Thursday, 18 October 2012

What shall we eat? - Return Smart Sweet Sorghum!

Yesterday I attended a round table on food security with the theme – ‘What shall we eat?’ This was facilitated by the East African on the sides of the launch of Kenya’s 3rd Agriculture Sector Development strategy graced by very important people – Government ministers and big private sector names. Folks went on and on with fancy stuff about eradicating subsistence agriculture and replacing it with Agribusiness to address food deficits in the country. I had a million questions to ask – poor thing the moderator could not spot my short self. So on my way back home, pretty distraught, stuck in Nairobi traffic I wondered why these guys were so out of touch with reality. However one thought kept bugging me. It was the thought of this crop that supplies food, fodder and fiber;  thrives in erratic climatic conditions, has the capacity to provide steady income to poor rural subsistence farmers, and can be harnessed to produce commercial alcohol and safe bio-fuels. I pictured this era of droughts, famines, unemployment, perennial food insecurity and saw policy makers racing to grab this crop. I saw ordinary poor people staring at the spectre of death from hunger actively investing in this crop even without government intervention, just for the sheer theoretical sense that it made. Yet this was just but a figment of fiction in my imagination. In reality this crop is SORGHUM.  Despite overwhelming evidence, it has not seen commensurate investment in its production, consumption and commercial utilization as compared to other peer cereal crops. So today I decided to tell a story - a SORGHUM story!

Anthropological evidence traces sorghum back to 8000BC Africa around western Ethiopia and Chad. It later spread to India, the Middle East and further to the Far East by around 400AD and only arrived in America (today the largest producer) in 1800s. Sorghum was then widely cultivated and consumed as a staple food; utilized in brewing beer, making bread and porridge. Domestically, it was used as fuel, thatch, fencing, housing construction and largely as fodder. Sorghum was a wonder crop; a self repellent to predatory birds, with high nutritional value and high net energy balance. It was a critical diet accessible and known to poor subsistence farmers in semi arid tropics for its resilience and ability to survive erratic weather conditions - (Sorghum matures in only 4 months and requiring just about 4000m3 per hectare - compared to corn that requires 8000m3).  

The corn-ish take over:
Well that was until the 1500AD ‘Colombian exchange’ as described by historian Alfred Crosby in reference to the epic importation of corn into Africa facilitated by the transatlantic trade. That exchange would mark the beginning of a massive cereal takeover. No one would have imagined at that point in time that corn would come to colonize the African farm, supplant historical African food grains (like sorghum and millet) and practically hold the African farmer and consumer hostage as the staple (not to do without food). It is however the dawn of commercialized production of corn that dealt the greatest blow to sorghum; suddenly the production and consumption of sorghum products that dated back many centuries stopped, beer brewed from sorghum was replaced with corn, and so was the case with porridge and bread. The reasoning then was that maize was a superior crop both nutritionally and commercially.  Today 16 out of the 23 countries in the world with the highest percentage consumption of maize are African. In Southern Africa, over 50% of total calorific consumption is drawn from corn. Besides colonizing the African plate, maize did colonize the African mind as well. In Malawi, corn is referred to as ‘Chimango cha makola’ meaning maize of the ancestors. Corn has become so entrenched and subdued other cereals to the extent that native Malawians thought it was actually a native crop passed on by their ancestors. 

Sorghum was downgraded mainly based on its palatability (the tannin in sorghum produces a less preferred bitter taste). Attitudes changed so much so that households that had for long cultivated and consumed sorghum turned to corn. Those that continued to cultivate sorghum were stigmatized and considered poor. In rural Africa, a social stratification emerged that categorized those that consumed only maize as “well to do” (at the highest level of society), those that mixed maize and sorghum flour as “middle class” and those who consumed pure sorghum or millet as “poor” households. This further entrenched the stigma against sorghum and created a production disincentive. Today sorghum occupies less than 25% of arable land across Africa, and globally it is number five among the largest cereal crops after wheat, rice, maize and barley.

Climate Change:
And then came climate change. This brought with it new realities in the battle between corn and other traditional African cereals. Alas, the reliable rainfall that corn so heavily depended on is no longer predictable. Moreover soil productivity has declined as a result of over production, poor land management and conservation practices and attendant toxicities.  The result has been a desperate lot of African farmers left with an over-hyped crop with limited resilience to prevailing weather conditions against a background of neglected and underdeveloped alternative cereal crops. Today maize production is largely fluctuating and unpredictable. This has contributed to significant deficits in food production, high food prices, hunger and desperation (especially among the chronically poor).

Take Kenya for example, government policy has focused more on maize production giving lesser attention to alternative cereals.  The production of corn is significantly higher than sorghum and millet despite its highly erratic productivity. Folks have continued to invest in it and neglected the others anyway. Research and development, capacity and infrastructure towards sorghum have continued to lag behind other crops. Little has been done to educate farmers and to provide incentives to increase its production. Limited resources have been invested in improving its production, utilization, demand and marketing.

The return of Smart Sweet Sorghum:
Nonetheless people are gradually reverting to sorghum and in the most unusual places. In the past 2 decades, the area under sorghum cultivation has expanded, in fact almost doubled though production has not increased (still at 800Kg/ha on average). In urban areas, starred hotels today serve brown chapattis, millet/sorghum ugali/pap, and sorghum porridge. In addition, medical conditions are driving people away from maize to the good old smart sorghum for its nutritional content! Sorghum has also gained commercial significance in the malt and beer brewing industry where the private sector is increasingly contracting and facilitating farmers to produce sorghum commercially as a raw-material. The Nigerian brewing industry now consumes over 152,000 metric tonnes of sorghum annually. In East Africa, alcohol and beverage companies are providing incentives and subsidies to local populations to produce sorghum which is now a substitute for molasses in ethanol production. This is largely because the extract in the stalks of sorghum and the brown midrib produce high quality ethanol which is cheaper and more sustainable – compared molasses from sugarcane. New developments have capitalized on harnessing clean bio-energy from sorghum, which if effectively produced would provide a cheaper and cleaner alternative to fossil oil fuels. Sorghum is increasingly being harnessed to produce clean bio-fuels that could effectively help reduce foreign oil import costs, reduce green house gas emissions and mitigate the effects of other fuel sources on pollution and global warming. Indeed some of the billions of dollars paid to overseas oil producers can be effectively diverted to invest in and benefit poor rural communities producing sorghum based bio-fuels.

To cut my long story short. The evidence is overwhelming. You obviously do not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how much Africa needs this crop. The loathing of subsistence agriculture helped by such delusional policies of transforming over a whole population of sedentary subsistence farmers into Agri-businessmen and women just won’t give us food. Isn’t it time governments stepped up agricultural policy and action towards reintroducing and revamping the productivity of this crop?


  1. I totally agree with you on this delusional idde of transforming the entire subsistence agriculture sector into commercial agriculture. A year ago I worked on a project in KZN on behalf of Afrivet. They wanted to know how the provision of veterinary products would uplift the livelihood of subsistence farmers. Now during the fieldwork,I met and interviewed the subsistence farmers,many of whom were in farming beause they could not get employment in the cities. Farming was a means to an end, a way to survive.If they could get jobs they would ditch the overalls and jump onto a bus to Joburg. The other lot of farmers were retired pensioners. For them, it was merely aspirational. Something to do bide the time. Then there were a handful of farmers who showed potential and their operations were beyond the subsistence level. It is these farmers that governments need to focus on and capacitate. Resettle them onto small holder schemes and this is where the transformation into commercial farming can start to happening thus creating employment opportunities for others. Its not every farmer that has what it takes to become a viable agri business. However those few farmers that have demonstrated potential are the starting point. They can be provided with access to agribusiness loans, guidance from extension officers, capacity building programs etc

  2. Very interesting read Okwaroh. I was looking at US food aid in 2010 and the US gave sorghum aid worth US$259.7 million (of which freight cost was US$174.8 million) clearly this is more than half the total cost. If more sorghum was planted by recipients, we would not need all that sorghum donated to us. and yes, all the sorghum recipients were African countries (except Madagascar). Sudan getting the biggest chunk of this, and yes Kenya & Uganda received some of this sorghum too.