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Story Publication logo May 9, 2010

Biotech in Africa: 'A Shortage of Maize Means a Shortage of Food' (Part 2)


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African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry...

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Agnes Mdunge, 19, a clerk at a store in Machakos, holds corn kernels. Image by Riccardo Gangale for the Des Moines Register. Kenya, 2010.

In Iowa, corn is king. In eastern and southern Africa, it's more important than that.

Americans feed corn to livestock or turn it into motor fuel or a sweetener for soft drinks. Africans eat it. Every day, sometimes more than once.

Corn, or maize as it is called in Africa, is often eaten as a mash made with cornmeal and similar to American grits. In Kenya and some neighboring countries, they call it ugali, pronounced "ooh-gah-lee." It's eaten with the hands - one takes a clump and dips into a dish of vegetables or meat. In South Africa, the mash is known as pap, pronounced "pop."

"I eat ugali every day. Ugali is my staple food," said Morris Ochieng, a 34-year-old tour guide who was shopping recently in a Tuskys supermarket in a working-class area of Nairobi.

At this Tuskys, as in other Nairobi grocery stores, bags of maize meal stacked 4 and 5 feet high can take up one side of an aisle for 20 feet or so.

Maize "is our main food," said Benson Ndelevo, who was selling chickens at an open-air market recently. "A shortage of maize means a shortage of food."

Kenyans consumed about 2.8 million metric tons of maize in 2000, and that demand is expected to grow to 7.5 million metric tons by 2050 with expected increases in population, according to a study published in the journal Agricultural Systems. Kenya consumes about 190 pounds of maize per person annually.

Maize was first planted around 1500 after being brought to the continent from the New World by missionaries or traders, according to the book "Maize and Grace," a history of the crop in Africa by James McCann. Today, it's a staple food for an estimated 300 million people.

Even for some population groups that don't normally eat that much maize, the grain is a major source of food aid in times of drought. In parts of northern Kenya, some tribes that normally subsist on a diet of meat and milk lost their cattle to a drought and were forced to rely on maize as food aid.

People of all economic classes eat maize, but it is especially important to the poor. For some of them, including the hundreds of thousands crowded into Nairobi's Kibera slum, it is the main source of calories.

Kibera is a disease-ridden city within a city. It sprawls on a hillside, filled with mud shacks roughly 12 feet by 12 feet in size and covered with rusty corrugated metal roofs. The shacks front narrow muddy paths that at times are barely wide enough for one person to pass.

Ugali isn't the only way maize is eaten. Maize and beans are boiled together. Maize also is prepared in a way familiar to Americans: boiled on the ear. Along paths in Kibera, women will boil a dozen or more ears in a water-filled bag stuffed in a pot on a makeshift charcoal stove. (Charcoal stoves are the primary method of cooking. Clumps of charcoal are added to the coals to retain the heat.)

One Kibera resident, Mercy Ondisa, 20, eats ugali for lunch and dinner, but when money is especially tight, maize meal has to suffice for breakfast, too.

"If we don't have money to buy milk, we cook it like porridge and we drink it and then you go your way in the morning," she said. "If you don't have anything to drink or eat in the evening you can also cook porridge."

At Kibera's Paradise Hotel, actually a diner, ugali is offered in half a dozen ways, including with matumbo, or cattle intestines, for 35 shillings, less than a nickel. Ugali with sukuma, or kale, is cheaper, about 25 shillings.

The maize Kenyans eat is grown on farms of all sizes. Kenya has some commercial-scale production in areas around Eldoret, the breadbasket in the eastern part of the country, and toward the border with Tanzania in the southwest. But rural residents till small fields of maize, often of one to three acres in size, the corn plants frequently intermingled with beans. They grow corn in any area of the country that receives even moderate rainfall, and even some areas where drought is fairly common.

"If people don't have maize, they say, 'We don't have food,' even if they have access to other things," said Buzz Sharp, a longtime rural development specialist with the British aid group Oxfam. "It's a bit like rice in China."

A time may come when Africans don't depend on maize as much as they do now, says Hubert Jarlet, managing director of AFGRI Trading, a commodity trading firm based near Johannesburg, South Africa.

When women are working outside their home they won't have time to prepare maize meals every night, he said.

The question facing U.S. seed companies is whether African consumers will buy maize produced from genetically modified seed.

South Africa is the only sub-Saharan country where biotech maize can be grown commercially. But South Africa's biotech maize is gradually being accepted in other countries, including Zimbabwe and Botswana. The Kenyan government last year allowed the import of biotech maize from South Africa as food aid.

Ndelevo, the chicken vendor, says Kenyans are likely to be wary of biotech maize unless the government assures them it's OK.

"We are not aware really what it is," he said. "It needs to be told more about it and what it means."


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