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23 octubre 2014 4 23 /10 /octubre /2014 19:29






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 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 flavorful, 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.

But now, forward-thinking scientists are starting to look at the old cereal heritage with unbiased eyes. Peering past the myths, they see waiting in the shadows a storehouse of resources whose qualities offer promise not just to Africa, but to the world.

Already, sorghum is a booming new food crop in Central America. Pearl millet is showing such utility that it is probably the most promising new crop for the United States


Lost Crops of Africa - The National Academies Press

The online version of a book about the less-understood grains from Africa. It discusses African rice, finger millet, fonio, sorghum, and some other grains.




It might be supposed that a hungry continent would exploit all its available food plants to the fullest, but in Africa’s case that is not so. The region below the Sahara is home to hundreds of contributors to the food supply, almost none of which is currently accorded scientific support, official promotion, or inclusion in development schemes.

In the beginning, Africa’s edibles fed humanity. The earliest emigrants out of Africa—long before agriculture—found new foods on their journeys, but at home there was a contraction of agrodiversity as farming increasingly focused attention on those plants most practical as mass-suppliers of food in the greatest number of places. Still and all, for many thousands of years, hundreds of wild and (in time) cultivated native species complemented each other to comprise the core of the continental food supply.

Then before recorded history, a pivotal plant migration began as a few Asian foods wended westward to become new links in the African food chain (sorghum and others took the return route from Africa). They arrived partly thanks to increasing trade between India and Africa’s eastern seaboard, as well as overland and perhaps even through surprising long-distance connections between Madagascar and today’s Indonesia. Exotic species from Asia—most notably rice, bananas (in their various forms), and sugarcane—began contributing more and more to life below the Sahara.

Yet many Africans remained largely dependent on traditional food plants until about five centuries ago, when adventurers and slavers sailing the western seaboard introduced a collection of American crops. These additions notably included maize (corn), cassava (manioc), peanut (groundnut), sweet potato, tomato, common bean, chili peppers, and pumpkin. As is common with nonnative plants, the new arrivals tended toward robust and productive growth, and subsequent centuries saw them spread across Africa as farmers integrated these helpful adjuncts into their age-old livelihood strategies. That inevitably meant that more of the traditional contributors fell away from the food supply and the minimization process proceeded.

During the colonial era the process of discarding indigenous crops gained further momentum, as the official focus shifted to those familiar crops of mercantile interest, such as cane, chocolate, coffee, cotton, and other durable, transportable, and valuable crops of that sort. Indeed, during those times subsistence crops were almost entirely neglected in organized agriculture, while valuable exportable cash crops were cultured, harvested, graded, and protected against rodents, insects, and decay with exceptional







Like Asia and the Americas, the continent of Africa is blessed with a rich tropical flora. Many of the 50,000 or so plants that evolved within its forests and savannas ripen fruits to tempt the myriad wild creatures into spreading their seeds. Speaking generally, Africa has as many of these tasty morsels as tropical Asia or America.

This fact, however, is something one would never guess by looking in produce markets or college textbooks. Today, American and Asian species dominate tropical fruit production worldwide, including within Africa itself.

For this, there is good reason. Africa’s fruits have not, by and large, been brought up to their potential in terms of quality, production, and availability. Geographically speaking, few have moved beyond Africa’s shores; horticulturally speaking, most remain poorly known. Thus, the vast continental landmass lying between Mauritania and Mauritius contains a cornucopia of horticultural, nutritional, and rural-development jewels still waiting to be cut and polished.

Perhaps it is not strange the world bypassed these fruits. Until comparatively recently, most populations in Africa were disperse enough that fruits—seasonally abundant—could be picked wild without the demands of cultivation under domestication. Further, many African cultures—like many others—regarded fruits less as daily fare than a refreshing snack, child food, or some other kind of non-serious indulgence. Then when mango, banana, citrus, cashew, and papaya arrived from Asia, , and then when guava, pineapple, avocado, and passionfruit arrived from America, incentive for advancing local fruit diversity increasingly vanished. In the face of these highly domesticated newcomers, local fruits entered a downward spiral in which lack of respect and neglect led in turn to a progressively greater lack of awareness and knowledge, until Africa’s fruits receded into the background. Making matters worse was the reality of recent centuries, as traditional eating habits began to fade—including those incorporating or even depending on local fruits. It should also be mentioned that the displacement of ancestral foods was not necessarily due to consumer preference. For one thing, compared to the already-improved foreign fruits, Africa’s species could seem relatively difficult to select and reproduce, a hindrance to expressing their potential qualities and achieving their ultimate place in the food supply. That feature further turned growers toward the better-known tropical fruits, whose breeding and propagation problems had been already overcome and whose culture could be found in books and colonial expertise.




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