Slow Food sows message in Africa

Powerful herby coffee, sun-dried fish and succulent beef from Ankole cattle are just some of the Ugandan delicacies in a mushrooming movement across Africa to safeguard traditional foods.

Slow Food, a global grassroots organisation that promotes "good, clean and fair food", is spreading its reach across Africa after making its first inroads on the continent a decade ago.

Today the movement counts 30 African projects as food communities preserve, and rediscover native breeds, plant varieties and products, from Moroccan Zerradoun salt, to Ethiopia's Tigray white honey, Zulu sheep in South Africa and Sierra Leone's Kenema kola nuts.

For Ugandan schoolboy Isaac Muwanguzi, that meant finding a vegetable known as eggobe springing up in his school garden when he returned from the holidays.

"In the village it's very rare," said the 13-year old, whose country is at the heart of Africa's slow revolution.

Eggobe, which has a plantain-like taste and softens when steamed, is also said to be handy for treating diabetes, hypertension -- and even reportedly for increasing the size of one's manhood.

It's one of a handful of vegetables a group of students at the primary school here at Banda Kyandaaza, a village about 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside Kampala, are hoping to put back on Ugandan plates.

Eggobe has been nominated for Slow Food's Ark of Taste, an online "living catalogue of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction."

Founded in 1989 and headquartered in Italy, Slow Food started with one Ugandan local chapter in 2008, since growing into 13 across the east African country.

In Uganda, they've helped students create 75 gardens in more than 50 schools to taste and test products.

In the school garden in Banda Kyandaaza, students are now growing cassava, cabbage, pumpkin, African eggplant and black nightshade, as well as eggobe.

- Boosting rare produce -

Recent Ugandan additions to the list include small white mushrooms called Namulonda, as well as the Nakitembe banana, which is traditionally presented by the groom to a bride's family, but is at risk of disappearing due to the "continuous and indiscriminate hybridisation of bananas."

"We use the gardens to restore the crops that are at risk of disappearing," said Edie Mukiibi, 28, a Ugandan agronomist who was in February appointed co-vice-president of Slow Food International, alongside the influential US chef and author Alice Waters.

The country's capital Kampala may now be home to a handful of international fast food chain outlets, but Mukiibi said he was "proud" that Uganda had been "slow" to adopt fast food compared to other countries he'd visited.

Late last month he accompanied about two dozen Ugandan students, farmers, cooks and restaurant owners to Slow Food's Salone del Gusto, the world's largest food and wine fair, and Terra Madre, a concurrent global gathering of food communities in Turin in Italy.

About 450 delegates from 45 African countries took part -- and Ugandan bananas, vanilla and coffee were on display.

"We musn't only speak about poverty in Africa, we have to speak about culture, about the natural richness that you have in different recipes," said Serena Milano, General Secretary of the Slow Food Foundation of Biodiversity, who coordinates African activities.

"It's fascinating the diversity of products and recipes that Africa has."

With about 85 percent of the population involved in the sector, Mukiibi called agriculture Uganda's backbone.

Slow Food was working to address the "many injustices" facing the country's small-scale farmers.

"You find some supermarkets importing potatoes from France and South Africa," he said. "Slow Food creates a market for the local uncommon products to compete."

In the traditional Ankole kingdom in southwestern Uganda, the indigenous long-horned Ankole cow symbolises wealth.

"From its milk come so many traditional dishes and other products," said Mukiibi.

These include the eshabwe ghee sauce, also listed in Slow Food's Ark of Taste.

But Mukiibi said many years ago an influx of imported animal breeds began being mixed with local ones, encouraged by "the NGO world."

Now, some locals are starting to discard the Ankole cow, saying it takes too long to grow and gives very little milk.

Slow Food are working with one of Uganda's biggest slaughterhouses in Kampala, so producers can sell the animals they raise directly to them.

They're also providing training on improving meat quality.

Meanwhile, in the school garden, students who used to view farming as a punishment are now realising the value in spending two hours a week out of class, learning everything from how to water crops to managing an agriculture enterprise.

"You farm, you get food," said Muwanguzi, bending over in a cabbage patch. "You farm, you get money."

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