productive, self-reliant, and useful—the very types needed to feed the hungriest mouths on the planet.
Inferior Yield. Low yield is perhaps the most frequent comment made about Africa's grains. Yet these grains are now mostly cultivated in marginal lands under less than optimal management and the yields therefore do not reflect their true potential.
Moreover, the use of yield figures can be totally misleading. Maize may be able to outyield finger millet, pearl millet, hungry rice, and tef, but only when soil fertility, moisture, and other conditions are good. Under poor conditions, African grains often outyield the best products of modern science.
Unworthy Foods. Millets are mainly used for making porridges, fermented products, couscous, and other foods that are alien and therefore somewhat suspect to non-Africans, especially Westerners. This has led outsiders, who often serve as "decision makers," to direct resources away from native grains.
Disparaging comments about African foods are not uncommon in the writings of travelers—especially in Victorian times. They are of course only personal—often highly prejudiced—opinions but, lingering in the literature, they have a pernicious influence that can last for decades or even centuries. Europeans treated the potato and tomato this way when they first arrived from the Americas. Myths about taste and safety helped block the adoption of both for two centuries.
Cost-Effectiveness. Most of Africa's grains are exclusively subsistence crops; the remainder are partially so. Farmers grow them for their own use rather than for market, and therefore there are no statistics on production or costs. A plant may be helping feed millions, but in the international figures on area sown, tonnage produced and exported, and prices paid it never shows. It is as if it doesn't exist.
This situation might be of little consequence were it not for the fact that economic-development funding these days is overwhelmingly judged on "cost-effectiveness." Thus, a crop with no baseline data is at a cruel disadvantage. Maize or wheat researchers can pull out impressive figures to justify the promise of their proposed studies. Finger millet or fonio researchers can only come up with guesses. To the hard-pressed, cost-conscious administrator—ever fearful of accusations that public funds may be misspent—the decision on which proposal to support is inevitably biased.