Instead of running annually to international donors and foreign aid for help with famine and food crisises, could African nations collectively devise our own water and food security strategies based on ancient wisdom; that are sustainable and have long term reach?

As a write this post, I’m every aware that millions of lives are in crisis in the Sahel, a region of West Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition.

I’m also very aware that somewhere along the way some of us in Africa have forgotten how to take care of our people. We’ve losing our ancient knowledge of responsible land care, harvesting and food distribution. We’ve adopted a short term view of agriculture – killing forests and clearing land at will, allowing deserts to creep into what once used to be fertile ground.

We’ve lost our historical links to excellent agricultural practices and worse still, we’ve lost our compassion for each other. Fearing our own individual demise, we share little and hoard much, and without fail each year we’re faced with crisis upon crisis; the suffering bouncing from country to country.

Is famine preventable? I believe it is. Naive perhaps, but I know that if Africans collectively worked together more to store up food and water in plenty and share the wealth in the lean times, we’d be a much better off continent.

How do I know this? Because it’s been done before.

What we can learn from the ancients?

Credited with designing the first pyramid, the biblical Joseph, ruler of Egypt (also known as the Egyptian pharaoh Imhotep) also saved his nation from intense famine by thinking ahead strategically (While he had some ‘insider knowledge’ nonetheless he used the knowledge wisely).

During what is described as Egypt’s 7 years of plenty, the people, under Joseph’s wise guidance, began to organise a great administrative center which would handle the selling of the grain to all the surrounding nations.

Every city had stored grain from its region – large complexes which contained huge grain bins. At Sakarra, an excavated site in Egypt believed to be a major grain storage facility, massive pits have been found which would have stored an incredible amount of grain – more than a single city would have needed.

At the entrance to this complex are 40 small cubicles, each just the right size to hold a single person who could administer the receipt of payment from people coming to purchase grain. There could have been several “cashiers” of each language group to handle the purchases of those who spoke the various languages.

The design of the 11 pits is impressive. One of them contains a very elaborate stairway extending all the way to the bottom. All the pits are connected to each other by a subterranean tunnel – the pits were filled and the tops were sealed with wooden timbers and stone. All of the grain was accessed from one entrance – and there is one entrance into the pits from outside the wall enclosure of the complex.

The complex at Sakkara is unique – nothing like it has ever been found. It was described by William Hayes as being a “veritable city in itself, planned and executed as a single unit and built of fine white limestone from the near-by Mukattam Hills.” (The Scepter of Egypt, Vol. 1, p. 60.).

An organic approach to agriculture

Joseph’s managed to stave off hunger and famine, not only for Egypt but for the many surrounding nations.

He even practiced organic agriculture - preserving huge amounts of grain for seven years without the benefit of chemical pest control and the inability to seal the warehouse as is possible today.

How? Researchers from Bar-Ilan University (in Israel) have been exploring such questions for a long time and now believe they have found the answer in the remains of a burnt beetle found in a grain of wheat about 3,500 years old.

They believe Joseph was aware of this [destructive beetles] and therefore, according to the Biblical description – he isolated the grain of each city in its own jurisdiction and prevented the transfer of batches of grain from one community to another. In their opinion, that is the meaning of the verse: ‘and [he] laid up the food in the cities; the food of the field, which was round about every city.’

Prof. Mordechai Kislev, Dr. Orit Simhoni and Dr. Yoel Melamed, from the laboratory for archaeological botany in the Life Sciences department of BIU, studied the beetle known as the Lesser Grain Borer, which originated in India and reportedly changed their taste to wheat and barley several thousand years ago when they began migrating westward towards North Africa.

The beetle was just starting its career in Egypt when Joseph arrived there. Given phenomenal reproductive capacity, storing one batch of grain containing a small population of the grain borer was enough to bring about catastrophic damage and the the destruction of the entire granary – threatening an entire city with starvation.

The researchers believe Joseph was aware of this and therefore he isolated the grain of each city in its own jurisdiction and prevented the transfer of batches of grain from one community to another.

As to the type of pest control that was practiced during the time of Joseph, the researchers referred to a quote by the 11th century Hebrew Bible commentator Rashi, who wrote: “And people put amongst the grain some of the earth of the place, and this prevents it from decaying.” They believe Rashi was “referring to a method by which fine sand is added to the grain. The grains of sand scratch the hard covering that surrounds the body of the beetle, and make it dry up and die.

This method is still used today by various African tribes, and we can assume that it was sufficiently effective to exterminate a pest that had just arrived in the region, like the lesser grain borer.”

Investing in long term water and food security

Baaba Maal visits the Sahel (Mauritania) to urge African governments to think longterm about food security

When the famine came, it was so severe that people from surrounding nations “from all over the earth” came to Egypt to buy bread as this nation was the only Kingdom prepared for the seven year drought.

The fact is that Joseph was an innovator, and very possibly the world’s first economist. But more so, he was a leader who recognised the need of his people and his neighbours.

Africa ought to dig up his strategies and instead of running annually to international donors and foreign aid for help, we should devise our own water and food security strategies that are sustainable and have a long term impact.

So while we currently depend on programs such as President Barack Obama’s food security initiative, Feed the Future or  the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),the responsibility lies with us Africans – and not just each government looking out for its own, but an pan African approach to collectively feeding and caring for our people.

Easier said than done … but therein lies the challenge. Anyone want to take me up on it?

NB: Africans Act 4 Africa, formed in December 2011, is an action group led by Kenyan artists Juliani, Amani, Nanjira, Chris Adwar, Collo, Fena and Baraza & Chimano from Sauti Sol - that in December 2011 asked Africans to use the hash tag #LastFamine to drum up support for a call on African governments to act immediately to ensure the continent will soon see its #LastFamine .

Their ongoing social media campaign lives on and it’s their intention to continue raising awareness with African leaders, the media and the general public on the importance of Africa addressing its own food security crisis. 



5 Responses

  1. sameh

    Must solve our problems by reference to our heritage and our values ​​and our efforts on. Borrowing and foreign aid more harm than good.

  2. Bertski

    I heard the saying, never criticise a farmer with your mouth full. Many take food for granted. As O.P.E.C. grew, it was said, the U.S. can do without oil (look at fuel from sewage and mass waste-methane, biodiesel, etc., but how long can OPEC do without food. What isn’t realized is, our government doesn’t negotiate like that. Who’s our government, but business and big money, of course.


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