Feeding Africa with traditional crops
Of the many solutions that have been proposed for food insecurity in Africa, few excite me nearly as much as the proposal to reduce reliance on introduced crops and, in their place, promote the cultivation of several neglected traditional crops.
In much of the continent, maize, rice and wheat are very recent additions to the dietary mix. Before their arrival, most of Africa’s calories came from an eclectic mix of traditional crops, like sorghum, millet, cassava and yam, among others; alongside foraged berries, insects and small animal bushmeat.
Since their introduction, however, the three cereal crops have become the main staples on African tables. According to Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, they now account for over 60 percent* of the continent’s caloric intake.
Of course, the provenance of a crop isn’t necessarily an indictment of its suitability for a new region. In fact, most of the world relies on non-native crops for food. Sadly, however, Africa isn’t quite able to feed itself, even with these crops in the mix. In a world where only 10 percent of the population faces chronic hunger, 20 percent of Africans do.
Hence the proposal to bring a renewed focus to the cultivation of traditional crops. Prof Mabhaudhi, a leading proponent of the scheme, argues that this would not only “end hunger in Africa”, but also improve African agriculture’s resilience in the face of climate change, lift smallholder farmers into prosperity, diversify diets, empower rural women, and promote “a more socially just agrifood system.”
America’s foreign policy has recently latched onto the idea as an innovative way to end hunger in Africa. At the 2024 World Economic Forum in Davos, Secretary of State Antony Blinken waxed lyrical about it. And during his recent tour of Africa, he brought it up more than once. In Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, he confidently proclaimed that “traditional crops in Africa […] are remarkably nutritious [and] can be adapted to be climate resilient.”
This is not strange. Mr Blinken’s special global envoy for food security, Cary Fowler, has been singing even louder about the approach, for longer. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he hailed traditional food crops as “opportunity crops”, and lamented the historical lack of investment into breeding them for commercial-scale production.
In short, momentum is building up within the movement. And this excites me; after all, the prospect of consuming more traditional foods was part of the reason why, a few years ago, I left the city, and returned to the village of my ancestors. I have since experimented with growing my own supply of traditional vegetables and tubers (with mixed results).
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Nevertheless, I have a feeling that, as a means of solving the problem of hunger in Africa, this approach is one of the longer shots among the long ones. Not only would a lot of investment have to be ploughed into breeding these crops for intensive mass production, but a lot more effort would also have to be expended to reintroduce them into the palates of Africans, who are increasingly more urban and middle class and are, as a result, less enthusiastic about a dietary mix dominated by traditional foods.
As Prof Mabhaudhi acknowledges, “Campaigns are needed to build awareness and education about the health and environmental benefits of the crops and to dispel the social stigma that they are only eaten by poor people.” If you noticed the campaign, not so long ago, to promote insects as a source of protein, then you might have an idea of how much impact a campaign of the sort he speaks about would have.
On top of all this, there is also the inconvenient fact that, in the parts of the continent where food security has been somewhat brought to heel recently, it has been done by deploying a set of boring, but field-tested and proven, approaches, like improving transport networks, promoting the use of fertilisers, and training and deploying more agricultural extension professionals, among others.
According to Semafor, an online publication, this is how Ethiopia, the scene of the brutal 1984 famine that triggered the 1985 Live Aid concerts, “achieved the highest rate of agricultural growth of any country in sub-Saharan Africa.” By 2018, Ethiopia was home to “half of all agricultural extension workers in sub-Saharan Africa.”
The main reason why some parts of Africa still suffer from chronic hunger, according to an extensive 2021 report from the Food and Africulture Organisation, is that these approaches have been implemented in a half-hearted manner, or not implemented at all. And that’s without taking into account conflict, which is responsible for the direst food insecurity crises across the continent.
Contrary to Prof Mabhaudhi’s assertion that “the current agrifood system has not delivered for Africa,” there is plenty of evidence that they in fact do deliver. One can be enamoured of traditional African crops while at the same time acknowledging that, to feed the world’s fastest-growing population, relying on them is an unproven approach within a field where the solution is known.
And given this is a matter of life and death, I don’t think the gamble is worth taking.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
* In the original paper from which Prof Mabhaudhi quotes, 60 percent is listed as the share of the global diet taken up by rice, wheat and maize, rather than just in Africa; this contradicts the assertion in his article on The Conversation, which is linked as the source above. We have assumed that the share is higher in Africa, but cannot find any sources to back this up.
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