If the constraints were the same throughout Africa, they might be manageable; but th ey differ in degree and kind from farmer to farmer, village to village, valley to valley, and nation to nation. With all these localized and varying limitations, some people conclude that unified advances of the Green Revolution type that swept across India and Pakistan in the 1960s are inapplicable. Perhaps a different approach is needed.

Actually, that approach might come from Africa's own subsistence sorghums. During thousands of years, farmers have selected varieties to match their local conditions and food preferences. These traditional types are already remarkable for their diversity. In Sukumaland in Tanzania, for instance, a single researcher once counted 109 named cultivars—all of them in common use. In Samaru, Nigeria, more than 100 local types have been identified. And in the Lake Turkana area of Kenya there is such a variety of distinctly colored sorghums that just by looking at a grain, farmers claim that they can identify who grew it—a form of "natural bar-coding" that is said to ensure against theft.1 For Africa as a whole, the number of distinct sorghums must range into the many thousands. Some have been reverently handed down from generation to generation.2

These traditional sorghums are not only varied, they can have remarkable qualities. Perhaps centuries of careful observation have gone into their selection. They incorporate features such as:

  • Good seedling emergence and strong early root development (to compensate for the normal brevity of the early rains);

  • Good tillering (to compensate for erratic early rains as well as shoot-fly attack);

  • Long growing cycles (to make best use of infertile soils);

  • Resistance to insects (particularly headbugs);

  • Resistance to molds; and

  • Tolerance of bird pests and striga, a parasitic plant that is an impossible pest in certain regions.3

In addition to the agronomic qualities mentioned above, subsistence sorghums have been carefully selected for features that affect the appearance, texture, taste, preparation, or shelf life of traditional foodstuffs. They are mostly grown by women, and are used primarily in the home to prepare local foods.

Traditionally, people consume the grain as a stiff porridge (toh or ugali), a thin porridge (uji), or in a range of fermented beverages.

1  

Information from D.J. Lowe.

2  

All this is made possible because sorghum is predominantly self-fertilizing and a given variety retains its distinctive qualities when it is planted year after year.

3  

Both of these troublesome organisms are described in Appendix A.



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