Three new Presidia created at the end of 2023
Three new Presidia for two heirloom banana varieties cultivated in Kenya and a local Ugandan chicken breed were officially launched in the past few weeks, demonstrating the important work being done by Slow Food and the vitality of its network in East Africa. The Presidia are part of Slow Food's global project to transform the crops and varieties that represent at-risk biodiversity into agroecological food systems.
Across the world, biodiversity is disappearing, depleting our resources and weakening our resilience to the climate crisis. In East Africa, the banana offers an eloquent example of this problem. Just one cultivar, Cavendish, accounts for 99% of the global banana industry, but Cavendish is a cloned fruit, embraced by our industrialized food system because of its uniformity. The Cavendish now finds itself under threat from the fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis, a pathogen that causes black leaf streak, also known as black sigatoka. The disease adversely affects the crop, drastically reducing its yield and shelf life. And if all the banana trees in a grove are identical, all are at risk.
"For hundreds of years, farmers have selected and preserved different varieties of bananas and plantains, all with distinctive fragrances, flavors and social and cultural uses. This diversity underpins our food sovereignty, which is why it's important to support the farming communities that are protecting and defending it," comments Edward Mukiibi, Slow Food's international president. "If we move towards uniformity, monoculture and standardization, then fruit species can and will disappear, reducing ecosystemic resilience to climatic stress, pests and diseases."
It is therefore no coincidence that the two new Kenyan Slow Food Presidia (bringing the country's total to 11) are dedicated to two varieties of banana, Gitogo Kiiru and Mutahato.
The Gitogo Kiiru banana thrives in the fertile, well-drained loam soils of Central Kenya's Kirinyaga county. It faces the threat of extinction as cultural erosion has resulted in the loss of knowledge related to its cultivation among younger generations. The emergence of tissue culture has prompted the adoption of quicker-ripening hybrid varieties, overshadowing traditional ones. The Presidium is committed to helping producers to safeguard this native banana type and transmitting knowledge about its cultivation."
The banana cultivar is on the verge of disappearing from our food systems," says Charles Macharia, coordinator of the Gitogo Kiiru Presidium. "It is a nutritionally rich food that was fed to the Kikuyu warriors so they could remain for hours without feeling hunger. We are encouraging the community to multiply and share suckers to spread and retain the cultivar through the generations. Our plan is to create high visibility for the banana cultivar by selling it at our Earth Market and educating consumers about its cultural and nutritional value."
The Mutahato banana variety is also an important food for the Kikuyu community in Central Kenya. It is the tallest banana, growing up to 9 meters high, and considered the best due to its high nutrition content. The fruit was traditionally used to wean babies. But it now risks extinction as only a few elderly people continue to grow it and it is very hard to find on the local market. The banana produces a sap that stains the hands and clothes, which impacts its competitiveness with other varieties like Kiganda.
The coordinator of the Mutahato Banana Presidium, Nancy Muhoro, stresses its importance: "Historically the banana could grow naturally from suckers because the soil was fertile and well drained and rainfall distribution was good. Due to its height and productivity, the Kikuyu community loved the Mutahato banana and it was seen as a traditional food that could provide energy to the farmers before they went to take care of their livestock and the farm. The introduction of hybrids has led to the disappearance of the native Mutahato bananas. The Presidium now wants to take the necessary measures to encourage its reintroduction to daily production and consumption. We plan to put in place an action plan to raise awareness within the community to save and protect the Mutahato banana by multiplying seeds, engaging with cooks and promoting the banana on the market."
Meanwhile, in Uganda, a Presidium has been established for a local chicken breed. Between November 27 and December 1, a final physical training session held in Uganda brought to a close a ground-breaking six-month Regional Academy for Trainers on Agroecological and Indigenous Peoples' Food Systems, run by Slow Food, Slow Food Uganda and Slow Food Kenya. The 30 participants from 10 African countries shared proposals for new projects and were given advice from expert mentors and professionals. This holistic training program was centered around protecting indigenous peoples' food cultures, traditional knowledge and biodiversity through agroecological practices in food gardens.
The highlight of the session was the launch of the Bbanda-Nganda Chicken Presidium, which joins the seven already active in Uganda. The Presidium showcases the efforts and achievements of local communities in conserving and promoting indigenous chicken breeds. Participants had the opportunity to take part in the presentation of this important initiative and gained insights from the communities and other key stakeholders involved.
Uganda has long had its own indigenous chicken breeds. Even the poorest family in the most remote countryside will own a chicken or two. These birds will normally have been acquired through sharing and through dowries for marriage ceremonies and are prized for their eggs and flavorful meat. The Presidium was created when farmers realized they were losing poultry biodiversity as local breeds are gradually being replaced by the Kuroiler hybrid. Through raising awareness about the importance of protecting the local indigenous chicken and giving greater market access to the producers, the Presidium aims to revive the interest of breeders.
According to Noel Nanyunja, coordinator of the Bbanda-Nganda Chicken Presidium: "This local chicken breed is called Nganda, after the Banganda tribe in this region. It is now threatened by extinction due to the introduction of hybrid chickens. These indigenous chickens play an important role in our culture and society and we are committed to helping communities preserve their local chicken breeds and ensure that these valuable birds continue to play an important role in Ugandan culture and society."
The Slow Food Presidium project supports quality products at risk of disappearing, protects unique territories and ecosystems, promotes traditional processing methods and safeguards indigenous species and local plant varieties. Today, over 14,000 producers are involved in 661 Presidia around the world.
Slow Food is an international network of local communities founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local culinary cultures and traditions, and to halt the spread of fast-food culture. Since then, Slow Food has grown into a global movement involving millions of people in 160 countries.