Part II: Food sovereignty and security

In Zimbabwe, 1.6 million are estimated to be dependent on food aid and 34% are considered ‘chronically malnourished’.[1]  The main staple diet for the bulk of the population consists of maize meal gruel (sadza) served with a side relish of meat (usually beef, goat or chicken) or vegetables (usually chomolelia/rape or similar leafy green).  Tomatoes, onions, beans and cabbage tend to be available to buy via town markets all year round.  Around harvest time, various pumpkins and squash, sweet potatoes, ground nuts and fruits are also plentiful. During ‘hunger time’, many of the poorer folk in the rural areas subsist on one or two meals a day, typically of sadza with a dried leafy green vegetable. There is much contrast in food access and diversity between different areas of the country and between the urban and rural.  In towns, since 2009, shops stock a plentiful supply of bread, sugar, tinned and dried goods, imported fruits, vegetables and dairy.  In some areas (e.g. near Lake Kariba), fish is cheap and available. Much of the fresh produce, besides meat, is imported from South Africa. Access to food is dependent on access to cash and with between 60 and 90% (depending on the source) estimated to be unemployed, many rely on remittances from family members working outside of the country.

In this context, ‘food security’ has been high on the donor agenda.  Food security is generally defined as a condition where “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (World Food Summit 1996). This has indeed been a primary goal of most of the small agrofood projects that I have thus far visited in Zimbabwe. Generating a stable source of nutrition for a particular community was high on the agenda of all concerned, given the spiralling high levels of food insecurity since the mid-2000s.  This insecurity was generally explained by a decreased access to cash and increasing prices, rather than a decline in agricultural productivity or produce available to buy. Belonging to a community garden project, such as Mpumelelo or Mountain of Hope, is therefore primarily an ‘alternative’ to food insecurity; an ‘alternative’ to going hungry. By corollary, it is also an alternative to dependency on the capitalist food economy (from which many already have been marginalised through a lack of purchasing power).

The community gardens provide participating members with a regular supply of fresh vegetables for home consumption and therefore address household food insecurity in an effective way, (although cash is often still required for purchase of grain meal).  Multiple ‘sustainability’ strategies including conservation farming (Hlekweni, River of Hope), permaculture (Mpumelelo, PORET), and organic farming (Mountain of Hope) are underway at these gardens, depending on the agenda of the support organisation.  But in my mind, what was interesting was a consciousness of the significance of taking control of (part of) one’s own food supply chain.  Whereas a concern solely with food security could render these gardens obsolete once the cash income of participants rises (so that they no longer have difficulty in accessing the market economy), a concern with self-determination of the food supply chain shifts the terrain of meaning and renders the garden a political act; (political in the sense of intervening in power relations). I argue in this essay that a consciousness of self-determination and intervention in the food supply chain contributes to making such projects more socially and therefore holistically sustainable.

The search for self-determination and power over what you eat can be thought of in terms of ‘food sovereignty’. This has been defined as ‘the right of people to produce, distribute and consume healthy food in or near their territory in an ecologically sustainable manner’ (Altieri and Toledo 2011, 588). Food sovereignty emphasises local autonomy, local markets, [and] local production-consumption cycles (ibid., 607).  In the cases visited here, this emerging search for food sovereignty often presented itself in response to the debilitating experience of facing food insecurity and being dependent on external food aid. But in other cases, it was also connected to concerns over food safety. Didymus Taruvinga, lead farmer at the Mountain of Hope project, spoke of concerns over the effect of pesticide application on the nutritional qualities of food: “We realised that the chemicals which is [sic] being used …during the production of carrots is going to give after-effects to the … people who consume”. Their organic farming project thus actively countered this concern and gave participants a sense of empowerment and self-determination over the safety and quality of their food. Belinda Sparrow-Smith’s organic lettuce project also communicated the importance of food sovereignty for her, as she talked to me about the high levels of cancer in the area, the possible connection to the high rates of pesticide and herbicide applications by conventional growers and the use of unclean water. “I wouldn’t eat their tomatoes”, she said.  Taking control of her family’s food intake, mobilising different (organic) quality conventions, is an act of asserting food sovereignty.

So food sovereignty is not just having about power and control per se; it is more than this. It is about the power to intervene in specific and personal ways, with social conventions and political economies that govern food production and distribution systems at large. The intervention may be small and inconsequential to the system, but this is not necessarily the point.  That said, these localised assertions of food sovereignty sometimes do make incursions into the wider food economy. For example, Belinda’s organic lettuce is now to be found on the shelves of Food Lovers Market, available to anyone who cares to take an interest and pay the small premium over the neighbouring ‘non-organic’ lettuce on the shelf.  It is a shame that the retailer does not take any responsibility to educate shoppers on what it means that this particular lettuce is ‘organic’. Without sharing the knowledge of how the product is grown, sovereignty over food choices cannot be shared/extended.

So food sovereignty is also about ‘food knowledge’; either knowing and growing your own food or, codifying such knowledge through certification schemes and branding such as the FairTrade label or here in Zimbabwe, the ZimOrganic label. Such codifying strategies are dependent on trust between the consumer and all other actors along the food supply chain, which is quite difficult to generate in Zimbabwe due to the paucity of general consumer standards and monitoring organisations. Here then, food sovereignty is especially connected to participating directly in food production or at least witnessing it first-hand.

In Harare, others are taking up this concern, criticising standard agricultural conventions and making broader interventions in food supply chains.  ZOPPA recently created the ZimOrganic label and protocol and are actively pursuing an agenda of public education, farmer monitoring and the setting of legally binding standards, thereby attempting to generate awareness and trust throughout the certified organic food supply chain.  The Mountain of Hope farmers in Wedza, facilitated by ZOPPA and Fambidzanai Training Centre, have adopted the ZimOrganic scheme to certify their produce under these international organic standards.

I only visited ‘successful’ community garden projects thus far, so cannot draw solid conclusions as to the importance of food sovereignty to the sustainability of community gardens, but it would be interesting to know if projects that do not endure are characterised by a lack of concern for food sovereignty.  I suspect this is the case. It is important to also remember that an interest in food sovereignty often  interacts with gender relations; women are usually the main participants of community gardens and if they are providing their own vegetables, they do not have to ask for money (usually from a male) to buy them. This gendered aspect of self-determination and independence is, in itself, enough to make a project more durable and resilient.

References and key readings, Part II

African Union (2006) Status of food security and prospects for agricultural development in Africa. African union: Addis Ababa.

Altieri, M.A. (2009) Agroecology, small farms and food sovereignty. Monthly Review 61: 3, 102-111.

Altieri, M.A. and Toledo, V. (2011) The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38 (3), 587-612.

Altieri, M.A., P. Rosset and L.A. Thrupp (1998) The potential of agroecology to combat hunger in the developing world, 2020 Brief, IFPRI: Washington DC.

Benson, T. (2004) Africa’s food and nutrition security situation: where are we now and how did we get here? 2020 Discussion Paper No 37, IFPRI: Washington DC.

Bolwig, S., M. Odeke and P. Gibbon (2007) Household food security effects of certified organic production in tropical Africa: a gendered analysis, EPOPA.

FAO (2005) The state of food insecurity in the world. Rome: FAO.

Nyoni, D. (2008) The organisation of rural associations for progress, Zimbabwe: self-reliance for sustainability. Gatekeeper 137d. International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED)

Perfecto, I., J. Vandermeer and A. Wright (2009) Nature’s matrix: linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty,  London: Earthscan.

Pimbert, M. (2009) Towards food sovereignty: reclaiming autonomous food systems, Gatekeeper 141, International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED).

Rosegrant, M.W., S.A. Cline, W. Li, T.B. Sulser and V. Valmonte-Santos (2005) Looking ahead: long-term prospects for Africa’s agricultural development and food security. Discussion Paper 41, IFPRI: Washington DC.

Rosset, P.M. (2009) Food sovereignty in Latin America: confronting the new crisis.  NACLA Report on the Americas. May-June, 16-21.

UK Food Group (2010) Securing future food: towards ecological food provision. UK Food Group Briefing. Available from:

UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity Building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development (2008) Organic agriculture and food security in Africa. New York and Geneva: United Nations Publication.

UNICEF (2013) Building a Zimbabwe fit for children, last accessed 10th August 2013

ZOPPA website: last accessed 10th August 2013.


[1] UNICEF, 2013