Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

Heat- and drought-resistant sorghum is a key crop


Sinethemba Mafanya, the manager of the Diageo Empowermen­t Trust SA, writes that sorghum has a lot going for it: it is climate-smart and highly nutritious, and South African farmers already have the knowhow to cultivate it. He believes that with adequate investment, sorghum cultivatio­n could help solve unemployme­nt in Africa. As world population­s grow, we hear more about the potential value of Africa’s huge reserves of arable land, estimated to account for 60% of the global total. In a world rapidly running out of farming land, Africa could build its economies on supplying a chunk of the world’s food.

Our agricultur­al potential is as yet unrealised: we still have the lowest cereal yields in the world, and we imported basic grains worth US$30 billion (R423 billion) in 2011, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultur­e Organizati­on.

We need to feed ourselves first; but when we do, we will have a great opportunit­y to feed the rest of the world. The question is how to kick-start Africa’s green revolution, or, one might say, create a genuine Africultur­e that attracts foreign investment, earns hard currencies and, critically, provides jobs.


Native to Africa, sorghum surely has a major role to play. Although much of Africa’s commercial grain production is given over to the cereals desired by the rest of the world, such as maize, sorghum remains a staple of the rural economy. That’s already a point in its favour: we have a skills base in this area backed up by generation­s of farming knowledge. Another important point about sorghum is that, as it spread out from its original range in north-east Africa, genetic mutation and patient selection by generation­s of farmers produced regional varietals best suited to local climatic conditions.

In today’s modern, rapidly urbanising Africa, sorghum is too often seen only as the basis for traditiona­l beverages, and for porridges we associate with a traditiona­l style of life. But that is only half the picture; like other traditiona­l foodstuffs from around the world, sorghum can be used to create new products that appeal to modern palates and lifestyles, as it is quick to cook, healthy and affordable. Think, for example, of the way in which the South American staple, quinoa, has been recast as something between a superfood and a gourmet treat.


At a recent conference under the auspices of the National Research Foundation’s Science for Society Lecture Series, ‘Sorghum for Food and Nutrition Security in Southern Africa’, Gebisa Ejeta, professor of Sorghum Breeding at Purdue University, and 2009 World Food Prize Winner, called sorghum “Africa’s gift to the world”. He highlighte­d its tolerance of heat and drought, and stressed the need for Africa to invest in sorghum across the entire value chain.


In a small way, the Diageo Empowermen­t Trust is playing a part in what we hope will be a sorghum revolution. We identified sorghum farming as a key focus for our efforts to create new black-owned businesses as part of an effort to expand our economy rather than simply transform the existing one.

One of our hallmark initiative­s is to nurture blackowned businesses that can form part of our own supply chain, and sorghum farmers are an obvious choice.

We are working with various partners to select the right farmers and maximise their chances of success.

Sorghum has all the potential to provide an African solution to Africa’s challenges, a real opportunit­y to cash in on a legacy created by our ancestors.

The only question is whether we have the vision to invest in it. I hope we do.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa