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By: Tony Rinaudo
Published: 2002-10-01


In many marginal farming areas of developing countries, people are going hungry unnecessarily. Often drought and pests have become scapegoat for the many woes people suffer, but a closer look at the problem may reveal other causes. For example, it is not uncommon for people to rely on crops that are not the most suitable for their region. In 1999, famine affected over 78,000 people in Humbo district (400 km South of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)[1]. The staple crop, maize[2], had shriveled up in 1999, due to low rainfall and poor distribution of rainfall, yet other vegetation remained green. In fact World Vision (WV) staff called it a “green famine.” Interestingly, in the small, non-irrigated household gardens, sweet potato, cassava, moringa (an indigenous tree with nutritious edible leaves), paw paw (papaya) and many other edible plants were thriving! When people settled in to this part of the hot, semi arid Rift Valley some 30 years ago, they brought their maize with them. Year after year the crop has failed, simply because maize is not suitable for the unreliable and erratic rain fall patterns characteristic of the area. Instead of seeing that maize is not a suitable crop for the normal rain fall pattern, blame is placed on “poor” weather for its failure to produce grain[3].

Interestingly, this concept is not unique to developing countries. Until very recently in Australia, drought was widely considered an unusual ‘natural disaster’ and both farmers and pastoral it routinely expected the government to provide them with compensatory payments to tide them over exceptional drought periods. This view of drought has now been displaced in official policy by the much more realistic idea that drought in Australia is not exceptional, but normal and farmers are being encouraged to work with the environment, not against it.

In some more fortunate situations, the problem can be solved by building irrigation on systems, or by introducing more hardy varieties of the same crop. Both of these options should certainly be pursued, but they have limits and will not benefit the majority of people for whom there is no irrigation potential, or where the climate is simply too extreme for even the best varieties.

Hunger in this case has resulted from reliance on a crop that is unsuitable for the climate and because people are not accustomed to treating other crops (which do well in the region) as staple foods. Many factors contribute to this lack of interest in and familiarity with other crop, including people's taste preferences, history with the crops, and bad experiences with them. For example, alternative crops that thrive under the same conditions in which maize failed may also have limitations. It is well known that sorghum is one of the most drought resistant crops available, but it appears to be very susceptible to bird damage, and so is not widely grown. Cassava is also extremely drought resistant and suffers no damage from birds, but its tubers do not store well. The same is true of sweet potato.

Ingrained likes and dislikes run deep. Despite recurring food shortages, the community at Humbo has not adopted teaching on how to chip and dry cassava and sweet potato, which would enable these tubers to be stored for long periods. Instead, at harvest time when a 100 kg sack of sweet potato tubers is worth just US $0.12, tubers are trashed!

There are ways of getting around these problems. In the Makueni district of Kenya where maize crops have repeatedly failed due to drought, farmers are returning to their traditional crops of millet and sorghum. They are finding that when a large enough area of sorghum is planted, bird damage on any one plot is minimized. [Editors: If readers have information on on reducing bird problems through altering sowing times, using mixed cropping or using other means, please write to us so we can share the information with Tony and others in our network.]

In Kaloleni, a coastal district near Mombasa, Kenya, cassava thrives. Yet it is not valued, but is stigmatized as a poor man's crop. It is seen as a famine food, one that is eaten as a last option during hunger spell. Farmers sell the abundant food at very low prices in order to buy expensive processed foods (maize and wheat flour, deep-fried potato crisps, etc.)

In collaboration with the Kenyan Government ’s “Farm Training Centre” in Mombasa, WV Kenya is helping people to value cassava by teaching new ways of cooking and processing it. Chapatis(a type of pancake) are a popular food, but are usually made with expensive wheat flour. WV facilitators have taught community members how to make cassava flour and mix it in a 1:2 ratio with maize flour for making chapatis. Thus, a monetary saving is made and the end product is actually preferred, being less gluey. Nobody dreamed that cassava could be made into deep-fried chips, which is another popular food. The cassava roots are boiled, the stringy vein is removed and then the root is deep-fried. Mothers are packing these “new” foods in school lunches – and the kids are asking for more! Previously, when children brought boiled cassava to school they were ashamed and afraid of ridicule. Now, children beg their mums to pack extra, so that they can share it with their friends! A type of cassava rissole (fried mash, similar to a hash brown) is also prepared, using mashed cassava roots and leaves (the latter of which happen to be high in protein and vitamins). Simply by changing people' s perceptions of cassava, and offering new way of processing it to produce tastier foods, a whole community is on its way to becoming self-sufficient in food.

A lot of time, money and suffering could be saved in many food-deficient areas. While all avenues should be pursued to alleviate the situation (including irrigation and crop introduction for example), we should not overlook what maybe staring us in the face. Often, the most suitable crops for the area are already present, but they are undervalued. Small adjustments in the farming method used or a change in the way foods are prepared, coupled with community education,could make a big difference to winning the battle against hunger.

1 Conditions improved, but were still serious for 53,700 people in 2001 and 23,000 people in 2002.

2 Drought-stressed areas devoted to maize production in Ethiopia occupy 38 to 42% of the total maize-growing area but contribute only about 17% of total maize production. Drought-stressed areas constitute about 46% of all arable land in Ethiopia where 25% of the population live and maize is one of the most widely grown food crops in these regions. [Nigussie, M, et al. Maize Breeding for Drought Stressed Areas Of Ethiopia: A Review. In 25 years of Research Experience in Lowland Crops. Proceedings of 25th Anniversary of Nazareth Research Center. 22-23 Sept. 1995. Melkassa, Ethiopia]

3 In fact, there are good reasons why people prefer maize. It gives the highest yield per unit area when seasons are good, maize husks provide protection against birds and rain, it is easy to harvest and shell, it does not shatter, it can be harvested over a long period, and people prefer the taste of maize over other foods.