The most extensively cultivated cereals are wheat, barley, oat, rye, rice, maize, sorghum and different kinds of millet. Sorghum and Tef are the only cereal that exclusively originated from Africa. Barley (Ethiopian barley according Ehret), Rice and millet are of both African and Asian origin. Maize is native to the Americas. all others cereals originated from Europe and Asia.
Most cereals of non-African origin have been extensively and intensively research and improved. Despite all these attentions only wheat is mostly used for human consumption. The other non-African cereals are mostly used for animal feed and other purposes: maize is a cheap form of starch and is a major energy source for animal feed; rye is used to produce crisp bread and alcohol, and it is used as animal feed; oats have mainly been grown for animal feed; barley is mainly grown for animal feed (especially for pigs), for malting and brewing in the manufacture of beer, and for distilling in whisky manufacture.
Africa is the center of origin and still today the major producing area for sorghum (dawa), and four major millet species: pearl millet (Jero: the most widely grown in 76% area), finger millet (Tamba: 19% area), tef (9%) and fonio (acha: 4%). Sorghum and millet are particularly major contributors of overall calorie intake in semi-arid parts of Africa where they are majorly staple food. It is documented that Sorghum and millet give up to 85% of daily caloric intake in Burkina Faso and Niger. Teff is mostly grown and consumed in Ethiopia. Millet is consumed as staple food (78%), drinks and other uses (20%). The common foods from these cereals are koko/akamu, fura (poridge), kunu (drink), tuwo (swallow), masa (cake), etc. Teff is mostly in Ethiopia as Injera (flat bread)
African cereals have some super qualities. Sorghum and millet are grown in harsh environment where other crops grow or yield poorly. They are grown with limited water resources and usually without application of any fertilizer or other inputs yet they have outstanding nutritional qualities. unlike wheat they are all gluten-free. Fonio and finger millet are very rich in crude fiber. Sorghum and pearl millet are rich in vitamin A.
The Sorghum and pearl millet are very rich in protein. Pearl millet and fonio have high energy content. Study has shown that African Cereals are very good sources of amino acids. Compared to cereals from outside Africa, they are generally richer in all the amino acids except for lysine and tyrosine.
Acha grain was found to contain the highest amount of some important amino acids in cereals: leucine, phenylalamine, threomine, tryptophan, methionine and cysteine. It is observed that acha grains are very rich in methionine and cysteine (lacking in the diets of hundreds of millions of Nigerian who live on starchy staples such as cassava, plantain, wheat, polished rice or custards.). Methionine and cysteine plays a crucial role in metabolism. As an essential amino acid, they cannot be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from foods.
Acha have the highest mineral content among cereals. Finger millet, pearl millet and fonio are very rich in iron which is required in the blood. Acha and finger millet are both rich in calcium which is required for strong bones and teeth, with finger millet having an exceptionally high content. Teff has the highest Magnesium which regulate over 300 biochemical reactions our body through its role as enzyme co-factors. Teff also has the highest Zinc content among cereals which deficiency results to stunted growth and acute diarrhoea in children, and slow wound healing.
“Orphan Crops”, or “Lost Crops”
Despite these amazing qualities and importance of these traditional African cereals, still they are not well researched and many people don’t know about them. Their quality standard is not well-developed and they have very low yields because of lack of attention by research and extension services. These traditional African cereals have been called “Orphan Crops”, or “Lost Crops” because there is little attention given to them.
These crops are important in certain locations in Africa, where common cereals like maize and wheat cannot be relied on to give sustainable yields, as such should get more attention than other cereals from the governments and international community. Funding more research and development of these ‘lost crops’ will lead to the availability of improved grains with higher yield and amazing nutritional contents to Africans. This in turn will boost food security in Africa.