Corn in Africa

What’s interesting about corn as a food crop in Africa is how long it took to become truly dominant. For indeed there was a time, in the few centuries after its introduction, when corn was but one of number of — ehem — vegetable crops that appeared in many home and/or village gardens.

Because it was adaptable to many sub-Saharan African climates it was frequently planted between rows of other food crops like beans or peas. Because it produced ears so early in the growing season it was an ideal stop-gap food for growers who were waiting for their millet or sorghum to start producing. And because it wasn’t attractive to birds (at least until it dried out) it was reliable so long as the weather was good.

With time, however, corn came to be appreciated as more than just a garden vegetable, and began to gain acceptance as a field crop. There were at least two reasons for this. First, as I mentioned before, because relative to other grains corn yields more calories per acre than any other. That means it’s more economical for feeding large groups of people…towns for example, or armies. Second, as I also mentioned, it’s low-effort. While today’s anti-corn activists like to talk about how much energy corn takes, when you take into account the energy farmers put into cereal crops in total — from planting to harvest to processing — corn is really quite a bargain. It’s easy to plant, grows without much attention and after harvest doesn’t need to be threshed or sifted to be usable. It can be eaten as-is right off the stalk.

Which brings me to another interesting fact about corn in Africa: nearly all of it — some 95% — is consumed by human beings. Here in the States we use it for everything from animal feed to ethanol to carpet manufacturing, but Africans eat theirs. In fact in places like Zambia, the locals eat more corn than people in Mexico or Guatemala, the birthplaces of corn.

But where was I? Who knows. The point is: corn steadily became appreciated on the African continent to the point that today it is one of its most important crops, accounting for up to half the calories consumed by humans in some places. From Ethiopia down through Kenya and into South Africa, the eastern side of the continent is one giant corn belt (and that’s saying nothing of all the corn grown “under the hump” from Guinea to Nigeria). True, intensive farming and more specifically intensive corn farming is not with out its drawbacks. However as a people-feeder it’s a crop that’s hard to beat.

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