Insights into new nutrition and food approaches in Africa, with Dr Moses Siambi

What diet and related agriculture changes have you seen in Africa?

Across Africa the diets are changing. Twenty years ago rice was not a very common food in Africa. It was bought and consumed on occasions because the price was high. But the price of rice coming from the East, is cheap and is comparable to some of the cereals. Because of the low price, there wass a big move towards rice consumption. Also, the countries in Africa have developed irrigation schemes and the local production is converting to rice.

When we have drought situations and famine - what do the governments bring in? The donation is typically maize. And once people’s palates have tasted maize and they realize that the government’s going to provide that year in year and out, they don’t grow sorghum and millets, which would naturally be the crops most suitable for those drought prone areas. So people who have traditionally grown sorghum and millets then change to maize.

However, some organizations like World Food Program (WFP) are now changing that. For areas that have famine or flood but are predominantly millet or sorghum consuming areas, WFP try and procure sorghum and millet for those areas so as to not drastically change people’s diets and so people do not become dependent on maize which regularly fails in those agro-ecologies.

Also maize mills were brought into villages and these mills don’t process any of the other grains. This convenience of mechanical processing further encouraged people who had traditionally grown sorghum and millets to change to maize. Processing of the traditional grains became something only your grandparents could do.

We are seeing a number of health related diseases and we think it’s because of this change in the diet. Also people are going for highly processed foods. I think the time for popularizing Smart Food like millets, sorghum and legumes in Africa is now.

Moses Siambi is the Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, which works in the dry zones and has a specialty some of the crops that survive best in the harsh environments – millets, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea and groundnut.

VIDEO: Video transcript:

The beauty of our crops especially the cereals, is that most of our diets are cereals-based in Africa now of course, because maize has been so successful in taking a lots of land area. And our cereals are usually the last standing crop during drought. And it is almost certain that in every country after drought, there will be a massive campaign about our cereals crops. Then it rains and they are forgotten. So the issue is the drought aspect is very key… That they are withstanding drought, therefore you can produce them with less rainfall. What for me I have asked is rather, what I’m always discussing with policy makers is, it shouldn’t be when there is no rain. In the marginal areas where we work, maybe three out of ten year we get above average rainfall; so what happens the rest of the years? The rest of the years the farmer is not getting a good crop. The maize are what they are planting. Yet the rain is enough to produce a very good harvest over the sorghum and millet so it doesn’t have to be in a drought year. It just needs to be something that farmers grow over all the time and be able to get a good harvest.

I think the time for popularizing Smart food in Africa is now and in my view the reason for that is because of the changing diets. But importantly our approach over the past three years in bringing that by creating more and also approaching the private sector about processing. Now the approach we had before was that if we improve the product, then the utilization would happen. But over the years we realized that we need the product end to convince the consumer about our product and not necessarily the farmer, as we have done in the past.