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Blog Post
23 March 2018

Could maize be a curse for Africa?

Violet Gavin prepares maize she has grown inside her small hut in Chimteka, Malawi in April 2009.

Photo by Kate Holt/Africa Practice via flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

You must be wondering why the title? Well, this comes from a debate during the Third Global Food Security Conference in Cape Town in December 2017, and I will explain below the context in which it was expressed.

World food prize for research on sweet potato

On the second day of the conference, I attended the plenary session Thought Leaders Debate with presentations by Dr Jan Low (researcher CIP – Centro Internacional de la Papa or IPC) and Dr Robert Mwanga (researcher CIP, Uganda). Dr Low and Dr Mwanga are both World Food Prize Laureates for the year 2016 for their work on sweet potato varieties with high beta carotene content. Beta carotene is a pigment found in carrots (thus the name “carotene” from Latin meaning carrot) and sweet potato. Beta-carotene is considered a vital source of Vitamin A which is essential for normal growth and development, immune system function, healthy skin and epithelia and good vision.

I was very impressed by their work on sweet potato. Through her work, Dr Low is trying to promote a gender-aware OFSP (orange fleshed sweet potato) product value chain. The use and consumption of sweet potato is diversified as no part of it ever goes to waste. Dr Low mentioned, for example a non-refrigerated orange fleshed sweet potato puree for children which could be a breakthrough product. Low’s group has also established a Food Analysis and Nutrition Evaluation Laboratory (FANEL) for quality assurance and capacity strengthening in the production of sweet potato in the region.


Kenyan Women Grow Nutritious Crops. Through a Feed the Future project in Kenya, smallholder farmers, particularly women, are introduced to high-value crops such as orange flesh sweet potatoes that can both boost household food security and increase incomes. Orange flesh sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of Vitamin A, which is essential to a nutritious, balanced diet.

Photo Credit: Fintrac Inc. via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). USAID.

Maize is the curse of hungry Africa!

This was the remark by Dr Low that caught my attention. It has given me something to think about. As I am originally from Nicaragua in Central America, where maize (Zea mays L.) or corn, is still the most important staple crop. I learned that maize is prepared in a different way in Africa than in Central America by cooking with lime to facilitate removal of the seed coats. This process increases the calcium content, amino acid balance and protein content thus improving the nutritional value of maize.  Studies by FAO show that the nutritional quality of lime-treated maize is superior to that of raw maize.

I am sure with her experience, Dr Low has good reasons to prefer sweet potato to maize however, in my experience, I also know that it is very difficult to change the preferences of people, this requires time and education. So if possible, I think it would be good to have a variety of nutrition sources, and a variety of crops to increase sustainability and secure livelihoods.

Margarita Cuadra blogs about the Third Global Food Security Conference in Cape Townin December 2017.