Editorial Comment: Innovative research needed to create decent living standards

30 Nov, 2021 - 00:11 0 Views
Editorial Comment: Innovative research needed to create decent living standards

The Herald

One of the major drives of the Second Republic is pushing very hard on economic development by finding ways to gather and process local resources, this having a multitude of advantages, with the major ones being that people make money by doing this, jobs are created and wealth starts flowing.

President Mnangagwa, who travels around the country quite a bit in the course of his duties, keeps seeing opportunities in the form of partially harvested natural fruits, partially harvested other edible or flavouring plants and the like. Some people scratch a living by gathering a few buckets of these products and bringing them to urban markets in a bus, useful but not exactly organised or likely to bring in serious money.

The President puts the pressure on the new practical research centres he has already ordered the State universities to set up, and incidentally has put into competition with each other, in the rather sensible policy of connecting some of Zimbabwe’s finest minds trained in scientific and marketing concepts with Zimbabwe’s resources and local markets and tastes, and not forgetting community knowledge and skills. He did this last week at Midlands State University.

And when people come up with a good idea the Government is interested in finding the extra resources, largely seed money to establish the viability and profitability of the concept, with the commercial development and exploitation then becoming an obvious follow on using private investment and private business.

One curious problem is that a lot of people rarely look beyond the already commercialised food products and what amounts to a very small number of commercially grown and exploited crops and fruit trees. Even in a particular crop the genetic diversity still sitting there is rarely exploited and consumers tend to be equally unwilling often to try new things.

To take one example, the sorghums and millets and other traditional grains. These are indigenous to Africa, which not only means that they evolved on the continent but that a lot of the original domestication and variety selection was done on the continent. Commercial exploitation has tended to concentrate on a handful of varieties, often those that have been pushed to give the highest yields, without examining other factors such as taste, appearance and the like.

Although work is in progress with some success to have these grains become more acceptable, once again, as a standard food item on most kitchen shelves a lot of knowledge, and probably a lot of varieties, have been lost over the last century since maize became the staple diet rather than a special treat.  To take just one curious result, almost all the traditional beer now drunk in Zimbabwe, and particularly urban Zimbabwe, is a single brand made from a single variety of grain. Yet one would have expected, considering the popularity of the product, perhaps a handful of producers brewing for the mass market, each product subtly different in taste, plus some smaller-scale producers putting special effort into luxury recipes that could even be exported.

Local fruit varieties, and even the pre-colonial localised imported varieties, are often seen as second best compared to varieties imported in more recent decades and now grown almost as a monoculture. One example of what should be going on is an imported fruit, apples, where a reasonable semi-luxury store will have well over a dozen varieties as a matter of course but probably no examples of an indigenous fruit, let alone a dozen different varieties.

You can get this in other products. Many people from parts of China and parts of Europe are horrified to find there are just two types of mushroom on most supermarket shelves. Specialist shops on both continents will, in season, be selling several dozen types of gathered wild mushrooms,, a good example of seasonal income for rural families.

And then you can find all the other ordinary and luxury goods, right the way up to some very expensive liqueurs and some rather fancy dishes served at, say, a Chinese banquet or on sale in a local French delicatessen, to take examples from two countries where people take variety of food seriously. 

Very often a lot of experimentation over centuries was needed to create these new products, starting with what small communities were already using, then selecting carefully for variety and undergoing experimentation and creating new recipes. 

Even when we come to traditional medicine there has been lamentably little research and all too often there is a rigid divide between scientific medicine and traditional medicine, with the traditional herbalists often in competition and being very secretive. Yet research could very often unlock what are the active ingredients in these products and figure out ways of better processing that remove what could be toxins, or at least the bits that could cause other health problems. 

One of Zimbabwe’s top physicians, the late Professor Micheal Gelfand, was fascinated by the potential that existed and did a lot of backbreaking research in at least listing the products while urging others to start doing the pharmacology and medical research. We still have little idea of what is hidden in some of those market stalls and some could be real gold, and not just for the concerns that do the processing but for farmers who then start growing the plants commercially to provide the raw materials.

For rural producers we need to move away from the idea that rural resident grows a bit of grain, some beans and cotton, from commercially supplied seed, and keeps a few goats, chickens and cows. This will lift such farmers out of poverty, but not do much more. But once they are growing, or harvesting sustainably from the wild, a few dozen products over the long rotation of the seasons then we start getting far more security and far more wealth. 

But this requires processing plants, applied research, creation of markets and the like, in fact just what the President has ordered.

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