African governments are having doubts about their staple crop

That’s not the way out

“IT’S what our forefathers used to eat,” says Kennedy Kapami, a Zambian phone salesman, rolling a ball of stiff maize porridge in his fingers. Maize is the staple food in eastern and southern Africa, where in some countries it provides over half of calories consumed. But Mr Kapami is wrong about his forefathers, or at least, his distant ones. Until the 20th century they mostly ate sorghum and millet. Maize came to Africa with the colonists. Governments now fret about its dominance.

Portuguese slavers were the first to bring it to Africa. Sometimes the crop took roundabout routes. Swahili-speakers know it as mahindi (of India). Bambara-speakers in Mali call it kaba, after the sacred site in Mecca, from where pilgrims returned with exotic foods.

In southern Africa maize was grown on large estates by white settlers. After independence, governments doled out maize seed and fertiliser,…

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