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Heritage Foods Africa

To cultivate a new way of thinking about food in Tanzania that centers on the preservation of life and that celebrates its diversity.

Photo of Marlies Gabriel
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Heritage Foods Africa ("HFA")

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Many of our projects serve to connect stakeholders within the Tanzanian food supply chain, and we are eager to form collaborative relationships with outside organizations and institutions with a parallel purpose. Within our farm-to-table model, we work with a range of smallholder farming groups, many through Slow Foods Tanzania, as well as executive chefs and purchasing agents from leading lodge kitchens and restaurants. Because Tanzanian traditional foods are generally under-researched, we have partnered with the Nelson Mandela University, Tengeru, the University of Applied Sciences, Upper Austria, and the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, Heidenheim, to study farming practices, nutritional properties, product applications and pricing. To compose a novel collection of recipes and presentations, we collaborate with Zanzibar Gourmet for criticism. Our business and financial strategies have been developed under the mentorship of the Grameen Foundation and Capco.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

heritagefoodsafrica.com (landing page - website is currently in development)

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Moshi

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

The United Republic of Tanzania

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Eastern Arc Range of Northern Tanzania, following the Usambara and Pare Mountains, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru, and the Lake Zone.

What country is your selected Place located in?

The United Republic of Tanzania

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Though raised on a Namibian farm, I was drawn to Tanzanian soil. Within the stretch between two great mountains, Kilimanjaro and Meru, where elephants had long passed along an ancient corridor, my husband Joerg and I carefully built two accommodations, Hatari Lodge and Shu’mata Camp. Our aim was to complement the mountains’ atmospheric serenity, and we established our business to serve the land and its inhabitants as much as our guests.

Conservation increasingly moved to the center of our operational philosophy. We employed our resources to protect migrating elephants and worked with our neighbors to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts. At the same time, I invested in another place of personal joy, the kitchen, in order to compose a menu that celebrated Swahili cuisine.  Nearly four years ago, these two worlds merged into a concept we now call “Culinary Conservation” when I asked a question about an ingredient and received an exciting answer from the community.

Initially I queried our neighbors on the mountainside about any possible almond alternatives to reduce costs. They introduced me to “kweme” (or, oysternut), a nut extracted from the fruit of a vine on a forest tree. Kweme is an important traditional food source for mountain inhabitants yet is relatively unknown to those below its tree line. For countless years kweme harvests have been among a larger yield within an endemic system of agroforestry, placing its ancestral farmers at the origin of modern permaculture. And, kweme is both delicious and nutrient-rich.

Discovering a new food was exhilarating, but I was more impressed by the joy I observed when we shared a dish featuring kweme with friends from the community. There was an indelible sense of pride born out of the application of a cherished tradition to a modern recipe. We then committed to preserving indigenous foods in the region and to supporting farmers who are willing to continue practicing agroforestry.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Visitors to Northern Tanzania often describe an idyllic experience - its diverse landscapes are replete with distinct and memorable features. Inhabitants are able to enjoy this atmosphere as a normal part of life, with the extended benefit of becoming intimate with the fascinating details that appear in a landscape filled with natural and cultural wonders.

The Eastern Arc Range hosts an array of people groups, primarily dispersed across rural spans but also intermittently fused in small townships and cities. While each group possesses unique traditions and traditional languages, the population is remarkably united by a sense of “being Tanzanian” and by a shared tongue. Swahili culture is characteristically generous and inviting, though an appropriate reservation toward outsiders persists in memory of the colonial age. Nevertheless, members take great pride in their cultural practices and enjoy opportunities to extend their knowledge to contemporary applications.

For many, farming and food are at the center of their identity. Farming and livestock husbandry is a common profession, and food plays a significant role in ceremonial events, as well as in daily life. Meals are cooked in clay pots and roasted over coal. Fresh and nutty ingredients are mixed together, and often included in stock with bones and vegetables. Mealtime is an opportunity to replenish and to spend time together.

In financial terms, many residents live in poverty. While the country depends on rural farms for food production, most farmers survive on less than the equivalent of two dollars a day. Moreover, because of climate variation and unstable markets, even a modest income is unreliable. Many farmers have turned away from agroforestry in favor of single-crop shambas, perhaps in an effort to modernize. As a result, traditional methods and indigenous foods are being forgotten and malnutrition is becoming increasingly prevalent.

The youth are not typically energetic about agrarian pursuits; instead they dream of futures in business and technology. While this turn in ambition could very well lead to an underpowered farming community, there exists a greater opportunity. If a generation of students are able to access quality commercial and technical education, they may be just in time to revive and scale the agroforestry industry.

Distant from most global manufacturers and maintenance providers, Tanzanians are remarkably inventive. Whether from scratch or as a repair, many tools are customized for the specific needs of the farm. Similarly the business of smallholder farming is largely informal. The types of agreements, accounting, and analyses that are common to large-scale agriculture business are not often applied.

This type of approach has its benefits: farmers are able to work flexibly with other businesses and take advantage of cost-saving alternatives that have organically appeared in the current supply chain.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

14891

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

5379602

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The population of Tanzania is growing at a faster pace than the global rate, and the country will need to urgently address food production in order to feed its increasing citizenry.  Within the next thirty years, the current model, most noticeably operating on commercial interests, must be replaced by a more interdisciplinary approach.  New systems of production need to balance important social and environmental factors with the business of making food and need to take on the challenge of integrating modern technological tooling into traditional methods.

When compared to the global standard in terms of population, Tanzania underperforms in food production and trade value but exceeds in emissions.  This is a worst-case profile for an agrarian economy with already high percentages of undernourishment, malnourishment and poverty.  The causes of the present system failure stem from many sources, and we have gained some guiding insight in conversation with residents of the Eastern Arc Region who point to some significant elements, including the adoption of the single-crop farm, the absence of modern agriculture equipment, the abstract nature of scalable farming, ignorance about the harmful use of agricultural chemicals, and unfair distribution of value in the food supply chain.  There are many more aspects that demand consideration in the problem-solving process, but many are connected by a common theme: lack of access to information and resources.

Many farmers in the region, in a hurry to increase output and income, have forsaken traditional agroforestry methods in favor of a short-term fix.  Land is cleared, a staple row crop is planted, abundant synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are applied, and the soil is only given seasonal relief before the process renews.  The deleterious outcomes soon become apparent: farmers are tied to a single distant market, families can no longer benefit from a healthy subsistence diet, the agricultural products and the land are chemically compromised, the soil is quickly depleted and vulnerable to erosion, water caches are destroyed.  There are not many (or any) warning signs posted to inform farmers of these dangers - in fact, many are often mislead by short-sighted industry players.

Even if farmers were willing to return to a traditional model and were able to find fair market partners, efficiency and scalability would remain a towering challenge. The tools exist to handle these processes but they are often unavailable and expensive. Without access to capital, stakeholders will need to be creative in their alternative approaches. Furthermore that creativity must also be applied to the product itself as a mechanism of increasing value on the farming side of the exchange. For example, repurposing waste is a relevant and timely challenge that a generation of capable problem-solvers might be positioned to manage.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

To support meaningful change, we believe it is necessary to first address the way the people of Northern Tanzania think about food. Historically Tanzanian farms employed permaculture techniques, and households benefited from fresh, nutritious meals - a way of life that is becoming increasingly rare. It is an important time to remind farmers of their heritage and encourage communities to invest in their health and environment. We intend to re-introduce these practices by creating a modernized, scalable industry that will inform farmers through joint participation and invite consumers through fun, educational campaigns.

Change at a system level must also be bolstered by access to information and resources. In order for farming communities to accept the risk of adjusting their methods and products, the underlying logic and forward path must be clear and complete. The communication technologies that are often used to share and update information are not always present in rural areas, and we will need to be highly reactive to constraints. Furthermore our solutions must be supported by a resource catalogue that is available and affordable.

In order to understand the state of food production within a given area, we first conduct a community-level survey of food types, farm structures and agricultural technology. The results guide our general approach strategy and help us to identify farmers willing to focus on the cultivation of specific foods that are in demand for our consumer base.  Additionally we offer hands-on training, support, pricing calculators and productive feedback for groups in transition. These instances of agroforestry models will serve as proof-of-concept for neighbors who will need to see the environmental and earning benefits in order to take action themselves. Slow Foods Tanzania has already formed energetic cooperatives that we can learn from and work alongside as we pursue a project designed to discover and evaluate “lost” foods like kweme (the oysternut).

Processing plays an important role in making our “lost” foods accessible to the larger public. In the past, the necessary equipment was not available for breaking down raw products into flours, oils and other derivatives. By introducing modern equipment, farmers will be able to market products that appeal to consumers who must think in terms of cost and convenience. We anticipate broad adoption of products in both commercial, institutional and household kitchens, leading to more nutritious options for the broader population. As consumer habits continue to lean into ready-made snacks and mixes, we have the opportunity to offer timely collection of healthy choices.

Finally farmers need to access markets that are willing to pair fairly.  We have already established a presence in the trend-setting tourism industry, and will continue to make efforts toward local markets with context-driven strategies and the support of a population enthusiastic about the banner “Made in Tanzania”.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

By returning to an agroforestry model in the mountains and by introducing permaculture in the plains, we anticipate a future of secure habitats, healthy soils and replete water resources. Farmers will continue to deal with tough challenges related to pest and disease control, as well as climate variability, but from the best possible position and with the support of an informed community.

In the same mode, the farming family will be in good health. The evidence of a more nutritious diet will be most emphatically noticed amongst its most historically vulnerable members: children, now playful and eager to learn. Quality of life in the farming community will also be improved by increased earnings that better represent their contributions to the region’s (and nation’s) sustenance. The combination of a nutritious diet and stable economy will be an important first step in setting up future generations for success. 

The process itself - the practice of optimizing productivity and performance through careful planning - should also have a powerful effect on the systems thinking of farming groups.  Participants will be empowered within the food supply chain and will possess problem-solving skills that will enable them to better manage their work and engage in the business of agriculture. 

More broadly, we hope to see a shift in the way people think about food and its social and environmental impacts. Residents of Northern Tanzania should better understand the functional roles of nutrients in the body and their collective responsibility to mitigate the energy impact on the environment resulting from their survival needs.  Likewise leaders in different industries might realize the potential to apply these same principles to other manufacturing process.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our philosophy is wrapped around a self-invented phrase that connects the preparation of food with the preservation of life: “Culinary Conservation”.  We closely follow the food supply chain and consider its peripheral social and environmental outcomes in order to design systems that optimize productivity and improve performance without compromising core values.  Often our forward-thinking approach involves looking back to traditional practices that demonstrate valuable strategies for land use and product quality, among other important features.

If our approach is adopted and scaled, we believe that the momentum will encourage other members within the food production industry to initiate similar programs. Alternatively, organizations may pursue different approaches that lead to important advances in the field. The task of feeding a large population of people is ambitious and only achievable through remarkable collaboration. Participants must set aside proprietary notions and pursue open exchanges of research and information.

We have had the opportunity to share modern dishes with traditional ingredients like kweme (or the oysternut) with members of the community where these foods are grown. The flavors and fullness of the meal are made complete by a powerful expression of pride. In this way, food can transcend the sensory and become an expression of culture. By returning these “lost” foods to farms, kitchens and markets throughout the region, we believe that experience will invite farmers, chefs and consumers to reconnect with their heritage and with the underlying harmony between humanity and nature within a responsibly-managed farm.

The mountains of the Eastern Arc Range host a range of different terrains along their slopes that must be managed differently. By connecting to historical methodologies and by defining helpful applications of new technologies, we believe that farmers will be able to prepare context-specific farming arrangements that align with the features of the environment.  Within a thirty year span, the scattered patches of treeless, depleted earth can be repaired and renewed. This is a critical time to maintain the mountainside water caches and biotopes that support life for millions of people and many more other living things.

Farmers also deserve to be recognized as the region’s providers. If myths about farming as a simple service are dispelled, consumers will be inspired to champion the smart farmer, and farmers will be emboldened to champion the smart farm. The profession should be viewed as a technical and interdisciplinary field, and educational resources should be invested in support of layered competence. Furthermore, farmers must improve their income in order to reinvestment in their business and their family’s future. Higher quality raw and processed products should improve the farmer’s power and position within the value chain. As consumers and other members within the industry become increasingly aware of the farmer’s role and challenge, we hope they will likewise welcome a movement in favor of the farming community’s success.

As a bridge between the farmer and the kitchen, the industry must embrace modern machinery that makes transformations of the raw product possible. Restaurants are looking for recipe-ready offerings, like flours and oils, that maintain the sensory and nutritional value of the original form. Similarly non-farming residents are buying pantry products that meet criteria of comfort (i.e., familiarity), convenience (i.e. ease of use) and cost (i.e., affordability). Processing will be an important system to develop in order to support increased demand for traditional foods. For some foods, particularly staple foods, some of the processing methods employ unhealthy additives, like preservatives - we hope that processing facilities around the area will also adopt a new way of thinking in order to keep their products as fresh as possible.

Chefs are profoundly impactful leaders and trendsetters in the food industry. Fresh products are attractive to cooks for several reasons, including the most obvious: meals taste better and diners feel better afterwards. Our engagement with the leading executive chefs from safari lodges in the Serengeti and other popular tourist destinations are the most eager voices about the work we do. They want to move away from imported tins and introduce their guest to authentic Swahili flavors. Because so many Tanzanians are involved in the travel industry, the style and ingredients influence local restaurants and procurement markets.  We hope to appeal to every modern chef so that they can become models for household cooking style.

To equip food producers and chefs to take on new foods and new recipes, we have created a special educational project called the African Peoples Cooking School (“APCS”). We plan to build a facility where program participants can learn how to research food as an object and how to apply their work to a successful recipe. Supplementary coursework includes interdisciplinary work in business management, human health, and other related disciplines. The space and network of professionals should engender something similar to a creative community that is working together as part of a larger movement within the food history of Tanzania. Furthermore APCS is a place for stakeholders from all parts of the supply chain. We believe understand best when exposed to the full system, and we also believe our platform needs to be shaped by different voices in the industry.

The problems we choose to take on are not part of a prefabricated list of good ideas. Our workflow is responsive to specific needs that are introduced by people working in the food industry.  We speak with as many people and partners as possible in order to understand the question, and when we propose solutions, we test them with the same measure of attention. Often a collection of use cases allows us to observe a concept that we can abstract for applications to other problems. 

Kweme (the oysternut) was the first “lost” food we encountered: we initiated an iterative research process that helped us to identify some promising starting points for implementation in commercial kitchens.  Impressed by our rigor, a new assistant, Jesca from Bukoba, appeared at the office in Moshi with a food that she called “the kweme of our region”: bambara, a nut from the acacia bush grown in arid soils. Jesca contacted her sister who mobilized women in the community to collect a hundred kilograms for us to purchase for research.  We discovered quickly that it was high in plant-based protein, had no exposure to fertilizers or pesticides, and that it tastes delicious when roasted or grounded into flour.  Presently we are continuing to research bambara as a compound, but we hope that this anecdote will become recurring event in our organizational structure. Organizational leaders need to be accessible and must listen much more than they speak.

There are, of course, appropriate times for an organization to share information and to give instruction.  Clarity and completeness are germane features for communication that involves stakeholders with different educational and cultural backgrounds and that involves trust. In other words, we need to use language and media that are accessible to everyone, and we need to practice complete transparency and present competing views. This type of dialogue, if consistent from the farm to the table, may prove to be an important strategy to bring confidence to the community that has become reasonably confused about fundamental questions, “Who? What? When? Where? Why?”.

The most positive outcome for our organization is that we will become of many.  Our priority is to serve people, the land and all of its living inhabitants first and in a manner that makes the cyclic nature of energy and nutrients apparent and inspiring. Food should be a source of joy, and we hope to discover a deeply satisfied community in 2050. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Slow Food Newsletter

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