Would you eat cassava? Do you even know what it is and what it tastes like? When was the last time you ate something that was not pap, sorghum or rice? Well, should food and climate experts have their way, you could be eating cassava porridge, pap and even pie within a few years.
In fact, for decades, experts watching subtle changes in the region climate have warned that southern Africans need to let go of their traditional and cultural ‘obsession’ with maize.
This year, as has happened nearly every five years for the past two decades, the southern African region is headed for harsh times as the El Nino phenomenon has caused yet another drought – this time the worst in 35 years. More than 27 million people in the region including 50,000 in Botswana, are facing hunger and the numbers are due to rise significantly as the year progresses, following a disastrous 2015-2016 season.
Maize, the staple eaten in various forms across the region, has suffered the worst of the crisis, being the least drought resistant of the cereals consumed in the region. Most of the maize eaten in the region is rain-fed and this year, South Africa, which usually supports the region with exports, expects to import up to 4.8 million tonnes for itself. For the rest of 2016, experts say pap will continue being available in shops and in your plate, but at a much higher price, as countries, including Botswana, import at a premium continentally and internationally.
Cassava meanwhile, is among the hardiest and most drought-resistant crops available in Africa. It also boasts superb soil adaptability, high nutrition and can be prepared into more dishes than maize.
SADC data made available this week indicates that the region has suffered deficits in cereal production for the past five years. Cereals consumed in the region include maize, wheat, sorghum/millet and rice.
The 2014-2015 season suffered a deficit of 1.9 million tonnes in maize, 1.3 million in sorghum/millet, 3.3 million in wheat and 1.3 million tonnes in rice.
“Crop production during the 2014-2015 rainfall season was mainly affected by prolonged dry spells in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, the maize belt of South Africa, southern Angola and southern Zimbabwe while Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique were affected by both floods and prolonged dry spells.
“Consequently all member states experienced significant decreases in cereal outputs,” the SADC report states.
In 2013-2014 Botswana enjoyed a bumper cereal production of 216,000 tonnes, but this dwindled to a measly 22,000 tonnes in 2014-2015, representing a 90 percent drop.
This year, government brought forward its annual drought assessment from its traditional July period to February 1, citing extreme drought conditions. The 22-day assessment is due out soon and is expected to indicate even lower cereal production and livestock performance.
Another report, published by a UN agency last week indicates that the Ministry of Health nutrition surveillance system has noted an increase in malnutrition in children under the age of five.
“The total national underweight for children under five has increased from 3.2 percent in September 2015 to 3.9 percent in November 2015. This is in line with the ongoing shortfall of food availability and access due to the ongoing drought.” The same report also suggests that the poor agricultural season in Botswana could worsen the HIV/AIDS situation, while also impacting on education, as agrarian parents fail to support their children and hungry learners quit school to engage in other income-generating activities.
“A recent study, which looked at the link between HIV, economic
“El Niño may also lead to further decreases in service utilisation and adherence to ART and TB treatment. The lack of food is a reason for people to stop taking their medication, since one side effect of the medicine is increased feelings of hunger.” The same report estimates that 50,000 Batswana, exclusively in the rural areas, are facing hunger. Unlike other countries in the region, these citizens will be supported by government through various drought relief measures, which include food baskets for vulnerable children and elders.
Going against the food and climate experts’ advice, these baskets and coupons grant the hungry access to cereals such as maize and sorghum, reliance on which is ironically the reason for the hunger in the first place.
A position paper circulated ahead of a special SADC seminar on food security held in Gaborone this week, again raised the debate over changing the food southern Africans grow and eat.
In the paper, the SADC Secretariat has been asked to consider scaling up cassava value chain development, commercialisation and access to high growth markets for high quality cassava flour value chain.
“In SADC, there is a high dependence on maize as a staple, produced largely under unpredictable rain-fed conditions,” the paper reads. “With growing interest in diversification of agri-business value chains, for example in roots and tubers, the SADC Secretariat needs to consider options to scale up cassava value chain development, commercialisation and access to high growth markets for high quality cassava flour value chain.”
The paper continues: “On the basis of lessons learnt from some SADC member states, there is need by members to consider a dissemination strategy of the high quality cassava flour value chain with a view to benefiting more widely, communities, smallholder cassava growers, processors and micro small and medium enterprises.” The paper says countries where cassava has shown ‘substantial potential’ of complementing maize as a staple include Tanzania, DRC, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique ‘among others’.
But could it work in Botswana?
“Never,” says Olebogeng Dichaba, a 53-year-old communal farmer in Gabane. “Even if government added this cassava to the food baskets for destitutes and children, people would just return them and try something else.
“Sorghum and pap are part of our culture and our cuisine. It’s what our forefathers ate and with sorghum, it’s what we even drink.“Who knows what this cassava even looks like?” With current estimates indicating that Botswana sits in a belt that will be hardest hit by climate change going forward, there may be little choice, but to accept the inevitable.
The region, and particularly Botswana may also look to China as the Johannesburg Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) action plan contains new pledges to assist Africa in an assortment of sectors, including smart agriculture and food security.
At the December meeting, the two sides agreed that enhancing agriculture modernisation in Africa by strengthening agricultural cooperation will contribute to food security in Africa.
Apart from this modernisation, Batswana could find themselves with little choice, but to accept a new staple. Would you eat it?