I truly empathise with Brazil and her fans all over the world. Although I am no doctor, it seems to me that a fractured vertebra is no small matter. So much so that Neymar would have to miss out on the rest of World Cup. Brazil Coach Luis Felipe Scolari and the Brazilian team laid a lot of hope on the young man.
It was obvious right from the start that the game revolved around Neymar’s performance. Balls were fed to him from both flanks of the field. It seemed all players were under strict instruction to look out for the boy whenever they obtained possession of the ball. The coach has tried to lay the blame of Neymar’s injury on the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, who allowed several rugged challenges from both sides to go unpunished throughout the match between Brazil and Colombia. However, I think the referee was just trying to allow the game flow without many stoppages. Neymar’s injury should fall squarely on the Brazil Coach. He is the one who thrust the boy into the limelight, and allowed him to take centre stage; even when there was clear indication of his being increasingly fouled throughout the world Cup matches. The pressure to perform was clearly weighing heavy on Neymar. He is without a doubt the poster boy of the Brazil team. However, placing too much importance on one individual, no matter how good, is bound to have its consequences.
This phenomenon is not restricted to soccer talent management only. It is also true in matters food and nutrition security.
During my studies in Uganda, it was often quipped that the availability of a wide array of staples in Uganda was the key factor that prevented the occurrence of famine during Idi Amin’s presidency. Plantains, sweet potatoes, arrowroots, cassava, and maize are just but some of the many staples widely consumed by Ugandans. It is not uncommon for one to order a little bit of each, along with a desired stew such as groundnuts, beans and the like. It is true, without a single shadow of doubt, that Ugandans’ dietary diversity score is way up there. Cross over to Kenya, my beloved country, and the situation is the exact opposite. Our obsession with maize is unbridled.
In order to understand how maize came to take center stage in matters agriculture, a sneak peek into the past is helpful.
The maize crop was introduced to Kenya by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th Century. However, it became an important commercial crop when adopted by the European settlers in the 18th century. The latter did away with the Portuguese variety that did well in the coastal areas and introduced varieties sought from South Africa which had higher yields.
Many European large scale farmers gravitated towards maize over cash crops like tea, coffee, sisal and pyrethrum. This was largely attributed to the lower initial financial costs required to engage in maize farming and the quicker returns. Moreover, maize did not require a high level of technical skills and management as did other crops.
The European famers were encouraged to grow maize by the then colonial government which offered them such incentives as special railway transport rebates and protection from vagaries of the world market. Furthermore, maize offered an easy means of feeding the African labour force employed in the vast farms. In the 1st and 2nd world war, the colonial government encouraged and supported the farmers to produce even more in the name of supporting British war efforts.
Such steps taken by the colonial government laid the foundation for a radical change in the tastes and preferences of Africans. Overtime, plantation workers and world war veterans preferred maize to traditional staples such as sorghum and millet. In Nyanza, stories were told of young men offering to work in European plantations not only earn money but also enjoy free rations of Ugali maize meal. And as they say, the rest is history.
Maize is now grown even in arid and semi-arid lands, areas which do not support the agronomical requirements of the crop. Agricultural research institutes are burning the midnight oil to develop drought resistant maize varieties. Although, these efforts are laudable it makes more sense to promote the adoption of crops such as sorghum and millet which have significantly lower water requirements than maize.
In peculiar similarity to the popular Neymar, the popular maize crop is beginning to give in. Farmers in the South Rift are beginning to shy away from the crop after incurring heavy losses attributed to necrosis disease. Yields have dwindled over the years due to declining soil fertility while human population has increased and consequently the per capita consumption of maize. Hence, farmers in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu County, the major maize production areas, are also beginning to look to other high value crops owing to declining profits in maize production. Due to climate change, rain fed maize yields are expected to fall drastically. Consequently, it is predicted that come 2050, world prices for maize would increase by 52-55%.
In order to avert food insecurity in the long term, I suggest a three-pronged solution. There should be a national nutrition education programme. This campaign should be sustained over a considerable period of time say five years. During this period, behaviour change regarding food choice especially of staples ought to be monitored and evaluated at previously agreed intervals. Perhaps, consumer research firms devoted to political polls that more often than not are of little public benefit can be put to good use. Secondly, protectionism around the maize crop should be completely removed. In its stead, incentives should be given to farmers to grow other staples such as millet, potatoes, sorghum and the like. Thirdly, research institutes should channel their time and energies to developing varieties of the aforementioned crops that are high yielding, disease and pest-resistant.
Contrary to taking the suggested measures, it will only be a matter of time before the maize crop completely gives in. Then, we will be left wondering why we did not heed the warnings the crop tried to give us that it was under too much pressure to perform.
NB: Historical information on maize largely obtained from Professor Mark Ollunga Odhiambo’s inaugural lecture: ‘The Kenyan Maize Sub-Sector Performance and Its Implications for Food Security Policy Dialogue.