology doesn’t exist or gets to the edge of extremity — what would we do differently within the food system?


As we explore the futures of food, it is essential to question the dominance of scientific research as the sole authority of credible knowledge. We must and need to ask ourselves: Whose voices are missing in the discussions on food decision-making, and how can we ensure inclusivity?


THE WAIT FOR THE SAVIOR

Farming, whether cultivating crops or tending to animals, was formerly considered a noble profession as proceeds from the practice contributed to the sustenance of humanity. Growing up in a community surrounded by household farmers in Ede, Osun State, Nigeria, I also saw farming as an integral way of life. My family had a backyard farm where we planted vegetables, cowpeas, cassava, cocoyam, fruits, and sometimes mushrooms. All we needed to do was weed the garden and apply animal dung — as manure. It was a purely organic farm.


This also was the practice of other family farmers and we could save seeds from the previous harvest to plant the following year. 


Several years later, I began my soybean farming on 10,000㎡ plot as an agriculture student and the practice was completely different. As opposed to farming organically, I had to buy treated seeds, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and several other chemicals. This was because indigenous seeds were no longer on market shelves. Improved seeds that could not be planted in subsequent years due to low viability now filled those shelves instead. Despite following the manufacturer’s application rate for inorganic fertilizers, such as NPK, every other year, I needed to increase my application rate of fertilizers. For instance, the purchase of 25 kilograms of fertilizers in the first year of planting meant, 35-40 kilograms the second year. This, in turn, began to affect soil structures and more importantly, the microorganisms within the soil, making the land less arable to further support crop farming. 


Interestingly, I had fallen into the box of productivity without minding the environmental impact, like most farmers. Meeting with other small-scale farmers, they explained how support organizations, startups, input providers, and supposed experts were quick to disregard some of their indigenous practices, tagging them as unfashionable and imposing foreign interventions such as farm inputs.  Many of these interventions didn’t take into consideration the farmer and their indigenous, yet innovative, practices creating a problem-solution misfit; causing more harm than good. In addition, these foreign solutions now required that the farmers to depend on genetically grown inputs, causing heavy reliance on the manufacturers, leading to the lack of agencies for these farmers and trapping them in short-termism.


SANKOFA: FOCUSING ON THE PARAMOUNT BY LOOKING TO THE PAST

Sankofa (SAHN-koh-fah) is symbolized by a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward while its head is effortlessly turned backward to reach an egg — is a Twi word from the Akan Tribe of Ghana that loosely translates “go back and get it.” Its literal translation comes from the Akan proverb, "Se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenkyiri," meaning, "It is not taboo to go back for what you forgot (or left behind)." 

Sankofa is a phrase that encourages learning from the past to inform the future, reaching back to move forward, and lifting as we climb. Within the food system, looking to the past for food practices, indigenous resilient seeds, and agronomic practices that are considered old might be a way forward in addressing food challenges.


Oftentimes, when the discourse on food futures or food systems is had, the emphasis is on food production, emerging technology, and efficiencies, but rarely on the core producers of the food, particularly at the grassroots. This led me to design foresight processes for smallholder farmers and other grassroots stakeholders. Using some foresight methodologies such as 200-year present and visioning exercises, all outputs pointed to looking to the past as a way forward. Going by the outputs of this exercise, GMOs were seen in an undesirable future, which indicates that we might be headed towards modern dystopia if we continue with the current trends in the food ecosystem. This also challenged the idea of expertise in food and agriculture, again pointing towards the gap that exists in being able to achieve desirable food futures.


CO-CREATING DESIRABLE FUTURES THROUGH INCLUSIVE LOCALIZATION

As we puzzle ourselves with questions on addressing current environmental and food challenges, it is imperative to ask: What truly constitutes the futures of food and our food systems, and who are the stewards of these futures? If you can recall a food or crop in your culture that is no longer in existence or almost extinct, then it is time to act.


Going forward in exploring the futures of food, foresight methods also need to be simple and adaptable enough to accommodate indigenous knowledge. This can be a step forward in beginning to find and embrace lost treasures of the past which are key to unlocking the future of food and its prosperity. By embracing the wisdom of our past understanding and appreciating proven practices such as Sankofa, we may find innovative solutions that not only sustain us but also honor the resilience of those who came before us.


 

Fisayo Oyewale is a futurist, an agriculturist, and a Youth Foresight Senior Fellow at UNICEF, where she contributes to meaningful youth engagement, process design, and supporting 12 youth fellows globally. As an independent consultant, she specializes in food systems, technology, and youth engagement, collaborating with nonprofits and multilateral organizations to drive positive change.


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