The Power of Processed Foods

Despite the reliance on sorghum and millet in some countries, and despite consumer preference for flour made from them, the industrial production and commercialization of local flour has barely been established in Africa. Sorghum and millet flours are still mainly produced by each individual household. On the other hand, the introduced grains—wheat, rice, and maize—are more commonly milled at commercial facilities.

This makes the foreign grains look superior and it holds back the local cereals. And the situation is worsening. Soon, the rural labor force could be insufficient. Thus, even if production is increased there won't be the people to process it. For example, in most regions it is the young women who process most of the grain, but increasingly they are going to school, getting jobs, or abandoning the countryside to seek opportunity in the cities.

In a sense, then, it is imperative to find and develop good profitable uses for millet, sorghum, and the others. And the time is ripe. With increasing urbanization and rising disposable incomes, the demand for preprocessed and convenience foods is accelerating. This is one reason why commercially milled wheat and maize flour are increasingly preferred. Sorghum and millet are much cheaper, but they are unprocessed and therefore less convenient to use. As a result, markets for locally grown sorghum and millet are diminishing, incentives for local production are deteriorating, and foreign exchange reserves are dwindling to meet ever-rising demands for preprocessed flours.*

In dry regions, processing facilities are particularly vital to the future of local cereal farming. There, sorghum and millet are essential for a viable agricultural community. Both crops are so drought tolerant they can grow where other cereals cannot. When imported flour crushes the demand for them, the farmers are left with no outlet for their grain in years of good rainfall when they have a surplus. And when market prices fall, farmers cannot afford the inputs, such as fertilizer, that can keep their yields up.

If, as has been noted, markets for local flour and processed foods are developed, a large and healthy trade between a country's own sorghum, millet, and fonio farmers and its cities could operate to everyone's benefit.

Success with processing would likely transform Africa's native cereals into big-time, high-value worldwide foods.

*  

FAO reports that between 1961 and 1977, imports of wheat, rice, and maize to Africa increased between 5 and 10 percent a year, whereas the production of sorghum and millet increased 0.2-1 percent.



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