The sad reality is that the true impacts of colonialism on the African continent and its people are not really known. Most history, economics and political materials tend to focus on the obvious, land and politics.
Today I introduce a rather unfamiliar topic concerning agriculture but from an international political economy perspective. Amongst many things brought to Africa by colonialists to change our ways of living and tastes is “maize”.
Maize, also known as corn, is a large grain plant first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Although maize is a crop from Mexico, it is now the plant of the world.
Based on the premise that agricultural economics and politics are inseparable, this piece is inspired by the book by the foremost Pan-African scholar and prominent Guyanese historian Walter Rodney titled: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which takes the view that Africa was deliberately exploited and underdeveloped by European colonial regimes.
So the article seeks to expand on Rodney’s thesis and other scholars of Africa’s and related issues on underdevelopment like Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank as well as Raúl Prebisch.
The main argument is therefore that the introduction of the maize crop in Africa was a precursor to widespread poverty and disenfranchisement of a people. Arrested development.
The second argument is that in light of increased starvation across the continent, perhaps there is an opportunity to explore whether Africa cannot go back to the basics and resuscitate native food plants, or “lost crops” as a result of the introduction of foreign crops such as maize.
It is well documented that European explorers ‘discovered’ Americas in the 1400s. The seafaring voyages by the likes of Hernan Cortes, Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus changed the world as they brought with them diseases and European underdevelopment.
Their mark in world politics is characterised by the killing of millions of people, dismantling of established cities, and of course Transatlantic slave trade.
But what is not well documented is that when the Europeans went back to Europe, they took with them some of the best things in the jurisdictions they had annexed. One such was the maize crop.
Just like the dhows who introduced rice from Asia centuries before their arrival, Portuguese colonists in the 1500s imported maize to Africa from the Americas via Europe.
Empirical evidence suggests that maize was probably introduced to tropical Africa at more than one point and at different times. Maize was widely grown along the coast from the River Gambia to Sao Tome, around the mouth of the River Congo, and possibly in Ethiopia, in the sixteenth century.
To support the assertion that maize arrived in the interior from the coast, Seminic speakers in Ethiopian highlands called maize “yabaher mashela“, which in Amharic means “sorghum from the sea.”
Nevertheless, James C. McCann points out that, “Having spread to all corners of the continent within the relatively short period of 500 years, it [maize] is now Africa’s most important cereal crop.”
According to FAOSTAT, in 2003, 66% of world maize output was produced in only three countries, namely, the United States, China, and Brazil.
McCann says that most maize is cultivated to provide livestock feed and as a raw material for food manufacturing, but in Africa, up to 95% of the maize grown is consumed by humans rather than be used as livestock feed or for other purposes.
Moreover, maize is the foremost staple diet in Africa and other places in the world.
McCann observes that “the way of eating maize in Africa differs from methods of consumption in other maize growing areas of the world.” For example, in Africa maize is often boiled, while in America it is mostly baked.
Notwithstanding how we eat maize, FAOSTAT states that approximately 30% of the calorific intake of people in sub-Saharan Africa comes from maize, while the second cereal, wheat, accounts for only 16%. Much more astonishing in Lesotho, Zambia, and Malawi, maize accounts over 50% of calorific intake.
It is amazing how Mexico’s product managed to entrench itself in Africa. Also, others might as well wonder what were Africans eating before maize took over our lives?
Therefore, it is necessary to move away from the Eurocentric prism when dealing with the controversial topic of colonialism. This school of thought argues that Africa was ‘a dark continent’ (uncivilised). Hence, we should be thankful that Europeans colonised us to give us civilization and Christianity as well as to introduce us to modern commercialism.
At this point, you probably ask yourself where this narrative is going. Using existing literature and inferences, I show why I strongly believe that the introduction of the maize crop laid foundations for poverty and hunger in Africa.
In the book titled: “Lost crops of Africa“, it is argued that there are more than 2000 lost foods across the African continent, from Mauritania to Madagascar.
The European colonialists were not only driven to conquer and introduce Christianity but they also wanted to integrate the African continent into global capitalism.
In addition, they forcefully destroyed local knowledge and productive skills as way of creating dependence by locals to survive. One way of attaining this was to replace indigenous plants with new products.
Maize was not brought to Africa in order to solve socio-economic challenges such as hunger and starvation but to change ways of living and creating a new market for European merchants. As a result, maize had quickly replaced sorghum and malt in the 19th century.
Many would be surprised to learn that “Africa’s wild-cereal grains is probably the oldest tradition in organised food production to be found anywhere in the world.” This operation was never small at all.
The “Lost Crops of Africa” asserts that “seeds of about 60 species of wild grasses are still gathered for food in Africa.”
Even long before most past of the world had organised farming, Africa had domesticated a number the wild grasses and eventually produced by farmers in their fields.
Despite the long history of food production in Africa, the local grains have been superseded by foreign cereals. In fact, Africa is now a net importer of food after the production of native grains plunged in the recent recent decades.
The saddest part is that missionaries and colonialists introduced foreign crops to completely destroy indigenous food production.
In addition to sorghum and malt, some of the crops that are truly indigenous to Africa include:
- African rice – Most people think of rice as an exclusively Asian crop, but farmers have grown a native rice in parts of West Africa for at least 1,500 years.
- Finger millet – In parts of East and Central Africa (not to mention India), millions of people have lived off finger millet for centuries.
- Fonio (Acha) – An indigenous West African crop, fonio is grown mainly on small farms for home consumption. It is probably the world’s fastest maturing cereal and is particularly important as a safety net for producing when other foods are in short supply or market prices are too high for poor people to afford.
- Pearl millet – Some 4,000 years ago, pearl millet was domesticated from a wild grass of the southern Sahara. Today, it is the world’s sixth-largest cereal crop, but it has even greater potential than most people imagine. Of the major cereals, pearl millet is the most tolerant of heat and drought.
- Other cultivated grains include Guinea millet, emmer (Ethiopian rare wheat) and irregular barley.
This long, but hopefully interesting story shows the unfortunate impact of colonialism on the African continent which has led to poor knowledge of its grains.
The advent of colonialism completely distorted the picture as maize replaced sorghum and Asian rice replaced African rice. This resulted in loss of knowledge because a foreign crop is considered superior to a local one and the native crop subsequently became obsolete and unworthy of further development.
Europeans also did not want African colonies to develop their own technology to further develop raw materials into different products.
In summary, the introduction of a foreign crop in Africa represents the early stages of manufacturing of poverty in the continent. That is the reason I argue that poverty is a man-made phenomenon rather than an unfortunate occurrence as part of nature.
Introduction of maize to the interior of Southern Africa somewhere around 1700s is said to have caused conflict over cattle, grain and water, which eventually led to war. The new crop needed more water and when the drought struck thousands of people starved.
Broadly speaking, the introduction of maize to Africa resulted in the following:
- Loss of comparative advantage to create wealth from trade;
- Loss of skills and knowledge for producing the crops due long periods of inactivity;
- Foods like sorghum were never been developed as a major food for urban areas (market shortages);
- Indigenous plants and crops have generally escaped the attention of governments as basic food commodity: stockpiling, purchase of surpluses, price supports, research, and policy support, etc.; and
- Increased dependence on imported crops and hence a significant decline in food security.
These negative consequences as a result of introducing of maize in the continent were compounded by the loss of land and displacement of peoples by settler administrations.
Also, this means that native populations were not properly introduced to global economy as equal partners but as consumers and cheap labour. Now it appears that Africans had nothing to offer to the world, which is unfortunate.
As a result, very few countries have productive agricultural and other sectors to support their economies. Economists and other scholars have generally failed to diagnose the problem of underdevelopment in Africa which has led some of the unjustified perceptions.
The changing global conditions and need to find alternatives under the harsh realities of global capital mean that expanded sources of food have to be found.
Of the many lost crops, unfortunately “only a handful are currently receiving concerted research and development, and even those few are grossly underappreciated.” This presents an opportunity for African scholars and scientists to conduct research on these “lost crops” so that we can be able to feed the burgeoning populations.
A native plant like sorghum in Africa is presently grown mostly at subsistence levels, with no intention to sell. However, other countries such as The United States, Mexico, Honduras, and Argentina are “taking advantage of this crop’s powerful performance under pampered conditions.”
Also, it is important to note that while Mexico’s maize is replacing Africa’s sorghum in Africa, in Mexico itself the opposite is happening: sorghum is replacing maize in many areas.
The problem of food in Africa is excerbated by global food speculation and multinational agricultural corporations like Monsanto (a Bayer subsidiary) and Sygenta (now owned by ChemChina) with their genetically modified crops.
The future perhaps lies in the development of Africa’s lost crops. It is time for the African continent to free itself from shackles of colonialism, through agriculture. Lost crops hold promise for the future.