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July 31, 2011

African maize dependence needlessly increases the chances of every drought becoming a famine

by Chido Makunike

Unfortunately, as surely as night turns into day, every few years there is famine in eastern Africa. This one is being blamed on 'the region's worst drought in 60 years.'

Other than that indication of the severity of this drought's rain shortfall, there seems nothing else about it that is different from previous regional famines, which is disturbing. The familiar predictability of the course of the famine is depressing.

A severe reduction in seasonal rainfall may be the immediate cause of drought leading to the famine that is being witnessed. But that incorrectly suggests a sudden, unexpected calamity. Each season's 'drought' can be said to be unexpected because of the inherent unpredictability of climate, but the famine that is playing out now has been building up for some years. As many commentators are pointing out, drought need not necessarily, automatically lead to famine.

However, the de-linking of drought and famine requires complex multi-sector coordination over many years, by all the government and related actors whose job it is to prevent calamities like starvation. That there is yet another famine in Africa today is the clearest evidence that this sort of coordination has simply not taken place in the last few years that there have been many signs of dramatically decreased and/or changed rainfall patterns.   

As with every famine, there are bitter recriminations taking place. In Kenya the government has been on the defensive against charges that it failed to heed the warning signs and to do enough to prepare for the worst in its most drought-affected northern regions. Other governments in the region have either tried to downplay the seriousness of the problem in their countries, or to over-estimate their coping strategies.    

In the mountains of volumes that are being written about the world's latest famine, it is astonishing how little the most fundamental, simplest questions feature:

Since 'droughts' are becoming increasingly as predictable as good rains once were, why are they still so often allowed to become famines? Why haven't the preparation/coping strategies (of governments, NGOs, donors, investors, research organizations, etc) caught up with the knowledge of the increasing regularity of drought?

This gap between having the basic facts and failing to plan/act appropriately on them is perhaps best illustrated by the attitude to maize in much of Africa. In many African countries, famine primarily means 'there is not enough available and/or affordable maize,' even if it of course also means much more than that.  

For maize to do well it requires relatively nutrient-rich soils and relatively high amounts of water compared to other grains. Since both soil quality and rainfall amounts are increasingly challenged in many maize-dependent regions, including much of the area of the current east African famine, why is there such a huge continuing investment/commitment to a crop that seems clearly decreasingly suited to the region? 

Yet all the region's agro-actors; from consumers, farmers, governments, the private sector and  pretty much all others in the agricultural/nutritional chain continue to reverentially behave towards maize as if these are normal times.

Maize might have been well-adapted to its new environment in Africa for a few hundred years since its introduction from South America by the European colonists, but all the signs are that it isn't any longer. So far the scramble by researchers to introduce newly adaptive varieties hasn't caught up with the scale and speed of the negative changes in Africa's maize-growing environment.

With bigger grains than better-adapted small grains like sorghum and millet, maize was easier to plant, harvest, shell and mill, whether manually or mechanically. The African palate obviously took to the taste, although most milled maize arguably tastes flatter than most other carbohydrate crops. Its processing and cooking is also more laborious than most. But there is nothing intrinsically special about maize to prevent thinking of alternatives, old or new, that are better suited for the changed conditions.

Whatever the competitive advantages maize in Africa once had over other grains and root starches, they are now increasingly being cancelled out by the rapidly declining conditions for its reliable cultivation, adding to the risk of famine every time the rains are less or later than expected.

Coping strategies that ignore this only help to increase the chances that shortfalls of rain will result in more famines in Africa. Coping strategies that currently exclusively focus on how to 'persuade' maize to do better in worsening conditions urgently need to be accompanied by a mindset change. Concurrent efforts must be made to find alternatives to heavily soil nutrient-demanding, heavily rain water-dependent maize as Africa's main source of dietary carbohydrate.           

It would therefore seem logical for many researchers, nutritionists, farmers, policy makers and so on to be busily cracking their heads to figure out how to urgently reduce Africa's maize dependence, so that 'drought' does not have to so often automatically result in famine. But no one is interested in thinking about this because of how deeply, (now) negatively entrenched the idea of 'maize' and 'food' as being one and the same thing has been allowed to become.

The argument that many Africans have come to 'like' maize seems almost petty and irresponsible, if it means we must witness a famine every time there are fewer than expected drops of rain.

'Drought' has been put in quotation marks here because it is not a neutral, value-less word. 'Drought' assumes that the climate owes a particular area the same range and timing of rainfall that has obtained there for the last several years/decades/generations/centuries. Who said so? Who made this promise?

One of the paradigm shifts that is needed, but that is very slow in coming, is acceptance of the reality that for many areas, what is judgmentally thought of as 'drought' is the new normal. We can either continue to knock our heads against the wall asking why this is so and hope that next season will go back to the old normal, a kind of blind faith for which there is no longer good reason. Or we accept that low-precipitation rain seasons are the new normal, and start changing practices accordingly, including the kind of carbohydrates that we 'like.'

Just as the 'liking' of maize was introduced/taught/learned behavior, it can, and now needs to be replaced by more climatically-appropriate carbohydrate-eating behavior! Of course this magnitude of changing thinking is a huge task, but it can't be any more daunting than watching a famine wipe out masses of people every decade or so. 
It is easy to see why the groups who should be leading this paradigm shift are reluctant to do so. Because of its economic and therefore political importance in Africa, maize has mutated into a type of hot potato. Even in normal times, maize is big business for exporters/importers, researchers, governments, donors and so forth.

In times of famine like now, when millions risk starvation partly because the carbohydrate on which they have become nutritionally dependent cannot be grown well because of 'drought,' there are others who prosper from the shortage and the chaos. Middle men whose markup appreciates; NGOs and 'charities' who mainly mean well and mostly do good, but whose basic business model means misery for others means more income for them; cynical governments who expect praise for doing their basic job of feeding the vulnerable, and so on and so forth. All these local and foreign members of Africa's vast and intricate 'Maize Mafia' have something or other to gain from the continent's unhealthy, increasingly famine-contributing maize habit.  

Maybe this is too depressing and alarmist. Let's take a break and accentuate Africa's maize-positives, by pointing to the last few years of bumper harvests in two countries, Malawi and Zambia. Rain-fed cultivation by mostly small-scale farmers, with enough surpluses for export, helped by inputs-subsidies by forward thinking governments. Don't these successes disprove all the anti-maize arguments just made? Don't these two examples show that maize still has a bright future in Africa?

Not at all necessarily. One or two slightly dry cropping seasons in these countries, let alone real 'droughts' like that in east Africa now, and they would likely experience famine every bit as severe. Actually these last several years have had rains that are almost unusually good for Malawi and Zambia, so nobody should pretend to be shocked if in the next few years 'droughts' have their turn. The combination of deeper maize dependence and greater neglect of alternatives; less attention to boosting intrinsic soil fertility because of greater fertilizer availability and so on may make the famine come quicker than might have otherwise been the case in a drought.  

So no, the temporary successes of Malawi and Zambia at maize cultivation are not necessarily negations of the 'maize-dependence-is-dangerous-for-Africa' rule. These 'bumper harvests' do nothing to change this reality that is becoming more obvious: 'food security' that is primarily based on rain-fed cultivation of an increasingly Africa-unsuitable crop like maize is no security at all.

It is bad enough to see the present famine in east Africa unfold. It is much worse to be able to predict that at least partly because Africa is under the psychological and economic grip of its maize dependence, sooner or later, in the same region or elsewhere, we will yet again see periods of low rainfall needlessly resulting in famine.

It's time for bold people to step up to the plate of starting the difficult job of helping Africa kick or at least significantly reduce its dangerous, outdated maize habit.

African Agriculture

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