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African governments are having doubts about their staple crop - THE ECONOMIST

APRIL 15, 2018

Relying on maize for half one’s calories is risky—and makes for a boring diet

“IT’S what our forefathers used to eat,” says Kennedy Kapami, a Zambian phone salesman, rolling a ball of stiff maize porridge in his fingers. Maize is the staple food in eastern and southern Africa, where in some countries it provides over half of calories consumed. But Mr Kapami is wrong about his forefathers, or at least, his distant ones. Until the 20th century they mostly ate sorghum and millet. Maize came to Africa with the colonists. Governments now fret about its dominance.

Portuguese slavers were the first to bring it to Africa. Sometimes the crop took roundabout routes. Swahili-speakers know it as mahindi (of India). Bambara-speakers in Mali call it kaba, after the sacred site in Mecca, from where pilgrims returned with exotic foods.

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In southern Africa maize was grown on large estates by white settlers. After independence, governments doled out maize seed and fertiliser, even where soils were unsuitable. Towering maize stalks filled fields like Roman legions; in Zambia, the entrance to the farmers’ union is held up by two columns sculpted into cobs.

But using land to grow a single crop increases the risk from pests and weather. And a diverse diet is more nutritious. In February Edgar Lungu, the president of Zambia, asked “whether maize should be the ultimate crop for survival as a people”. Cultivating several different crops reduces stunting in children, says Rhoda Mofya-Mukuka of the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, a Zambian think-tank, although growing too many makes small farms inefficient.

Zambia now gives farmers an electronic voucher to buy whatever farm inputs they choose. Meanwhile, in the gleaming labs of the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute, a government agency, researchers nurture shoots of disease-resistant cassava in test tubes. They have cultivated bitter-tasting sorghum, which birds don’t like but brewers do. And they have improved maize itself, developing orange varieties rich in vitamin A.

The biggest push to diversify comes from climate change. In 2010 researchers from Columbia and Stanford universities estimated that, by mid-century, global warming could reduce maize production in Africa by a fifth. Cassava copes better with drought and is shaking off its status as “a poor man’s crop”. But many Africans love maize, and tastes change slowly. Mr Kapami has never tried sorghum or millet. As they say in neighbouring Malawi, “Maize is life.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline "Escaping the maize"

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