Mahangu is a fascinating African cereal - Namibie Safari et Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Mahangu is a fascinating African cereal

Avatar of inke inke - 26. avril 2019 - Economics

A woman is harvesting mahangu in her field. Photo: Brigitte Weidlich

Brigitte Weidlich

Travelling to Namibia’s northern and northeastern areas, tourists are greeted by idyllic rural landscapes, grazing cattle, traditional homesteads, palm trees and fields with unusually tall leafy plants with slender stalks and long seed heads. These plants grow up to 3 metres high and are called pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum). They are also known as “mahangu”, a traditional and indigenous grain known since thousands of years in Africa. 

The long, round seed heads are harvested in Namibian winter time, dried and threshed to obtain the small pearl-shaped millet seeds. These are traditionally pounded in wooden mortars by women with long pestles to produce meal from which mainly porridge (oshifima) is made, the most important staple food for about half of Namibia’s population of about 2.3 million. A slightly fermented drink can also be made from pearl millet grains called oshikundu and is also made from mahangu flour. 

The mahangu is stored in huge woven storage baskets, called omaanda in the OshiKwanyama language (or eeshisha in OshiNdonga). Only men weave these granary baskets, which are placed on wooden poles to protect them from moisture, rodents and insects. The baskets are lined with clay inside. 

Mahangu is stored in huge granary baskets. Photo: Brigitte Weidlich

A traditional household in northern Namibia has about three hectares on average to cultivate mahangu to feed a family for a year. They seldomly sold the little surplus harvested, until recent years. Interesting developments have started to commercialise mahangu in the northern communal areas and products were developed to be sold in local shops and supermarkets, transcending beyond the traditional ways. These range from instant mahangu porridge to mahangu meal and even biscuits from this ancient crop. 

Origin of pearl millet 

Pearl millet belongs to the grass family (Poaceae) and is native to the Sahel zone in West Africa since thousands of years, where it has been domesticated. Plants have tall stalks with long blade-like leaves and bulrush-like seed heads. It can tolerate heat and little rainfall, owing to its deep roots and grows in less fertile soil. Mahangu fields are traditionally fertilised with cow dung and ash. The crop has spread across Africa from West to East and to Southern Africa. Recent archaeo-botanical research notably confirmed the presence of domesticated pearl millet in northern Mali between 2500 and 2000 BC. It was introduced to India around 3000 BC and much later to America, Brazil and even Australia. 

Mahangu plants grow about 3 m high. Photo: Lightbox

Other interesting facts about pearl millet are that it is gluten-free, protein- and iron-rich and contains several B-vitamins and dietary minerals, especially manganese and potassium. After harvesting, the remainder of the plant dies off and is removed from the fields to be used as animal fodder and ground cover. Mahangu plants also make beautiful floral arrangements.

Deeper furrows bring better yields

In the last few years, conservation agriculture (CA) has become a buzzword in the seven northern regions, where pearl millet is cultivated by villagers. This involves ripping the soil instead of ploughing it with conventional disc harrows. This method was successfully applied in neighbouring Zambia, among others, where over 80,000 communal farmers were trained in CA. 

The north-central parts of Namibia are covered with soft, almost white sand, while the layer underneath is a hard and compacted layer of some 30 cm, called a ‘hard pan’. After rains the water cannot sink into the ground, and roots of crops like mahangu, sorghum and maize are unable to grow deeper. Applying the ripping method breaks the hard pan and creates deeper furrows. Seeds must be planted at the bottom of the furrows. Any rainfalls will cause the water to collect at the bottom of the furrows keeping them moist longer and the budding plants can remain up to six weeks without rain. Deep roots can thus be developed. Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have introduced CA in northern Namibia, and eventually the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry put together a CA policy and support programmes. 

Mahangu or Omahangu, as it is known locally, is the staple food of the Oshiwambo-speaking people in northern Namibia. (Photo: Mannfred Goldbeck)

“My mahangu harvest more than tripled after I agreed to have the Ministry’s tractor rip my field,” remembers Letta Seblun. “I now harvest about three tonnes per hectare and I sell the surplus to earn some cash”, she says.

Protection for local crops

The Namibian government declared mahangu a controlled crop in May 2008. This ensures that from 1 July every year, no permits are granted for the import and export of mahangu until the total locally produced harvest is sold. This guarantees a free market within the boundaries of Namibia. During this time, mahangu is marketed and sold in line with a production-cost related floor price. Once all locally produced mahangu is sold, it may be imported from other countries. 

From 2010 to 2013, the Agriculture Ministry with other stakeholders implemented the Mahangu Development Plan to foster a rapid and efficient production and marketing system for the development of the crop in the rural areas. A subsequent 5-year Mahangu Development Strategic Plan was introduced in 2018 and will end in 2022. Its main objective is to advance the commercialisation of the crop and to support the mahangu value chain within Namibia. 

The seed heads of the Mahangu plant are harvested in the Namibian winter. Photo: Namibia Agronomic Board

According to the Namibia Agronomic Board (NAB), further support will be rendered to surplus producers. “The current subsistence producers of mahangu are encouraged to make available their grain for uptake into the commercial processing sector,” the NAB stated. The NAB also organises annual award ceremonies for the best mahangu producers in northern Namibia. Mahangu is also grown to obtain seeds to be sold locally to communal farmers in rural areas.

Drinks, cookies and porridge 

Mahangu is making progress on the road to value addition, with a local commercial miller, Namib Mills producing and selling mahangu flour under its “Meme Mahangu - the strength of Africa” brand. The company operates several mills in the country, and at the mill in Otavi, the mahangu flour is produced and packaged. Another mahangu product, oshikundu, also called ontaku is also sold under the Meme Mahangu brand - a ready-made mix for a nutritional non-alcoholic drink. Of course, with milk fermentation it can be turned into an alcoholic beverage. 

The Mahangu cookies (left) are produced and sold in Namibia (Photo: Rachel Kalipi). Mahangu flour (right) is also sold commercially (Photo: Namib Mills).

The Agriculture Ministry issued an invitation to those interested in developing more mahangu products. That is where the cookies started, but after a good take off, production stopped. Then came Rachel Kalipi in 2015 and she revived the ‘Mahangu Cookies’ brand. Kalipi hails from north-central Namibia and is an accountant by profession. She loves traditional and homemade food. She saw the opportunity for the pearl millet cookies to flourish again.

“I have also set up a milling plant in the north. It is good to control the whole value chain”, she said. By processing our own mahangu we can guarantee that our product stays the same. I buy my mahangu from women in the villages and then we process it at our milling plant,” Kalipi explained in a recent radio interview. 

All these products are not only for Namibians from the north, who have found work in other regions and do not want to miss their traditional mahangu so far away from home. Since they are sold in local supermarkets, other population groups and local restaurants have discovered this ancient grain and can enjoy its nutritional value in a modern way.

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