WORLD FOOD DAY: Bring back our ancient grains

World Food Day Bring back our ancient grains


In its build-up to World Food Day on 16 October, and in recognition of the United Nations declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets, Biowatch has launched its campaign to encourage smallholder farmers to grow, harvest, process, eat and share these ancient grains, which were once a foundation of Africa’s food security.

Millets are small-seeded grasses that are cultivated as grain crops. These include finger millet (Uphoko), pearl millet (Unyawothi) and sorghum (Amabele).

“These indigenous crops are adapted to African conditions and are resilient in variable rainfall, temperature and soils,” said Lawrence Mkhaliphi, Biowatch’s Agroecology Manager.

“The harvested millet also stores well and crops provide good foods for people and livestock. Generally, the whole grain is consumed, providing antioxidants, minerals, proteins and fibre. Also, especially in Southern Africa, millet and sorghum have a significant role in a variety of cultural rituals. These ancient grains are healthy, nutritious and delicious. They are our heritage, and our future,” said Mkhaliphi.

Ancient grains and food security

People have collected, eaten and domesticated the seed from wild grasses over millennia to develop the cereals we know today. This cultivation of cereal grains is the basis of agriculture, enabling and feeding civilisations around the world. Records dating back many thousands of years show that the African continent is home to a vast diversity of both wild harvested and cultivated cereals.

In the past few hundred years, through colonisation and trade, cereals such as maize, wheat, oats as well as several varieties of Asian rice, have been introduced from other continents.

“These grains, which are promoted by powerful trade interests through advertising, agricultural support and breeding programmes, are processed into convenience foods and have become global and local food staples. Our locally adapted and nutritious ancient grains have been side-lined and stigmatised,” said Vanessa Black, Biowatch’s Advocacy and Research Co-ordinator.

“Climate change is projected to threaten food security in Africa and to increase the risk of malnutrition, particularly in children,” says Black. “The nutritional and health benefits of millet and sorghum, and their suitability for cultivation under adverse and changing climatic conditions, are reasons why we are encouraging smallholder agroecology farmers to revive, grow and utilise these traditional crops.” 

Ancient grains a focus at the 2023 Biowatch Agroecology Farmer Fair

Biowatch launched its campaign to bring back these ancient grains at the annual Agroecology Farmer Fair, which this year took place at the Siyazisiza Agri Support Centre near Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal, from 2–4 October. The two-day event was attended by farmers from Biowatch-supported agroecology farming groups in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as farmers from Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) partners who had travelled from Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The vibrant event included much celebration with seed and information exchanges, demonstrations and discussions centred on reviving interest in planting and growing millet and sorghum. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of young farmers who attended the Farmer Fair, elders shared their traditional knowledge about harvesting, processing and utilising these climate resilient and nutritious grains.

“Our ancient grains and the associated knowledge is at risk of being lost. Securing this heritage in the interests of food sovereignty and nutrition is a collective effort. Biowatch commits to supporting farmers on this journey,” said Black. “Indeed, these ancient grains are our right, our food, and our future!”

For further information please contact:
Vanessa Black (Biowatch Advocacy and Research Co-ordinator)