The Sting

26 Jan 2005

During the selection process for Terra Madre — the event which gathered 5,000 representatives of food-producing communities from around the world in Turin in October 2004 — Kenya was one of the countries visited. We took a three-hour trip from Nairobi, skirting the edge of the Rift Valley in a landscape of green valleys and lakes between Nakuru and Molo. It rains nearly every day here and banana plantations give way to crops such as corn.

In this area, an international association, NECOFA (Network for Ecofarming in Africa), which has a network of projects spread over 10 African countries, is involved with the local community in protecting and promoting the nettle. The nettle is a neglected plant: recent generations have allowed its old uses as a food and drink — such as nettle tea and infusions — to be forgotten. The plant is not only of interest as a food but also has great potential as a medicinal herb, for example to strengthen the bones of old people and children or as a treatment for diabetes.

What is interesting is the model they have adopted, given that they are faced with a situation in Africa where the top priority is to maintain, if not increase, productivity and yields. People and organizations studying what are the best products to grow and where market opportunities lie, closely cooperate with those addressing environmental issues, such as the COFEG (Community Food and Environment Group).

When we visited the community we saw a large vegetable garden which was being used both as an active seed bank to reproduce seeds for distribution to local farmers, and to test whether plants can adapt to the local conditions. They are also undertaking food education programs in schools, particularly High Schools, using recipes based on nettles mixed with a variety of beans and local African leafy vegetables. There are 330 farmers growing nettles in an area with a population of about 8000 people.

The work done by local people in the fields, schools and families aims to promote the use of nettles following the principles of active biodiversity. This means, for example, that a field of corn planted on a steep slope which tended to erode and slip at the bottom can be stabilized and the soil improved by planting nettles at its base. It is an intelligent way of optimally using natural resources.

Local people face a situation where there is little land available — when family land is passed to the next generation, it is divided up among all the descendants, resulting in significant fragmentation of land holdings. Some of the population cannot make a living and are driven to the city, while those left have to find practical solutions to environmental problems.

The cultivation of nettles and their use in local recipes has now become a symbol of local identity and environmental protection, just as the novelty of food from the city tends to exert an “exotic appeal in reverse” for children. The many people coming to Terra Madre in October are beginning to be identified — the people I would call the real “agricultural experts”, whether fishermen, nomads, small farmers or producers of beer. I wonder what they will tell each other, the insect-eating women from Burkina Faso, the cattle-herding Masai from Tanzania, the grape producers from Afghanistan? How much will they be able to learn and share with each other? This time they will be the protagonists and standard-bearers for the biodiversity originating from their land, their products and their cultures.

First printed in La Stampa on July 19 2004

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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