How many of us have eaten cowpea before or even know what it looks like? Most rural communities in Zambia are familiar with it, while urban dwellers (especially the younger generation) are not. This is also true for other crops such as sorghum, millet, bambara nuts, and soybean. Personally, I never really liked eating cowpea when my mother cooked it. The texture was mushy (prepared in paste form), and eating it with pap (cooked maize meal also commonly called nshima) was quite unpleasant. However, when I started to travel, I ate cowpea in various forms, which led me to wonder why we do not cook it in any other way in my community. I have seen it in other countries in porridges, as whole bean or flour in supermarkets, as biscuits in hotels and in restaurants, and as either fresh or dry beans in local markets. In fact, questions around how we select and prepare food are not just applicable to cowpea. Some interesting questions include how many different types of food Zambians eat in a month – aside from nshima accompanied by the usual proteins (beans or meat) and vegetables? What other sources of protein are we consuming?
Nshima with meat and vegetables
Dietary diversity is not simply a matter of keeping our food sources interesting, it has also become a matter of affordability. Currently, most animal protein sources and various forms of fish (e.g., small fish locally known as kapenta) and edible insects such as caterpillars are expensive. These sources of protein were known to be more affordable, but this has changed. A recent headline reads: “Maize meal price increase”. There have been various news reports on the same issue, expressing backlash and negative opinions towards the government – both due to rising food prices and because some argue that the over-emphasis on maize as a staple food is due to deliberate government efforts. The expense and lack of diversity associated with traditional food sources thus necessitate exploring what other food options are available.
As consumers, we must begin to question whether we have tried to incorporate more diverse foods into our diets. Using the example of cowpea: have we considered incorporating this nutritious food into our meals – either as leaves or in the various forms in which it can be utilised? What can we as individuals and households do to help promote the consumption of other nutritious but less popular foods?
A more diverse diet is more nutritious. Why then do we tend to stick to traditional food types and preparations? One of the contributing factors to lack of diversity in the food consumed, is a lack of knowledge on the different foods that are available and how to prepare them. Zambians generally limit their food preparation and combinations to one way of cooking and eating, with nshima being the focus of most meals. According to the former Zambian Minister of Agriculture, Hon. Dora Siliya, “People only think of the maize, the nshima, with whatever they eat it with, as the only food. … Why do Zambians or myself, like to eat nshima so much? I think the honest answer is, it is a habit. Food becomes a habit. It becomes something that you grow up with and you become nostalgic about it and that’s what most people know”.
We, as a nation, generally do not easily embrace diversity in food choices. Eating a limited number of foods lowers the nutritional value of our diets, as evidenced by the fact that Zambia’s malnutrition rates remain among the highest in the world. Almost half (48%) of the population are unable to meet their minimum calorie requirements, and more than one-third of children under five years are stunted. Unfortunately, women and children are the most severely affected by malnutrition. While women constitute 80% of food producers, are key in food preparation at home, and take care of the children, they and children are most vulnerable to malnutrition. One might expect that since women are more involved in food preparation, with the children close by, the intake of food would be increased. However, nutritional density and calories in the foods consumed may be low, particularly since cereal-based products are consumed most frequently. There is low preference for mixed dishes that are not either maize or groundnut porridges among Zambian women and children. The causes underlying this finding need to be addressed – particularly if they relate not just to preference but to many people’s inability to afford and/or access diverse food types. Maize meal is not a balanced source of nutrition, particularly in the over-processed form in which it is consumed. The Zambian Vice-President has recently called on citizens to try maize in roller meal form (unrefined maize meal), as this is less expensive but more nutritious (Diggers, 2023). However, most citizens have not reacted very positively to this suggestion, despite the advantages of roller meal. This is likely due to people having the same sentiments as they do about other less well-known and less popular foods such as cowpea.
Roller meal – unrefined maize meal
It is imperative that we promote the consumption of a diversity of nutritious foods. Essential to this endeavour, is the gathering of reliable food consumption data to enable the tracking of information on household food insecurity and nutrition outcomes – particularly with the quality of diet highlighted. This data can then be utilised to address various important questions. What are the consumer preferences of women, men, and children in Zambia? How do Zambians generally like to consume their food – for example, in its raw form or processed? Furthermore, these questions can be narrowed down to specific nutritious foods such as cowpea. What do people not like about cowpea as a food? Are there particular ways that people would prefer to eat it?
Clearly, there is a strong case for improving dietary diversity. There are multiple strategies that can be implemented to promote such diversity, but reliable research data is required as a basis for improving and formulating new strategies. My research for the FSNet-Africa fellowship focuses on identifying factors affecting consumer preference as it relates to cowpea – a versatile crop and very nutritious food. Cowpea is an example of an underutilised crop that can change people’s lives – nutritionally and economically. Information obtained through such research helps to determine factors affecting consumer choices and consumption in order to promote better decision making and to improve people’s lives through choosing more diverse, nutritious, and economically beneficial crops and foods (such as cowpea). Similarly, such findings can form the basis for encouraging public and private organisations to develop and promote more diverse food options for people to consume and enjoy. We need to positively impact consumer preferences so that possibilities become actions. An option will remain an option until a choice is made!