Sorghum’s roots are deep in Africa. From subsistence farming to new food uses, sorghum plays a significant role in African culture.
A mug of beer after a long day of hard work is a tradition in America, but in Africa, that cold brew might taste and look a bit different. Nat Bascom and his small-scale irrigation team spent the entire morning hand digging a meter-wide community well and preparing to line it with concrete castings in the sapping heat of the sahel in West Africa, Niger. When the midday heat reached its peak, they took a break, and a villager brought them each a calabash full of sorghum beer complete with a hollowed out sorghum stalk as a straw.
Sorghum is an integral component of the lives of those living in many West and East African countries. From sorghum drinks and common foods to livestock feeds and building materials, those local to western and east-ern Africa use sorghum products in a multitude of ways. This is partially due to how long sorghum has been grown in the continent. The origin and early domestication of sorghum can be traced back to Northeastern Africa as early as 8,000 B.C., and Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan and Niger are all in the top 10 sorghum producing countries in the world.
Bascom is the assistant director for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet (SMIL) at Kansas State University and has worked in various capacities in Africa for around 20 years. He said the typical small-holder sorghum producer in many parts of Africa ranges from 2-10 acres, primarily as a form of subsistence farming. They often plow, plant, cultivate and harvest the fields by hand or with assistance from draft animals.
“Many of the populations that depend on sorghum are food-insecure and living in very harsh environments,” Bascom said. “I would call it the safety net for many households where they are truly dependent, on a very subsistence level, for that sorghum crop to literally keep them above malnutrition and at times starvation levels.”
Bascom said these populations often use every part of the sorghum plant. The grain is used for human consumption, and the forage and residue are often consumed by local livestock or by cattle moved through the region by semi-nomadic groups. These populations even use the stalks to build fences around home com-pounds or as firewood, and, tradition-ally, some ethnic groups have used sorghum as a sort of peace offering to alleviate cross ethic tension.
The sorghum grown in Ethiopia, Sudan and similar climates is typically a 10- to 12-feet tall variety of grain sorghum, which lends itself to multi-purpose uses. Joseph Awika, a professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University (TAMU), grew up in Kenya before moving to the United States in 1998 to pursue his graduate and doctorate degrees. Awika said cultural ties to the taller sorghum varietals are a major driver for why they are still grown in these regions.
“Part of it is cultural tradition,” Awika said, “and they don’t want to change even if the newer sorghums are better performing, because they use the whole plant.”
While sorghum in this region has long been a crop grown for sustenance, Awika said he is seeing sorghum food products emerging in urban areas as healthy alternatives in markets and high-end restaurants.
There are multiple ways sorghum is consumed in Africa, Awika said. It has gone from being consumed in a village as a porridge or as bread, but it is also served as a liquid that is either fermented or unfermented (alcoholic or non-alcoholic), which you can pick up at a corner store.
Research is being conducted at SMIL, Bascom said, to strengthen sorghum’s appeal to the “modern food table” in Africa through the development of easy-to-prepare, pre-packaged products. As part of this research, Awika said he and his team are developing sorghum hybrids that have a unique protein structure that makes them easier to cook, while still maintaining the agronomic benefits that have made sorghum culturally significant in these African nations. They are also demonstrating how sorghum could replace traditional ingredients in local foods like injera, a crepe-type pancake typically made with teff, in Ethiopia and kisra, a similar product, in Sudan.
Domestic and international researchers, like Awika and Bas-com, are partnering with in-country national research teams, local producers and entrepreneurial processors to support innovative practices and technologies that will enable sorghum as an “ancient grain” with traditional appeal to find its place in the future food table of Africa.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.