Rethinking Maize Dependency

by Chama Bowa-Mundia and Caesar Cheelo

Among many Zambians, statements such as, “if I haven’t eaten nshima I haven’t eaten food” are very common. For many, maize-meal nshima is the only thing that qualifies as “food”, pointing to a severe dependency on maize.

But what most people may not know is that maize is not indigenous to Zambia. It was introduced and widely adopted across Africa supposedly during the course of the African slave trade eventually replacing more nutritious indigenous crops like sorghum and millet.

In the recent past and on more than one occasion, President Edgar Lungu has made an appeal to the nation to move away from maize dependency and begin to look to alternative foods. This appeal should be taken seriously because, if paid the right attention and done correctly, rethinking maize dependency for a staple could be a game-changer not only for a more enriched lifestyle but also for a diversified and climate change resilient agriculture sector.

Firstly, when it comes to an enriched lifestyle, looking to alternative foods is important in resolving Zambia’s insufficient dietary diversity; one of the underlying reasons for high malnutrition levels. According to the 2014 Zambia Demographic and Health Survey, 40 percent of children under the age of 5 are stunted, 6 percent are wasted and 15 percent are underweight. Maize remains the most consumed food in Zambia making up to 49.4 percent of the average daily calorie intake according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Unfortunately, maize as is widely consumed (processed into refined mealie meal) is deficient in essential vitamins and protein. Coupled with this, maize meal nshima is on average consumed with insufficient protein and vegetables. Alternatives such as millet and sorghum on the other hand, are more nutrient dense foods; rich in all the essential vitamins and protein deficient in maize meal.

Notwithstanding arguments on the affordability of maize in comparison to other foods as one of the key reasons for the high consumption of maize, dietary diversity is still possible. This possibility stems from the fact that dietary practices go beyond resource factors such as income but equally determined by knowledge, psychological and socio-cultural factors among others. What we need as a nation is first and foremost a change in perception that maize meal nshima is the only “real” food. Therefore, indigenous nshimas made from millet, sorghum and cassava, together with other starches (pumpkins, butternut, and sweet potatoes) need to be equally embraced as “real” foods and alternates to maize meal nshima.

Secondly, rethinking maize dependency is equally key in realising diversification in Zambia’s agriculture sector. Historically, Zambia’s agricultural policies and programmes such as the Strategic Food Reserves have equated food security to maize security. This has overly promoted maize production at the expense of other crops. Evidently, the majority of farmers lean on growing maize even in the light of the e-voucher system rolled out in the 2017/2018 farming season that extends the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) to a wider range of crops and agro-activities. Additionally, the maize value chain needs to be further extended beyond mealie meal. Maize can be processed into a variety of industrial products; stock feed, alcohol, ethanol, paper, insulation and adhesives, dyes etc. Accommodating these additional uses of maize, while at the same time ensuring the provision of adequate food for all, would require the production of alternate foods to increase. Clearly, Zambia’s agricultural policies and programmes should be reengineered as they stifle investments in other crops and hinder crop diversification efforts.

Lastly, on the environmental front, international observers continue to call for diversifying diets away from single-source staples like maize. This is in order to create more resilient and less risky food systems. Over-dependence on a handful of staples makes a country’s food supply extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These impacts include: increased pest surges (causing productivity losses both in quantity and quality); and a multitude of natural disasters such as droughts, floods and heatwaves among others. Evidently for Zambia, in recent farming seasons, dry spells and army worm attacks in many maize fields have been commonplace and resulted in productivity losses. Reducing dependency on maize by enhancing the production of diverse crops, would help mitigate these effects of climate change through recourse to alternative foods.

Looking to alternative foods beyond maize is a timely and critical call. It presents a three pronged opportunity; enhancing lifestyles in terms of nutrition, realising the long called for diversification of Zambia’s agriculture and increased climate change resilience.

The authors are researchers at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, corner of John Mbita and Nationalist roads, CSO Annex building, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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