South Africa has a rich history of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) grounded in a strong oral tradition. Agricultural indigenous knowledge is one of the foundations for rural livelihoods, preserving biodiversity and ensuring long-term, sustainable food production. It is critical to safeguard this generational knowledge.
Unisa lecturer Mlamli Diko reveals that he used to collect cattle and chicken droppings to improve soil fertility in the family garden. This was knowledge acquired through indigenous knowledge rather than formal education.
South Africans have done this for centuries to improve soil aggregation so that it retains more nutrients and water. “Animal manure also encourages soil microbial activity which promotes the soil’s trace mineral supply, improving plant nutrition,” Diko adds.
Bharathi Tugh, Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA) EduPlant Manager, says the transfer of knowledge from the older generation is central to FTFA’s community involvement, with ‘Gogos’ – elder women in the community – continuing to gift a legacy to the younger generations by sharing their wisdom.
‘Universal knowledge’ versus lived experience
Unfortunately since the advent of industrial agriculture IKS has regularly been neglected in favour of western knowledge systems. Part of the problem, explained N.N. Buthelezi and J.C. Hughes (2014), is that indigenous knowledge systems are often regarded as inferior to “universal” scientific knowledge.
The researchers say the failure of scientific approaches in rural areas has often been attributed to the exclusion of indigenous knowledge. This results in inappropriate, technically oriented solutions and management practices that do not address complex ecological issues. Thus, they fail to provide long-term sustainability for local farmers.
In reality, indigenous knowledge is often critical. Buthelezi and Hughes, for example, cite the continuous, detailed observations and strong relationships local people have with nature, giving them a deeper understanding of the evolving environment.
Sejabaledi Agnes Rankoana notes the importance of the lived experience of people in Limpopo Province in producing IKS applicable to a local context. She highlights several traditional practices that align with agroecology principles, including the community’s knowledge of soil varieties by colour and texture, and the types of crops that do well in particular soil types. Farmers also focus on improving soil fertility and structure, intercropping, and seed selection and storage for future planting.
Integrating traditional knowledge with modern agroecology
Tugh has been involved in FTFA’s permaculture projects since the 1990s. She explains that from the outset, FTFA recognised the importance of understanding South Africa’s diverse cultural systems and integrating these local IKS into its agroecology programmes.
“I believe that indigenous knowledge systems complement FTFA’s agroecology principles. Together, these approaches lead to the holistic development of our food systems, focusing on crops that can be climate resilient and improving food security,” says Tugh.
“Traditional recipes are shared with teachers to get their learners to eat wholesome traditional foods. Teachers are encouraging learners to share their grandparents’ techniques and planting practices,” she continues.
Jeanette Seko points out that IKS traditions are in many ways fundamentally similar to permaculture principles. For example, many traditional farmers use natural design methods to identify and understand water flow and the direction of the land and underground water system. There is also a direct link between IKS and traditional farming practices like crop rotation, resting the soil, and mulching to protect the soil environment.
Buthelezi and Hughes’ study supports this view. The authors note that traditional agriculture is based on farmers’ cooperation with nature, using indigenous knowledge to develop ecologically complex and sustainable farming systems. These systems share a number of principles with agroecology and are characterised by high diversity and resilience, enabling them to maximise yield without sacrificing long-term productivity.
Siyaphambili: Sharing gems of indigenous knowledge
The Siyaphambili Project on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast is a great example of traditional knowledge. Much information was passed down by ‘Gogos’ who grew up within a rich indigenous knowledge system. “Many of these senior women are project members. They have shared some real indigenous knowledge gems regarding their crops,” enthuses Tugh. “This includes the fact that ‘amadumbe’ (yams) are a standalone crop. The yams are heavy feeders that require space to thrive, so they should never be intercropped.”
Onions should be planted in shallow soil, say the ladies. The heads should be left visible to capture the morning dew; the dew stimulates more significant growth and produces sweeter onions.
“Youngsters are also taught to ‘read’ the clouds, to determine whether there will be rain. This is helpful in scheduling the watering of crops,” Tugh notes.
Rainfall prediction is a common part of IKS. Rankoana points to the use of indigenous knowledge by Polokwane farmers to predict rainfall when planning the planting season. The use of the flowering and leaf sprouting of Senegali species is even an approach applied as far afield as Tanzania.
Using the past to look to the future
It is clear that indigenous knowledge systems offer valuable lessons for sustainable agroecology, helping to improve rural livelihoods. IKS can be a powerful adaptive mechanism to sustain the livelihood of rural communities an provide food security.
Seko emphasises that indigenous knowledge is not fixed in time. Indeed, communities view IKS as a generational type of knowledge that evolves over time. “IKS are dynamic and are continually influenced by internal creativity and experimentation as well as by contact with external systems,” she stresses.
Buthelezi and Hughes assert that the creative synthesis of indigenous agricultural knowledge and science is increasingly considered a cornerstone for sustainable development. They note that while the South African government has made substantial progress towards promoting and protecting indigenous knowledge, it needs to pay more attention to agriculture, and soil in particular.
Traditional techniques can be adapted to roll with the times and complement advances in agroecology. It should be a priority to promote locally framed indigenous knowledge systems. Additionally these systems need to be continuously integrated with sustainable agroecology programmes. This will help to ensure food security for households across South Africa, particularly in rural areas.