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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Unleashing indigenous knowledge

Botswana is developing a policy to protect, preserve and promote its indigenous knowledge and mainstream it into the country's macro-economic framework. These efforts will involve identifying, documenting and gathering local traditional knowledge practices from areas including agriculture, health, culture and religious beliefs, and then feeding them into a legislative framework. According to the Gaborone government, "the initiative is intended to bring economic empowerment through benefit-sharing and [providing] royalties to communities rich in indigenous knowledge". In other words, Botswana has linked this policy not only to preservation of national heritage, but also to delivering positive economic outcomes (e.g. health, income generation).

The Mwanawasa administration initiated similar efforts in Zambia in 2005 only to abandon it for lack of money. After a partial audit of indigenous knowledge in the Northern and Eastern provinces very little was taken forward. The government was not committed enough to allocate sufficient funding, so in the end it run out of cash. This is unfortunate because a lot can be gained from harnessing indigenous knowledge. Since time immemorial, rural communities have depended on indigenous "scientific" knowledge for their survival. Communities have applied this knowledge in almost all sectors that pertain to their spiritual, social and economic development. Without such knowledge many of our communities would be extinct by now. It is that knowledge which we need to tap into. The benefit of doing that are huge, as a few examples would demonstrate. Take the chitemene (slash and burn) system. This is not just a scientific, but also a social process. The chitemene supports social institutions such as iciima (group work), a source of togetherness and collective responsibility. Understanding these issues would aid our development as a people. 

Unfortunately, we continue to see traditional knowledge collected and appropriated without little benefit to our people. A typical example is the case of the maheu drink. The Zambian scientist (Bernard Chishya) who "invented" the drink actually got the idea of maheu from Magoye where the local people use a root called mahaabe. He then identified the type of enzymes it contains. To his surprise he found out that a similar root called chifumfula was being used in Chieftainess Nkomeshya’s (Chongwe District). Dr Chishya then engaged engaged an elderly woman from Chieftainess Nkomesha’s area who brewed the maheu drink. After the laboratory analysis of the brew, an alternative technological know-how was developed and the patent was sold to Trade Kings. In short, all Dr Chishya did was identify the type of fermentation that went on in the drink.

Other examples include mabisi by Parmalat, mosi larger by Zambian Breweries. All these are owned by the local people and it is common knowledge that both mabisi and mosi, for instance, are associated with the knowledge of the Tonga people of Southern Province. Similarly, Zambia is endowed with many wild fruits. We have the mpundu and masuku, for example, whose botanic names are the Parinari Curatellifolia and the Uapaka Kirkiana, respectively. Our ancestors lived on these fruits. They knew how to process them. This idea has been with Zambians ever since.  This is the idea which was taken up by the National Council for Scientific Research then to come up with the masuku wine.

What is sad of course is that not only are these ideas not properly stored as part of our national knowledge system, often they are just stolen from local people and the knowledge goes abroad.  Zambians usually only come to enjoy the end product (e.g Amarula). More pointedly, despite being custodians of such knowledge, in many instances local people and chiefs have not benefited. This knowledge has largely been exploited and our people’s knowledge is being appropriated without benefit. These problems largely stem from the failure of government to put in place a coherent policy on traditional knowledge. There’s significant poor coordination among major players involved in the process of realising this policy area. 

The way forward must therefore begin with getting chiefs on board. Much of this knowledge is captured through local chiefdoms as basic repositories of traditional knowledge and experiences that link present Zambia with its historic past. This is one project which would give them something more meaningful to do rather than acting as party cadres.  Government working with chiefs and the academic community should initiate a people driven comprehensive and deep-rooted inventory of indigenous knowledge.

This must be must be accompanied by increasing funding to science and technology and all sectors with responsibility over indigenous knowledge. The way to do is to follow South Africa’s lead in creating a national trust fund, into which royalties ought to be paid by commercial entities appropriating indigenous knowledge. As part of this there would be an explicit policy of patenting indigenous knowledge to ensure that all those commercial entities appropriating indigenous knowledge become socially responsible by ploughing back into the rural areas for the indigenous knowledge they use. Treating indigenous knowledge as intellectual property would ensure that it is rightly regarded as collective property of the indigenous people.

These ideas of course fit in with our existing position that what is missing currently at the local level is "market discovery". Until we know what we know or don't know, we wont much progress to empower our people. Someone is probably sitting on the next "maheu". Government has a role to subsidise that discovery process for wider benefit of society.


  1. Maheu? This a Lozi traditional beverage made from Sorghum or maize! Maheu is to Lozis what Chibwantu is to Tongas and what Munkoyo is to Bembas. Maheu is not made from roots! Never!

  2. Does this mean the people of Scotland should patent Scotch Whisky and they have been exploited, cheated or deprived over the years because only those involved in the whisky process in Scotland have benefitted from it.

    I do feel that this idea of a national trust fund is scraping the bottom of the barrel - if you excuse the pun.


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