Africa has more native cereals than any other continent. It has its own species of rice, as well as finger millet, fonio, pearl millet, sorghum, tef, guinea millet, and several dozen wild cereals whose grains are eaten from time to time.
This is a food heritage that has fed people for generation after generation stretching back to the origins of mankind. It is also a local legacy of genetic wealth upon which a sound food future might be built. But, strangely, it has largely been bypassed in modern times.
Centuries ago, dhows introduced rice from Asia. In the 1500s, Portuguese colonists imported maize from the Americas. In the last few decades wheat has arrived, courtesy of farmers in the temperate zones. Faced with these wondrous foreign foods, the continent has slowly tilted away from its own ancient cereal wealth and embraced the new-found grains from across the seas.
Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing. The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas. Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate. Myths arose—that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavorful, nor as easy to handle. As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile. In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.
But now, forward-thinking scientists are starting to look at the old cereal heritage with unbiased eyes. Peering past the myths, they see waiting in the shadows a storehouse of resources whose qualities offer promise not just to Africa, but to the world.
Already, sorghum is a booming new food crop in Central America. Pearl millet is showing such utility that it is probably the most promising new crop for the United States. Nutritionists in a dozen or more
countries see finger millet and some sorghums as the key—finally—to solving Africa's malnutrition problem. Food technologists are finding vast new possibilities in processes that can open up vibrant consumer markets for new and tasty products made from Africa's own grains. And engineers are showing how the old grains can be produced and processed locally without the spirit-crushing drudgery that raises the resentment of millions who have to grind grain every day.
That, then, is the underlying message of this book. It should not be seen as an indictment of wheat, maize, or rice. Those are the world's three biggest crops, they have become vital to Africa, and they deserve even more research and support than they are now getting. But this book, we hope, will open everyone's eyes to the long-lost promise inherent in the grains that are the gifts of ancient generations. Dedicated effort will open a second front in the war on hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and environmental degradation. It will save from extinction the foods of the forebears. And it just might bring Africa the food-secure future that everyone hopes for but few can now foresee.
Noel D. Vietmeyer