Monthly Archives: May 2016

King corn’s crown slips

Some call it nshima or sadza, others pap or ugali. Whatever the name, maize meal is the staple food across much of southern Africa and large parts of eastern Africa.

Boiled and stirred into a stout white dough, it’s the starch accompaniment to most meals. So entrenched and seemingly traditional, Malawians call their favourite variety ‘maize of the ancestors’.

But maize is not as traditional as most people think. It’s an import (as are bananas, cassava, beans and potatoes), and in much of the interior of Africa, only a little over a century old. Its rise to dominance as a food crop has been incredible, but its future is far less assured.

Central Mexico is the original home of maize. It arrived along the west and east African coasts in the 1500s, before spreading inland, following the trade routes. Farmers appreciated the significant advantages it had over indigenous grains – millet, sorghum and rice.

Corn becomes king

Maize is a carbohydrate champion. It delivers a second harvest within a single season; its outer husk provides good protection against bird damage; it requires less work to cultivate; and it proved an excellent “pioneer” crop, opening up new frontier forest settlements.

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Maize slotted easily into the food production chain, but initially only as a niche crop, complimenting a complex cropping system adapted by farmers to the poor fertility of Africa’s soils and its capricious climate.

That all changed in the beginning of the last century when maize vaulted into pole position as a mono-crop in southern Africa and Kenya. What helped drive the transformation was the British colonial economy and the demand for Africa’s white maize on the London starch market.

The ease of maize production on homesteads helped release men into the labour market, and the spread of hammer mills enabled the easy local processing of maize into flour. Today maize occupies three quarters or more of the land under cereal cultivation in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, it’s as high as 89 percent.

Maize has now pushed original drought-tolerant crops like millet and sorghum out of the market. A powerful industry brands and packages it as the cornerstone of family life.

But Africa imports around 28 percent of its maize from overseas. Maize never became the long-predicted foundation of an African “green revolution”, and climate change is increasingly exposing its limitations as a reliable bountiful crop.

We have a problem

The downside to maize is that it’s “highly sensitive to deprivation of water, sunlight and nitrogen,” wrote James McCann, an agricultural historian at Boston University. “Even a few days of drought at the time of tasseling [its maturing stage] can ruin a crop. Thus, maize monocultures are extremely vulnerable to environmental shocks.”

Maize also has a relatively low nutritional value – unlike the millet and sorghum it displaced. What that means is that in poor households, which cannot afford the vegetable and meat accompaniment, filling your child’s belly with maize meal doesn’t prevent malnutrition.

Kitui is an agricultural town in eastern Kenya on the frontline of climate change. It’s an arid to semi-arid zone, with seasonal rivers that dry up in the summer, making irrigation a challenge. It has a poverty index slightly below the national average.

Pastor David Mutinda farms just over two hectares and has noticed the weather is now increasingly erratic, which moisture-sensitive maize does not like. “The rains are no longer consistent, they either don’t come, or come at the wrong time, which affects which crops can be grown,” he told IRIN.

Mutinda has joined a programme run by Farm Africa, an NGO operating in east Africa to help smallholder producers boost their incomes.

In Kitui, Farm Africa promotes drought-tolerant cassava and sorghum, as well as hardy legumes as cash crops. It has introduced conservation agriculture, including minimum tillage techniques and terracing to help preserve soil moisture.

Mutinda is something of a model farmer. He grows cassava for both the market and his table, green gram (mung beans) that he sells to a local seed company, and has added cowpeas, mango trees and poultry to a steadily expanding business. He still has a little maize – there’s a cultural importance to being able to roast a few green cobs for your children as a treat – but his household no longer depends on it.

“I’m positive about this season because of the type of crops I’ve planted,” he told IRIN. “They’re able to resist drought so I can do well with them.”

Lydia Gatuenya of Farm Africa says they are working with farmers to change the subsistence model of small-scale production. By increasing linkages with markets, the NGO is transforming farming from “drudgery” into a money-making business. “You don’t need to grow what you consume anymore,” she added. “If you want to eat maize, you can go and buy it.” 

Africa will be one of the region’s hardest hit by climate change. Agriculture accounts for 75 percent of employment, with nearly all production rain-fed. The continent’s ability to adapt is hamstrung by the size of the bill to build resilience, institutional weakness, and the lack of political support to smallholder farmers.

Southern Africa is one region predicted to become even drier. There have been regular droughts since the 1990s, with currently 49 million people facing hunger due to an El Nino year – more than double the number affected by the last great drought in 1991/92.

The fight back?

The answer from the scientists is better drought-resistant maize. A Mexican-African project to develop Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa was launched in March. The drought-proof hybrids are expected to increase productivity by 30 to 50 percent, and the project – funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – aims to have the seeds in the hands of 5.5 million smallholders in 12 countries by the end of 2019.

But the evidence suggests that the African seed market is complicated. According to a new study, farmers access 90 percent of their seed from informal systems rather than commercial agro-dealers, with local markets linked to new varieties only in an “ad hoc manner”.

That frustrates the uptake at scale of new, improved varieties. “There seems to be an investment lacuna between the science of plant breeding, which receives substantial funds, and the science of delivery,” the study by researchers Shawn McGuire and Louise Sperling suggested.

“My experience is that where you have challenging environments, you should adopt the most suitable crop,” said Edgar Kadenge of the Gwassi Integrated Community Empowerment Project in western Kenya. “You shouldn’t panel beat the crop, planting in an unfavourable environment, and expect good yields. Ultimately, you are just contributing to food insecurity.”

According to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, the 1990s marked the beginning of the period of uncertainty for maize after close to a century of undisputed reign. Climate variability is one factor, but so too were the end of state input subsidies and market support demanded by IMF-imposed austerity programmes, and the sharp drop in investment in public sector agricultural research.

African agriculture needs a farm lobby and the political will to deliver investments that will benefit smallholders, says the study. Although governments regularly trot out the policy slogans around building resilience, the perennial food crises in southern Africa, for example, suggest the primary audience is donors and the aid system – not the farmers.

“Given reasonable assumptions about future productivity improvements, it is unlikely that maize can provide the net revenue on the millions of farms that are 0.5 to 1 hectares or smaller to generate substantial income growth, especially in the semi-arid areas,” the IFPRI study noted.

Gatuenya, pushing her cassava and market-led alternatives in Kitui, warns that “behaviour change can’t be abrupt”.

Like any good farmer, she knows that sustained success requires patience and careful tending.


KCB Bank and GoSwiff Roll Out Mobile Payments in Rwanda During World Economic Forum’s Africa Meeting

KIGALI, Rwanda, May 11, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — KCB Bank and GoSwiff, a global payment acceptance solutions provider, are rolling out a mobile payment solution (mPOS) for Rwandan merchants, to drive financial inclusion and digital payments in the country. The introduction of the mPOS solution, a first of its kind in Rwanda, coincides with the World […]

Central African Republic: Radio Ndeke Luka in New Partnership with Arte

Arte is giving a voice to Central Africans through reports by Radio Ndeke Luka, a Fondation Hirondelle media in Bangui and illustrations by Central African cartoonist Didier Kassaï. The idea sprang from a meeting between Arte Reporting and Fondation Hirondelle, both active in the Central African Republic. Arte has reported regularly on the events that have rocked the country in the past few years.

Arte wants to maintain the link in 2016 by painting the portrait of a country under reconstruction: “At the end of 2015, the Central African Republic chose a new President and a new Parliament. Our aim is to follow the “new Central African Republic” with a twice monthly feature.”

Fondation Hirondelle created Radio Ndeke Luka (RNL) in 2000 and has been supporting it ever since. Today it is the most popular and most listened to radio station in the country. RNL has continued reporting throughout the whole period of war and transition (2013-2015), including the 2015-2016 election process. Its team has served the listeners, people all across the country, risking their own security to produce non-partisan news and information.

Every two weeks, two programmes to follow on Arte’s website, in the series “Live from Bangui”:

– Bangui Diary (chronique de Bangui): “Sweet Bangui” (Bangui la coquette), the cartoon story of Samira, a Muslim woman, and Poutcha, a Catholic man… the first episode of a story about two young people from Bangui that we will be able to follow for a year!

– And reports on the life of Central Africans broadcast on Radio Ndeke Luka and illustrated by Didier Kassaï. A first report by Bienvenu Gbelo on overcrowded motorbike taxis is already on line.

In 2016, Arte has chosen to continue reporting on the daily lives of Central Africans, in collaboration with Radio Ndeke Luka and cartoonist Didier Kassaï.

Source: Fondation Hirondelle

Africa: Zambia – Once a Poster Child for New Africa, Now Divided and Broke

Zambia perfectly illustrates the developing country conundrum. It is poor because it has weak governance, and it has weak governance because it’s poor. Can one break this cycle through more aid, or aid better spent, or by removing altogether the prop t…

Derbas promotes refugee women rights in Egypt conference

Social Affairs Minister, Rashid Derbas, promoted the rights of women refugees in the Arab world in a conference that was held in the Arab Republic of Egypt. “A woman can be a child, a teenager, a wife, and a mother. When a woman becomes a straggler, sh…

El Nino-Induced Drought in Zimbabwe

Buhera (Zimbabwe) – Emaciated and with their ribs jutting out, Evans Sinyoro’s cattle lie on the ground overlooking a dry patch of land while the small earth dam nearby is also dry, thanks to the El Nino-induced drought wreaking havoc across Zimbabwe. El Niño is a complex weather pattern resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.

Sinyoro hails from Buhera, a district in Manicaland province, which has not been spared by the marauding drought that has taken a huge toll on cattle across this Southern African nation.

“I had 27 cows, 24 of which have already perished because of lack of drinking water and grazing pastures,” Sinyoro told IPS.

El Nino has also not spared millions of people here who have fallen prey to worsening starvation in the face of drying up of water bodies and boreholes, resulting in many people like Sinyoro having to endure walking very long distances just to fetch water for domestic use besides watering their remaining fast dwindling herds of cattle.

“While we have to strive to get water for our cattle, we also have to struggle walking over 9 kilometres here to find water for domestic purposes,” Sinyoro said.

Women in the countryside have been the hardest hit by the El Nino-induced drought.

“We have to wake up early mornings daily to walk to find water with our children so that they can bathe before going to school. We often have to store to bathe later because we get the water the hard way,” Madeline Chishamba, a 47-year old mother of four from Buhera, told IPS.

Zimbabwe’s cattle herd is also a helpless victim of the El Nino-induced drought, according to agricultural experts.

“Daily on average, only here in Buhera, we profile cases of approximately 20 or 30 cattle dying owing to lack of grazing pastures and drinking water, a situation that we can say is threatening to wipe out the country’s cattle herd,” Neverson Mutero, an agricultural extension officer, told IPS.

Through the UN Central Emergency Fund (CERF), the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) says it has made interventions to rescue the country’s cattle herd.

“FAO’s drought-response projects that have been funded to date target the livestock sector, assisting vulnerable families to safeguard their livestock assets – and thus their food security – during the drought,” Leonard Makombe, communications officer at FAO, told IPS.

Zimbabwe’s division of livestock and production development says that cattle have died mostly in areas like Masvingo, Matabeleland north, Manicaland, Midlands and Matabeleland south provinces.

Masvingo province tops the list, besides the failure of crops there, with 6,566 cattle succumbing to the El Nino-induced drought, according to the ministry of agriculture.

In total, this southern African nation lost approximately 16,000 cattle.

Last year, the agriculture ministry’s livestock department estimated that the national cattle herd stood at 5.3 million animals, down from over 6 million in 2014.

According to the agriculture ministry, Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst drought since 1992 when it killed over one million cattle.

In Manicaland’s Chipinge and Buhera rural districts, cattle prices have sharply fallen to as low as US$ 50 a beast, the worst cattle price fall in Zimbabwe’s history, this despite the cattle normally selling at $400 to $500 per beast.

The devastation of the country’s cattle comes at a time when many people have always depended on it to generate income and for draught power.

Now stung with the desperation to survive, and more so, stricken with hunger, Zimbabweans like Chishamba have resorted to barter trade using their dying cattle in order to get mealie-meal.

“We can’t be spectators of our own cattle perishing; we would rather exchange the frail beasts for a mealie-meal, getting 50kg of maize for one beast,” said Chishamba.

Thanks to FAO, some cattle farmers here are being bailed out of the crisis.

Zambia: KK Calls for Peace

FIRST Republican president Kenneth Kaunda has urged Zambians to desist from violence before, during and after the general elections this year.Dr Kaunda has further cautioned Zambians against engaging themselves in xenophobia.Speaking at the Cathedral o…