Our Forgotten Crops
With last year having been the Year of Biodiversity and this year more and more voices coming forward with suggestions on how to improve food security in our Southern Africa region, it makes eminent sense to find out just how the alleged rapid decline of animals, plants and food may affect or has already affected our continent.
Since the so-called “civilized” cereals and crops were brought in by the Western settlers, we in Africa have been brought more and more to believe that these crops were of better quality and better producers than our own, indigenous and traditional crops, our communal farmers and even some of our commercial farmers have concentrated on these new crops.
Recent experience has, however, been that the new, improved crops have become just yet another way the Western powers were making African farmers dependent on them.
With the seed material becoming more and more unaffordable to African farmers, renewed attention is being paid to our continent’s traditional foods – forgotten crops of Africa – discovering that, in many cases, we had been mislead and that our own were as nutritious as, and as easy to raise than any “European” crops and cheaper and more available to our communal and peasant farmers.
In this series of articles on some of these forgotten crops of Africa, we want to highlight their advantages and their relatively easy availability as a viable and welcome alternative – and, at the same time, maintaining the diversity of these ancient crops will protect options for the rest of the world to use.
Obviously, too, food security is much enhanced as our farmers will no longer have to depend on the vagaries of supplies from the current sources by highlighting the broad potential for Africa’s own native biodiversity to reduce the vulnerability of seriously at-risk people to food shortages in many parts of Africa threatened with hunger.
Africa has more native cereals than any other continent.
It has its own species of rice, as well as finger millet, fonio, pearl millet, sorghum, tef, guinea millet, and several dozen wild cereals whose grains are eaten from time to time.
This is a rich food heritage that has fed people for generation after generation stretching back to the origins of mankind.
It is also a local legacy of genetic wealth upon which a sound food future might be built. But, strangely, it has largely been bypassed in modern times.
Centuries ago, dhows introduced rice from Asia.
In the 1500s, Portuguese colonists imported maize from the Americas.
In the last few decades wheat has arrived, courtesy of farmers in the temperate zones.
Faced with these wondrous foreign foods, the continent has slowly tilted away from its own ancient cereal wealth and embraced the new-found grains from across the seas.
Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing.
The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas.
Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate.
Myths arose that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavourful, nor as easy to handle.
As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile.
In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.
It is fair to ask why Africa’s grains are not better known.
At least in part, the reason can be attributed to several unjustified perceptions as mentioned above.
Some of these misperceptions that are clouding the world’s vision of Africa’s native grains are detailed below:
Inferiority of Displaced Crops. Introduced crops have displaced several African ones over the past few centuries.
For example, in several areas maize has replaced sorghum; in West Africa, Asian rice has replaced African rice.
As a result, there is a strong inclination to consider the introduced crop superior and the native crop as obsolete and unworthy of further development.
This is illogical, ill-conceived, and even dangerous.
All the world’s agriculture is dynamic and every crop gets displaced at certain times and certain places.
In much of the eastern United States, for instance, wheat was long ago displaced by soya-beans; in the south-east, peanuts replaced rice; and in the Great Plains, wheat has supplanted maize.
But no one in America considers wheat, maize, or rice to be inferior, obsolete, or unworthy.
Misclassification. Africa’s cereals are inadvertently discriminated against through the way they are described.
People everywhere classify sorghums and millets in a different light from wheat, rice, and maize.
All the categories have pejorative connotations. For instance, these grains are typically referred to as:
• “Coarse” grains (that is, not refined; fit for animal feed);
• “Minor” crops (not worthy of major status);
• “Millets” (seeds too small);
• ‘’Famine” foods (good for eating only when starving); and
• “Feed” grains (suitable for animals only).
Poor People’s Plants. Many crops are scorned as fit only for consumption by the poor. It happens everywhere.
Peanuts, potatoes, and other common crops once suffered from this same discrimination.
In the United States, the peanut was considered to be “merely slave food” until little more than a century ago, and in the 1600s the English refused to eat potatoes because they considered them to be “Irish food”.
Cultural bias against peasant crops is a tragedy; the plants poor people grow are usually robust, productive, self-reliant, and useful — the very types needed to feed the hungriest mouths on the planet.
Inferior Yield. Low-yield is perhaps the most frequent comment made about Africa’s grains. Yet these grains are now mostly cultivated in marginal lands under less-than-optimal management and the yields therefore do not reflect their true potential.
Moreover, the use of yield figures can be totally misleading.
Maize may be able to out-yield finger millet, pearl millet, hungry rice, and tef, but only when soil fertility, moisture, and other conditions are good. Under poor conditions, African grains often out-yield the best products of modern science.
Unworthy Foods. Millets are mainly used for making porridges, fermented products, cous-cous, and other foods that are alien and therefore somewhat suspect to non-Africans, especially Westerners.
This has led outsiders, who often serve as “decision-makers,” to direct resources away from native grains.
Disparaging comments about African foods are not uncommon in the writings of travellers — especially in Victorian times.
They are of course only personal —often highly prejudiced — opinions but, lingering in the literature, they have a pernicious influence that can last for decades or even centuries. Europeans treated the potato and tomato this way when they first arrived from the Americas.
Myths about taste and safety helped block the adoption of both for two centuries.
Cost-Effectiveness. Most of Africa’s grains are exclusively subsistence crops; the remainder are partially so.
Farmers grow them for their own use rather than for market, and therefore there are no statistics on production or costs.
A plant may be helping feed millions, but in the international figures on area sown, tonnage produced and exported, and prices paid it never shows.
It is as if it doesn’t exist.
This situation might be of little consequence were it not for the fact that economic-development funding these days is overwhelmingly judged on “cost-effectiveness”.
Thus, a crop with no baseline data is at a cruel disadvantage.
Maize or wheat researchers can pull out impressive figures to justify the promise of their proposed studies. Finger millet or fonio researchers can only come up with guesses. To the hard-pressed, cost- conscious administrator — ever fearful of accusations that public funds may be misspent — the decision on which proposal to support is inevitably biased.
Sources: UN, FAO, NAS, Wikipedia, Agricultural Union, Agronomic Board, own