Sunday, July 5, 2009

Regarding manioc, sorghum, windmills, corn and wheat.

The principal food for villagers in the east of the Congo is foufou; made from manioc or sorghum. The latter two are roots. In order to get foufou one cuts up the roots, dry them and then mill the roots into powder. The latter is extremely time-consuming (and hard work); taking about 6 hours a day.

Anyhow, people (obviously) were complaining about this. In first instance I thought “this is no problem as labor is cheap in Africa”. So many kids are being born each day. However, more kids also means additional mouths to feed (and therefore more manioc and sorghum to mill); so my reasoning doesn’t hold. Productivity per person has to increase.

I was thinking about this while a strong wind was blowing into my face. Being Dutch, I thought about… windmills! I’m serious. In these villages there are enough trees for wood, there are enough big stones around that can be used to make grinding plates, many of the men do little more during the day than sit in front of their huts so there is labor to build the windmill, and most important it is often very windy.

Of course, one has to get these men interested in building a windmill; getting them to provide effort for public goods seems to be a very big problem in the Congo (I will write on this more in future posts). Also, one has to make sure that the villagers ‘understand’ the windmill so that they can repair it when things break down. Except for these two problems which – I am quite sure – can be overcome, I couldn’t come up with any other reason why not to think about this more. So, I pitched my idea to some people that have been in the DRC for years. And, of course, I had overlooked something.

Foufou is not good for villagers; it doesn’t have any nutritional value. Foufou is like white bread; it only makes you feel “full” and that is it. Instead of building a windmill and let the villagers eat more foufou, the villagers should be growing corn and wheat. Firstly, these crops also grow in the east of the Congo. Secondly, corn and wheat, in contrast to manioc and sorghum, do have nutritional value. Finally, and important, they do not need hours to prepare. My next question, of course, was: “Why aren’t the villagers growing corn and wheat then?”

It happens to be the case that manioc and sorghum are extremely easy to grow. Manioc and sorgum is like weed and doesn’t take any time to cultivate. One goes to the field, get the roots out of the ground and you’re done. Corn or wheat, on the other hand, takes a bit more time to cultivate.

But, of course, I reacted that this is not a solid argument. If you spend 1 hour more a day cultivating corn or wheat, but spend say 4 hours less per day on preparing, you still win 3 hours! So, again, why not start growing corn or wheat?

But, remember, this is Africa. Who cultivate the crops? And, who prepare the food? Well, especially the men cultivate the crops, and especially the women prepare the food. The men – being the boss – have, as a result, no incentive to implement corn or wheat. Why would you implement corn and wheat if that means you have to work an hour more per day!?

Africa. Incredible.

1 comment:

  1. P & S,

    Dunno who you were talking to, but you got your nutrition information wrong. Sorghum (btw, not a root, but a grain, aka millet) is far, far more nutritious than either corn or wheat -- high in protein, fiber, etc. Manioc also has plenty of nutrition. The problem is the fou fou, no matter what it is made of, is a highly processed food. Fou fou is simply the Wonder Bread of eastern Congo (sorry for the totally American reference). If the manioc were boiled it is more nutritious than potatoes. And sorghum, even when processed, is very nutritious.

    In Cameroon, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya, they made fou fou (aka ugali, etc.) with corn. It is no more nutritious than manioc fou fou.

    What people need to learn is to process their food less. Spend less time pounding and sifting and basically beating all the nutrition out of it. Just boil the manioc and eat it that way. Much better for you.

    But the issue is not, in the end, a matter of work or food production choices. People eat what they have always eaten. They like what is familiar, what is "normal", what they are used to. This is, in my humble experience, especially true of Africans. Some of those "normal" things are high in nutrition and some are not. Just as in America or Europe we eat lots of junk food (which is now "normal" and familiar to people) even though we know this is what is causing diabetes, heart attacks, obesity, etc., etc.

    Human beings do not seem to make food choices on the basis of nutrient value.