Different Types of African Indigenous Grains

Words: Robyn Samuels

As we seek more modern ways of sustainable eating and turn to seasonal produce for sustenance, we should not forget about a vital food group – ancient grains. The reemergence of ancient African grains has never had more relevance than in today’s climate. We unearth why society and food manufacturers should champion indigenous African grains.

African indigenous grains

Why you Should Look to Ancient Grains

In recent years, certain lifestyle and diet trends have sensationalised superfoods and imported grains (think quinoa), neglecting indigenous African grains in the process. But, what if we told you that the African grains listed below are every bit as nutritious as quinoa? The only difference is that they just aren’t as commercially available.

Indigenous African and ancient grains have been overlooked for some time, but they seem to be regaining popularity.

The unfortunate reality is that you’re more likely to find imported grains like quinoa instead of indigenous African grains like sorghum at local grocery stores. While maize is one of South Africa’s most important crops, as well as barley, rice and sorghum – the latter isn’t as commercially available. One of the many reasons that other indigenous grains have been ditched in favour of crops like maize is profitability, other factors also include production costs, lack of machinery, as well as research. More concerning, however, are the dangerous misconceptions ingrained many years ago. Crops like pearl millet was once thought of as ‘hungry rice’ and more disturbingly in the case of sorghum which was once called ‘k****r corn’, perpetuating the idea that these are ‘inferior’ crops.

Benefits of Indigenous African Grains

Another factor to consider is that some ancient grains are used by first-world countries like the US primarily used as fodder to feed livestock, but are not intended for human consumption. Whereas, many of these ancient grains consumed and produced in Africa and Asia are used as sustenance crops. We should ask ourselves – are these indigenous crops potentially the answer to improved agriculture and food security?

Agricultural problems associated with climate change could be mitigated, as ancient grains like sorghum and pearl millet can withstand harsh weather conditions. Moreover, certain indigenous African grains are able to grow more rapidly compared to more commercially popular grains like maize. If intercropped with maize, the cultivation of ancient African grains could minimise crop failure and maximise yield, instead of solely relying on the success of isolated crops like maize, which many South African households rely on.

Types of Indigenous African Grains

Let’s learn about some important indigenous African grains and their uses.

Bambara Groundnuts

Although typically considered a legume, Bambara groundnuts are an underappreciated indigenous grain. This grain is typically found in African regions with semi-arid weather conditions and dry soil, as it is resistant to drought and is a fast-growing crop. Bambara crops prefer warmer conditions and cannot tolerate freezing climates as it stunts the growth of the leaves, which are important for feeding livestock.

In South Africa, Bambara is mostly produced in Mpumalanga, North West, Gauteng, Limpopo and Kwazulu Natal region, but Nigeria is the world’s largest producer. Bambara groundnuts are also grown in South East Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but production is rather low in these regions. Although Bambara has not yet gained international recognition, it can be found at certain African markets.

Common preparation methods include being boiled, some people also grind and mix it with mielie meal to make porridge. It can also be roasted, eaten as a snack or even served as a relish. Bambara groundnut can be made into a milk alternative, similar to soybean. Other health benefits include being high in antioxidants and potentially helpful in cases of IBS.

Pearl Millet

Pearl millet could be particularly useful as an agricultural solution in combating the impacts of climate change. This ancient grain is not only able to withstand extreme heat, but also thrives in soil with low moisture content. Pearl millet is also more resistant to diseases and pests compared to sorghum and maize. Interestingly, pearl millet is the sixth most important crop in the world. Leading African producers include Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda. Although this crop was once widely used in southern Africa, maize crops have become more popular but due to maize’s commercialisation, the agricultural significance of pearl millet has decreased.

West Africa used to produce about seventy percent of the world’s pearl millet. Currently, India is the world’s largest producer of pearl millet, but it seems to be returning to certain African countries. Namibia, which often experiences unpredictable and arid weather, favours pearl millet over maize crops.

This versatile grain and has vast culinary applications. It is commonly whole-roasted or cracked and ground to make flour for dough. Pearl millet doesn’t require cooking for certain dishes; in Rajasthan, India, where it is prepared in both fermented and unfermented forms to make alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages. In both Ghana and India, pearl millet is sometimes roasted and prepared like sweet corn. With proper machinery, it can transform and be sold as commercial foods such as breakfast cereal, puffed grains, pasta and ‘rice’.


Sorghum is high in B-vitamins, magnesium, potassium iron and zinc. This ancient grain is a fantastic source of fibre, antioxidants and protein. Besides the immense nutritional benefits, sorghum is also an incredibly adaptable and resilient crop. It can grow despite harsh weather like drought, and can thrive in arid soil. It can also grow in areas that experience heavy rainfall. Sorghum has been reported as the fifth most important crop in the African continent and is the second most important grain in South Africa, after maize.

What makes this indigenous grain even more impressive is that its benefits extend beyond culinary applications. It can be used as biofuel, fermented for alcohol production and livestock feed.

Sorghum can be prepared similarly to popcorn, it can also be ground into gluten-free flour for baking. Interestingly, sorghum is closely related to sugarcane and it is for this reason that sorghum syrup is used as a natural sweetener and added to certain processed foods. It can also be flaked to make breakfast cereals and baked goods.

La Motte Cape Heritage Cuisine - KingklipTry this recipe for Curried Kingklip & Sorghum Salad


Fonio is one of the world’s most ancient grains and dates back 5000 years. While fonio may be less popular in other parts of the world, it is largely consumed in West African countries like Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Nigeria, particularly the Sahel region. Despite technological and scientific advancements, this grain is still largely misunderstood in certain parts of the world due to unavailability and limited research on its full potential. Although highly nutritious and a favourable crop, fonio was previously referred to as ‘hungry rice/millet’ by Europeans, as it was considered ‘poor people food’.

Fonio is rich in proteins, threonine and cysteine, which is lacking in commercially popular grains like wheat, rice and maize.

Not only is fonio highly nutritious, but it also has the ability to be harvested rapidly and matures within six to eight weeks after being planted – a critical advantage over other grains. This ancient African grain thrives in sandy soil, it is also tolerant to excessive rainfalls. It may be less resilient compared to sorghum, but it is certainly more nutritious.

This miracle grain could be served as porridge or prepared similarly to couscous. It could even be used as a substitute for semolina flour in the making of pasta – the culinary applications are endless. If you would like to learn more about the full potential of fonio, we highly recommend watching chef Pierre Thiam’s TED Talk on fonio.

Read all about How Food Trends Impact Global Markets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>