Yesterday was a big day on the matter of Gari Ijebu and Indian Gari being sold in Nigerian shops. When the matter was brought to my attention via WhatsApp, I used my gut feeling to state my embarrassment at this occurrence. Now, as many know, at African Cuisine Magazine, (www.africancuisinemagazine.com) and we do come across a lot of issues about African food in the diaspora. Having read a lot of comments on this issue, I wish to take a deeper look at this matter.
What is Gari? It is a product of the cassava tuber. Cassava grows in many parts of the world and it is used as food and other products by many peoples across the planet. It is not unique to Nigeria. What is unique to Nigeria’s cassava is the name ‘Gari’ and even more so, ‘Gari Ijebu’, an eponymous brand that resonates around the world as the highest quality of Gari. This is a fact known both within and outside Nigeria. This ‘brand’ is important for another reason which I will refer to later.
The economics and geography of Gari
Gari is a staple food in Nigeria and features highly, perhaps next to Rice and Bread as the most commonly consumed meal in the country. It is very versatile and can be eaten in a variety of ways, seated or on the move. It is not a surprise that Gari is very popular among Nigerians in the diaspora and through their consumption of it, it has gained popularity. The unfortunate part of this ‘Gari in the Diaspora’ story is that Nigerians, like most other Africans, buy the bulk of their native, imported food in shops owned by Asians. To be quite modest, it is almost certain that the proportion of Gari sold in Asian shops will be more than 85% of the total consumption compared to the volume sold by African shops. Ordinarily, this is not a problem. The problem begins with the attempt by these traders to manipulate our culinary assets and in doing so, corrupt their quality and debase our quality propositions. Many Nigerians will affirm that many times they have bought a product labelled ‘Ijebu Gari’ that is definitely not anywhere indicative of the quality expected. Indeed, some Gari Ijebu have been known to come in ‘Made in Ghana’ packaging.
Africa’s Culinary Heritage
Sometime ago, I was shown a menu from an African restaurant in London. On its list was a meal called Cassava porridge (Eba) which could be had with spinach and assorted meat stew. Now, I know that on an English menu, ‘Toad in the hole’ is a traditional British dish consisting of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter, usually served with onion gravy and vegetables. Cassava Porridge? What nonsense! It seems to me that there is a deliberate attempt to abandon, undermine and, or hijack our culinary heritage. And this subconscious free-fall into culinary dispossession will cost us a lot in due course unless we retrace our steps quickly.
Here, I’d like to refer you to EU Regulation No 1151/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 November 2012 on quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs. This is the regulation that says that if it’s not from Champagne, it’s not ‘champagne’. The aim of this regulation (which will be enforced within the EU and gradually internationally via bilateral agreements between the EU and non-EU countries) ensures that only products genuinely originating in that region are allowed to be identified as such in commerce.
Please take note of the following key aims of this law:
protect the reputation of the regional foods
promote rural and agricultural activity
help producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products
eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products which may be of inferior quality or of different flavour
I have already mentioned the deliberate misrepresentation of Gari Ijebu which directly causes a loss of reputation. Secondly, contrary to the desired aims of government in Nigeria to grow non-Oil exports through improved agricultural output, importing UK-exported Gari into Nigeria is simply out, irresponsible. It directly undermines rural and agricultural activity. Thirdly, when local, reputed brands are left to flounder and replaced by ‘cheaper’ alternatives, domestic producers are not able to get the best price for their produce and so, in a vicious cycle, get worse and worse and get thrown out of the market. We all know the many challenges faced by anyone producing goods in Nigeria and the paucity of government support. While the EU is passing a law to prevent Africans from making champagne, the Africans are busy importing champagne and pouring it on their imported Gari to make a maddening meal!
And of course, the final nail in the coffin of our collective failure is that we are encouraging unfair competition, misleading consumers into believing that Gari that has travelled from Ghana to London and back to Lagos is actually of good quality. I prefer my fresh, less than a week old Gari Ijebu from Oke-Aje market in Ijebu Ode!
I have deliberately used EU Regulation No 1151/2012 to frame this Gari issue with the aim of addressing the issue of our culinary heritage as well as that of our food security. Both are very important. I note that Austin ‘oise Omiyi said that factories in Ondo and Ekiti are packing garri like this now and that the offensive package may not be Indian after all. That is a welcome point but I think the issue about commercial value accruing to our domestic producers is the key. Why do we feel the need to attribute our achievements to foreign sources? Kayode Ogunyemi also commented that Nigerians seem to have been completely brainwashed into thinking good products can only be imported even with though well known commodities are locally produced in Nigeria. I agree with him that ‘Nigeria will never grow till the world ends with this kind of cheap mentality’. Adenike Fasanya-Osilaja argues in support of Kayode saying ‘This is what happens when we have been brainwashed into thinking everything ours is bad and everything imported is good.’ And I think Ahmed Oduye made a sound argument when he queried the notion of Nigerians selling Samosas to the Indians.
It’s not only Gari…
In fact last year at BJs Supermarket in Ikeja GRA, Lagos,Nigeria, I was shocked to see on sale Eja Kika (Dried, Smoked fish) imported from UK. I was sick to the pit of my stomach at the idea that a country with abundant aquatic resources like Nigeria is importing this traditional food item from UK. What is the economics behind it? My friend, Olukemi Ade-Adeniji states that the greatest blame of course is on Nigeria Customs and Excise who would allow any nonsense into the country, perhaps, because they have been bribed by smugglers. It is clear that there is great dissonance between what government puts forward as its strategic intent and policy directives and what the unscrupulous managers of the import and export machinery actually do everyday. If they cannot prevent caches of arms entering the country, who is to know what dangerous food imports are coming in everyday?
So, where do we go from here? First, we must begin to recognise that food security is a vital front of social security and we must protect our food supplies from being hijacked by mercenary ‘producers and suppliers’. Earlier today, I heard a news report about the declaration of famine in Unity State, South Sudan. Sadly, a number of other countries were also mentioned as facing the risk of famine. Nigeria is one of them. It may sound fantastic a notion but a country where it is cheaper to import ‘triangular’ Gari from Ghana to Lagos via UK is one sitting on a time bomb. Because it means its lands will lie fallow and many will go hungry since the staples would have disappeared and all that will be left are shiny elite packs of Gari and Ogbono (or call it ‘African Mango Cubes!), in supermarket shelves.
Second, we must seize our culinary heritage and, like the European Union, legislate to prevent it being hijacked by those aiming to deprive us of the true premium of our cuisine. This is a lengthy extract:
“Most of the time, however, there has been little progress in Africans getting any reward for profits made on their traditional knowledge or natural resources. It is hardly surprising: to take on a large Western company in Western courts requires complex understanding of local law, expensive lawyers, and deep pockets. Among other natural resources patented so far are brazzein, a protein 500 times sweeter than sugar from plant in Gabon; teff, the hardy grain used in Ethiopia’s flat injera bread that provides the staple for almost the whole country’s diet; and an extract of the Aloe ferox plant from Lesotho, which helps lighten skin.” (The Plights of African Resources Patenting Through the Lenses of the World Trade Organisation: An Assessment of South Africa’s Rooibos Tea’s Labyrith Journey) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202516/
The paper’s author, Dr Lere Amusan continues, “Products such as Botswana beef, Mozambican prawns and Namibian oysters qualify for GI which would improve the lives of rural-dwellers. Marula fruit which is the source of Amarula liquor should be patented to avoid more crises”. This reference highlights the concern that there is a conscious effort to take over Africa’s indigenous food and pharmaceutical knowledge to benefit western businesses. This Gari Affair is just a small insight into how this is taking place in the name of ‘free trade and global commerce’. We must begin to connect the value of our food supply and its authenticity to our national goals of self sufficiency and non-oil dependency. Culinary tourism will only thrive if people believe they are enjoying authentic meals.
It is my view that we must challenge our leaders across the continent to wake up to their responsibilities to the citizens. In the paper I quoted from earlier, the author, Lere Amusan recommends that there is need for a regional regime such as African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), on indigenous knowledge (IK) to patent the continental biodiversity resources. I agree with him on this as a crucial step towards capturing for ourselves the indigenous knowledge reflected in our food resources. This will be a signal to foreign predators that we are willing and ready to fight our corner.
Today it is about Gari. Tomorrow, it may well be something else. Our duty is to safeguard our food heritage for the benefit of our producers and also to secure our food supply by a more robust domestic production of staples that meet the needs of our people. Imported Indian Gari on shop shelves in Nigeria will not help us achieve either of these aims. This impostor Gari should be swiftly taken off and sent back whence it came so that Gari Ijebu, the Nigerian exemplar can retain its pride of place.
That’s my bit. Now, off to have a bowl of Gari Ijebu!