The Food Security Myth: Struggle Toward Food Sovereignty in Benin

Segnide J. Guidimadjegbe
Oregon State University

I was born and raised in Benin, a West African Country that is used to be called “Dahomey.” Very young, my sibling and I were introduced to growing food crops just like the other young people since approximately 80% of households were involved in farming to some degree. Thinking about it today, I am incapable of describing the joy, the excitement, and satisfaction I felt those days seeing my crops on the farm. The geographical position of Benin and its climatic conditions had always favored crop production. A variety of crops were produced for food, such as maize, black-eyed peas (cowpeas), and tubers, as well as some export crops such as palm oil, palm kernel and shea. I would not be exaggerating to say that those days were the best time of my life. My early exposure to farming ignited my interest in studying agricultural systems in Africa south of the Sahara.

Yam tubers. Photo by author.

In Benin society, there is a very thin line between our cultural identities and diets. Whether one is located in the south, center, or north of the country, crop productions are intrinsically associated with belief, ancestral practices, and nutritional values. Cowpea and yam represent important crops in diverse communities in Benin, far beyond their economic values. According to Zannou et al. these crops were used in different socio-cultural rites such as Fâ, Egungun, devotion to ancestral spirits, and vodoun ceremonies. These practices around specific food crops represent the essence of communities in Benin’s different localities. The organization and animation of communities revolve around the identities each member claims. These rites and ceremonies demand certain dispositions which confer responsibility to particular genders, age groups, and families. This type of duty sharing constitutes a cement that creates, sustains, and strengthens social networks and cohesion of community throughout the country. Communities express pride in their identities through participation in annual festivals organized by diverse ethnic groups. We can think of Gaani, Mahi-houindo, Nonvitcha in the north, center, and south of the country respectively. These festivals are occasions that bring community members (living in Benin or abroad) together annually. Families and communities reunite and redefine priorities and strengthen values that have characterized them for generations.

During their research on cassava importance for vulnerable populations in Benin in 2014, Haggblade et al. found that crops are transformed in different ways depending on the diets. For instance, we use maize flour to make dough to eat with okra, peanut, tomato, and spinach soups. Likewise, a mix of cooked fresh maize and black-eyed pea grains are used by some communities during their ancestor ceremonial rites. Black-eyed peas are present in almost every locality in Benin and constitutes an essential protein source for communities.  It is also omnipresent in indigenous religious, and divinity rites as food for gods. In addition to its everyday nutritional uses—boiled, deep-fried, grilled, pounded—yam is essential for annual ceremonies related to the divinity Fâ. This food tradition that used to sustain community stability has been challenged within the last decades by the government’s agricultural policies. Benin’s agricultural development policies have been crafted on the African Green Revolution principles— private agribusiness firms, monoculture, improved seeds, mechanization, farms expansion, chemical fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide inputs. Well financed organizations—Dangote, Rockefeller, Gates—and international institutions—African Development Bank, World Bank—consider it the only path out of poverty and food insecurity in the Sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, when a Sub-Saharan country opts for these farming practices, it is practically guaranteed to receive enough funds from these organizations to invest in cash crop production. Benin has gone down that road with cotton production and is the top producer in West Africa today. In addition, Benin’s president recently announced the transfer of 500,000 ha to industrialized cash crop production, notably cotton and cashew, over the next five years, 2021-2026.

Wassa Wassa.   Photo by Mindea Guidimadjegbe.

Many studies have found that the introduction of intensive farming practices lead to decreases in crop diversity, low economic stability, less interactions between social groups, decreased ties to the community, and loss of social identity (see Goldschmidt 1947; Richards 1985; and Amanor 1994). This has been true for Benin’s agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods. Past colonial laws and policies not only impoverished the crop diversity in Benin, but also interfered with people’s eating habits. Some foods such as ‘wassa wassa’ (yam flour based couscous), ‘lêlê’ (made from black-eyed peas paste), and ‘adjagbé’ (made from black-eyed peas and leaves) became rare as they were considered old-fashioned, not compatible with high social status. Due to these new perceptions, families had to modify traditional recipes to please their children and grandchildren who have already lost ties with their cultural identity (Muchnik 2002). ‘Sodabi,’ (local alcohol) that used to be exclusively distilled from palm tree sap is now distilled from imported sugars because cotton production has taken over much of the land where palm trees used to grow. The loss of traditional values and degradation of social networks are perceptible today due to modernity and market pressures.

Lêlê.  Photo by Mindea Guidimadjegbe.

While studying cash crops and farmers’ welfare in Senegal in 2017, Tankari found that governmental investment and support for cash crops keeps farmers and the population as a whole in poverty. This seems to be the fate waiting for Benin’s farmers in the near future with the governmental choice of promoting and supporting cash crop productions. Because culture and economy are tied to the environment, the increase in land allocated to these cash crops risks leading to two major issues. 1) Deforestation causing extirpation of flora and fauna which would result in lack of medicinal and food plants and animal protein sources communities rely on and, 2) An increase in the use of chemical inputs resulting in water contamination, posing serious public health issues, not only at the local level but also at the national and international levels through transboundary water flows. The expansion of cotton production has been shown to be detrimental to food crop availability in Benin. Since cash crop prices hardly give sufficient purchasing power to farmers, rural communities struggle to afford the exorbitant cost of imported food and are increasingly at risk of food insecurity and famine, especially during unanticipated crises. For instance, Tougan et al. assert that the undesirable level of food insecurity observed between 2000-2019 in Benin was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They estimate that up to 80% of households surveyed experienced some sort of challenge accessing safe food and eating adequately.

Do I lose hope in the safeguarding and revitalization of socio-cultural identity in Benin? Will communities be capable of reclaiming their identity tied to their food system? I believe there is still hope. Godfrey Nzamujo’s effort at Songhai Centre—an institution that has dedicated its existence to training youth on methods that enhance their locality’s resources by improving production while respecting booth the environment and the local culture—is a good reason. And growing activism initiatives such as FAEB pressuring the government to integrate agroecological and sustainable food production practices into the elaboration, adoption and implementation of national agricultural policies shows faith in the future. I think it would be wise for my country’s government to redefine its agricultural policies, thinking more about the socio-cultural, historical, and structural realities of its people. The food security we are expecting cannot be reached without food sovereignty. The Benin government should think carefully and holistically about the wellbeing of its population before implementing policies that harm rural communities and decrease food sovereignty.

References

Amanor, Kojo. 1994. The new frontier: Farmer responses to land degradation: A West African study. Geneva: London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: UNRISD; Zed Books.

Goldschmidt, Walter R. 1947. As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. Montclair, N.J: Allanheld, Osmun and Co. Publishers, Inc.

Haggblade, Steven, Abdramane Traoré, Bio G. Soulé, Faridath Aboudou, Sanni Gansari, Moubarakatou Tassou, and Joël D. Yallou. 2014. “Promotion d’une Chaîne de Valeur Inclusive: Perspectives et potentialités Du Manioc Au Benin.”  Food Security Collaborative Policy Briefs 211445, Michigan State University, Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics.

Muchnik, Jose. 2002. “Recherches et societes alimentation, savoir-faire et Innovations agro-alimentaires en Afrique de l’Ouest.” Oléagineux Corps Gras Lipides 9 (6): 439–44. https://doi.org/10.1051/ocl.2002.0439.

Richards, Paul. 1985. Indigenous agricultural revolution: Ecology and food production in West Africa. London: Boulder, Westview Press.

Tankari, M. Roufahi. 2017. “Cash crops reduce the welfare of farm households in Senegal.” Food Security 9 (5): 1105-115. doi: 10.1007/s12571-017-0727

Tougan, U. Polycarpe, Eléonore Yayi-Ladekan, Ibrahim Imorou-Toko, Detondji C. Guidime, and André Thewis. 2019. “Dietary behaviors, food accessibility, and handling practices during SARS-cov-2 pandemic in Benin.” The North African Journal of Food and Nutrition Research 4 (10): S8–S18. https://doi.org/10.51745/najfnr.4.10.S8-S18

Zannou, A, R. C. Tossou, S Vodouhè, P. Richards, P. C. Struik, J. Zoundjihékpon, A. Ahanchédé, and V. Agbo. 2007. “Socio-cultural factors influencing and maintaining yam and cowpea diversity in Benin.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5 (2-3): 140–60. doi. https://doi.org/10.1080/14735903.2007.9684819

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