In Europe we eat potatoes, in Asia rice and in Africa maize. A logical story thus far. But while rice has been on the menu in Asia for millennia, and potatoes have been the staple food of many europeans for more than 300 years, Maize is a relatively new staple food in Africa.
Shaka Zulu beating the Brits, white men in kaki shorts playing conqueror, the discovery of the malaria medicin; all of these events in African history were played out without Maize.
But who then, ensured this golden kernel would become such a beloved food in Sub saharan Africa?
The goldcrest among the crops has support from many quarters. Politics making policy, business creating potential, academics writing entire books on the subject, NGOs trying to feed the world’s population, the farmers growing it, and even the World Bank with its multibillion-dollar loans have their influence on this beloved and praised staple food. .
But before we understand how we got to the current situation, we first need to know the story of maize in Africa. And that is a strange one.
After the introduction of the green plant in West Africa from the 15th century onwards, the crop slowly spread throughout the continent. In certain places with a suitable climate, mainly warm and wet highlands, it quickly became a staple food, but in most places it was simply one of the plants that the population kept in their gardens. Completely logical too, because maize is a pure vegetable in terms of nutritional value and lacks all the important properties of grains such as rice and millet, which were still the staple food in large parts of Africa in the early times of maize evolution.
well into the 19th century, the corn story still followed a logical plot. Where it worked well it was embraced, where the climate was less forgiving it long remained an agricultural niche.
And then the settlers came. As with many other problems on the African continent, the seeds were planted by the Western colonial regimes, in the case of maize mainly by the British colonists.
In two places in their colonized territories, maize was chosen as a new staple food in a short period of time, but not with the intention of feeding the ‘common man’.
In South Africa at the end of the 19th century this was to provide the necessary calories for the explosion of new mineworkers who searched for gold and diamonds. This market, together with a growing starch market in England that offered opportunities for export, made it a hugely popular crop that fit perfectly within the colonial capitalist system.
A few decades later, the First World War broke out. To feed the African soldiers fighting the war for their Western conquerors, maize was hugely promoted in British East Africa, present-day Kenya. At the same time as the war, a gigantic epidemic broke out among millet plants, the grain that was mainly eaten by the local population. This fortuitous coincidence, together with a growing export market from the countries around them, ensured that 20 years later millet was completely replaced by maize as a staple food. The average Kenyan now gave his children food that he himself had never heard of as a child.
The concept of feeding is different from how we see it.. The main advantage of corn is that it has a lot of calories. Enough to ensure that the people who eat it can, at least in the short term, keep up their hard work at a low economic price. However, if you eat mainly corn over a longer period of time, you will eventually become malnourished. This can cause the famous swollen bellies with which many African children reached Dutch television during the famine in the 1980s.
Through the rest of the colonial era, corn seemed like a success story. Admittedly imposed by the colonial regimes, but also embraced by the local population, it is simply a plant that grows quickly, without too much hard work having to precede it. Combined with enough other types of food, it is a good crop for farmers.
When the time of independence came in the 1960s, most African countries fed themselves on maize and were net exporters of the grains that had now been altered from yellow to white.
-African corn had been completely manipulated by the colonial regimes over the years to survive the drier climates of South and East Africa. Corn had become a real African plant. In this breeding process, the corn has changed from yellow to white. There are many other colors and sizes on the continent, but the most commonly used for mass production is white and based on a strain called sr-52, which originated in what was then called Rhodesia. Made by the white large scale farmers, specially developed for a system using fertilizer and irrigation.-
The problem of an unsuitable climate is increasingly exacerbated by the growing climate uncertainty.
Corn is a plant that requires an extremely stable climate. A few weeks of insufficient water supply during growth can already cause huge losses in the harvest.
Many will have noticed that the climate in Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming increasingly unstable. For example, there have been four significant droughts in Kenya since 2007, the most recent of which has been persistent since 2017.
Just like in the 1980s, a possible food shortage is now a realistic vision of the future.
But the way in which agriculture is practiced has been criticized for years from academic circles. Solutions have already been put forward and the knowledge to change is there.
But why doesn’t anything change?
Instead of structural changes, there is more often a search for quick temporary solutions that are appreciated by the electorate.
As long as the political will is not there, few changes will happen that will benefit the local population in the long term. As long as we stare blindly at models showing potentials that have not been achieved for 50 years, little will change.
The question is perhaps no longer whether maize is suitable for the current climate. It is so deeply engrained in local cultures that its consumption seems an unchangeable fact. Now it’s time to make sure the way it’s done is sustainable for both the belly and the wallet. Who takes on this issue, with the local population in mind and not his own bank account or position of power, is the most important question.