Neymar and Maize: The Peculiar Similarities

Neymarstock-photo-young-ears-of-corn-against-the-sky-149104505

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.

 

 

 

 

When men eat grass

A while ago a pastor in South Africa caused a stir when he coerced his congregants to eat grass in the name of God. I found it particularly hard to be sympathetic to the faithful probably because I thought they should know better. However, when news of Syrians trapped in Damascus, with no food to eat or water to drink, resorted to gnawing grass, my heart ached. This was a cruel reminder as to why Amartya Sen regarded dignity as a pivotal component of hunger alleviation. It was also a reminder of the nexus between conflict and hunger. The jury is still out as to whether a cause-effect relationship exists between the two. Nonetheless, it does not require statistical rigour to note the diabolical vicious association between conflict and hunger.

In 1999, Africa was the continent in which major armed conflicts took place. It still is I presume. Most of these conflicts were protracted accompanied by complex humanitarian emergencies.

Continent Major Conflict Minor Conflict
Europe Russia(Chechnya)

Yugoslavia

Russia (Dagestan)
Middle East West Bank and Gaza

Turkey

 
Asia Burma

India(Kashmir)

India-Pakistan

Philippines(New people’s army)

Sri Lanka

India()

Nepal

Philippines (Mindanao)

Africa Algeria

Angola

Congo, republic of

Congo, Democratic Republic of

Uganda

Sudan

Burundi

Guinea-Bissau

Rwanda

Senegal

Sierra Leone

Eritrea-Ethiopia

Chad

Ethiopia (Ogaden; Oromiya; Somali )

South America Colombia

Peru

 

Source: Wallensteen & Sollenberg (2000)

Fifteen years later little has changed. The Central African Republic has recently been in the spotlight because of religious militias taking on each other. Some of the stories that emanated from C.A.R shocked even the stoniest amongst us. A few countries away, South Sudan was at it again. Therein, the conflict took an ethnic turn into what a leading media house in Kenya referred to as a silent massacre. Currently, close to 2.5 million people are in need of food assistance as markets have failed and the supply channels used to deliver food to the villages have been disrupted. The UN agency, WFP, has resorted to airdrops to deliver food. The conflicts are also felt in North-East Nigeria where Boko-Haram has been engaging the government in Guerrilla warfare. The most vulnerable group are school going children. The last time I checked 190 school girls had been abducted by the extremists.

I can go on and on but somewhere in Syria, men are eating grass because a regime which many perceive has overstayed its welcome, feels it has the right to determine who eats and who does not-literally. Now, I can furnish you with figures that show discrepancy between food production during times of peace and times of war; I can tell you that prior to 1994, a drastic fall in global prices of coffee reduced the purchasing power of rural Rwandese and consequently their living conditions, they, living in quiet desperation, found it easy to turn against each other when appealed to do so; I can remind you that it was the failure of Emperor Haile Selassie to respond to food shortages in Ethiopia that led to his overthrow. However, I feel we should end on a moral note.

In hunger and conflict, what once was abominable becomes the norm. Eyebrows are no longer raised when a woman and a man wielding a gun go behind a bush and later, the woman is spotted with a bag of flour. Jaws no longer drop when a man rips off flesh from a fresh human corpse using his teeth. Mothers do not utter a sound when their children are recruited into the army. Girls no longer have the strength to resist the soldiers’ forceful advances. These and other unutterable horrors of war are not new to us. Every day, we are fed with news of such from across the world. Some are so near us geographically, yet, far, emotionally. We have become so accustomed to the sounds of drones, blasts, screams, corpses on our TV screens that we forget that they too are human. We have become deaf to the tolling of the bell. We have forgotten that the death of another diminishes us. We have forgotten that it is a thin line between war and peace and while few strive to see that this line is not crossed, the indifference of most will inevitably lead to its crossing time and time again.

 

2013: Year in Review

It is that time of the year when we must take stock of the year passed and measure our hopes for the New Year. 2013 was without a doubt a year of pivotal events, especially in my homeland Kenya. We had a peaceful general election in March- the first under the new constitution. We celebrated 50 years of independence hence joining a throng of other African nations that have achieved the same in the recent past. However, in spite of these positive developments, Kenya and other African nations are still bedevilled by hunger, corruption, disease, ill-governance, conflict and poverty.  This is reflected in the global reports of 2013. I will elaborate on some that focus on hunger.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2013

The GHI measures and tracks hunger globally and by region and country. It is computed by the international Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and employs three main indicators i.e. undernourishment, child underweight and child mortality. In 2013, the worst performing regions were South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara.  South Asia had the highest GHI score and this was attributed to social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women.

The Sahel region was noted to be prone to hunger due to a number of factors. These included sporadic rainfall, locust infestation, crop shortages, and high and volatile food prices. These affected the food and nutrition security of the region negatively. Furthermore, conflict in countries such as Mali and Northern Nigeria exacerbated the situation. However, despite this grim picture, Ghana stood tall as it was among the top ten best performers in terms of improving her GHI score since 1990. It goes without saying that Ghana is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. Studies have proved there is a very strong positive association between democracy and food and nutrition security. Perhaps this is why Ghana attracts an even rosier review in The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013. However, I am anticipating. We will come to that later.

Some countries exhibited significant increases in their GHI scores, the worst performers, all of them in Africa, are Burundi, Comoros and Eritrea. The report attributes increased hunger in Burundi and Comoros since 1990 to prolonged conflict and political instability.

The following are excerpts of what the report says of some African countries:

  • The three countries with extremely alarming 2013 GHI scores—Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea— are in Africa south of the Sahara.
  • Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea currently have the highest proportion of undernourished people—more than 60 percent of the population
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population of more than 60 million, still appears as a grey area on the map because reliable data on undernourishment are lacking and the level of hunger cannot be assessed- High-quality data for the Democratic Republic of Congo, as for other likely hunger hot spots such as (Afghanistan) and Somalia, are badly needed.
  • Mali, Sierra Leone, and Somalia have the highest under-five mortality rate, ranging from approximately 18 to about 19 %.
  • The HIV and AIDS epidemic, along with high income inequality, has severely undermined food security in Swaziland despite growth in national income. Because of drought, more than one-quarter of the population depended on emergency food aid in 2006–2007, and the country’s GDP per capita declined between 2007 and 2010. High unemployment, overgrazing, soil depletion, and the risk of future droughts and floods pose persistent challenges.

 

The State of Food Insecurity in the World; the multiple dimensions of food security, 2013

This annual report communicates progress made towards achieving the 2001 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on Hunger i.e. halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population and the even more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit(WFS) goal on hunger i.e. halve the number of hungry people. It should be noted that both goals have 1990 as the starting year and 2015 as the target year. However, the WFS goal is harder to achieve because of the high rates of population growth in many hunger-affected countries. The report estimated that to meet the WFS target, the number of hungry people in developing regions would have to be reduced to 498 million by 2015, a goal that is out of reach at the global level.

In 2011-2013, 842 million people i.e. 12 % of the total world’s population were unable to meet their dietary requirements. This means that one in eight people were likely to have suffered from chronic hunger.

Africa remained the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment (on in four people) within which the sub-Saharan region had the highest (24.8%) prevalence of undernourishment.  The report concludes that Africa is not on track to achieve the MDG hunger target. Nonetheless, Ghana goes against the grain. It had met its 2015 MDG hunger target by 2000–02. By 2011-2013, less than 5 % of its population were undernourished. It was also well on track to meet its MDG poverty target before 2015. This impressive record in a region not known to post such is attributed to a robust economic growth (its GDP grew by an average of 4.5% a year since 1983 and by an impressive 14 % in 2011), market reforms and favourable terms of trade and investment climate. However, all this would not be possible without the peace and political stability that Ghana enjoys. In fact, I dare say, this is the impetus that fuelled Ghana to meeting the MDG hunger target by 2000-02.

In stark contrast to Ghana, Uganda records a dismal performance on its progress to meet the MDG hunger target. Firstly, the prevalence of undernourishment has been increasing since the early 2000. This is attributed to discordance between food production and population growth. Uganda has an annual population growth of 3.2%, one of the highest in the world. This rate combined with a declining food production per capita, unequal distribution and access to food have rendered one third of Uganda’s population to be chronically undernourished.

Conclusion

African countries performance in regard to ending hunger leaves a lot to be desired. While the continent boasts of having the largest tracts of unused arable land, it also holds the unenviable title of the continent with the highest number of hungry people. Much has been said of this discrepancy and quite a number of recommendations have been suggested. Despite of all these efforts, the changes over the years do not merit the investment made into bringing about those changes. As we measure the hopes that we have for the New Year, it is my sincere hope that we see much more political commitments made towards ending hunger globally and especially in Africa. It is also my sincere desire that we witness significant changes in the indicators of hunger in the foreseeable future. Perhaps approaching the year 2015, measuring of progress made towards MDGs and post-2015 development agenda will fuel efforts towards eliminating hunger. Meanwhile, remarks made by José Graziano da Silva (FAO Director-General), Kanayo F. Nwanze( IFAD President) and Ertharin Cousin (WFP Executive Director) in the foreword to The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013 ring ever so true…

“Ultimately, political stability, effective governance and, most importantly, uninterrupted long- term commitments to mainstreaming food security and nutrition in policies and programmes are key to the reduction of hunger and malnutrition”

NB: A more concise review of 2013 can be found at http://www.hunger-undernutrition.org/blog/2013/12/happy-new-year-a-look-back-at-2013.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Hunger-undernutritionBlog+%28Hunger-Undernutrition+Blog%29

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