Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where’s the Corn?: Thoughts on Idea Spread in Liberia and Beyond

Staying on the topic of rice, as I swished through the rice fields day after day, I started to wonder: Where is all the corn? In Southern Africa, corn is everywhere – everyone eats it as a thick porridge, and as a result grinding mills are ubiquitous. Maize is present in Liberia, but it’s much less available than rice is in Southern Africa. It’s not the case that corn can’t grow in Liberia (see data available for Liberia). It seems, rather that Liberians haven’t developed a culture of consuming it as a meal. Something happened – and I’m not sure what – but the idea of rice as the country’s staple food above corn spread long ago and has cemented itself.

What’s interesting to me here is how ideas and customs spread or don’t spread, and what this means for a diversified, and thus more stable, economy (and more diversified diets in this case!). Something as culturally distinct from traditional African customs as spaghetti – which I loved to eat at the many roadside stands – has taken off in West Africa and specifically Liberia. In contrast, corn is still relegated mostly to a grilled, midday snack.

So why didn’t corn establish itself originally in Liberia and why has it still not?

On one of my days off from harvesting, I was chatting with Cooper, a teacher at a nearby school. We talked about idea spread in Liberia. Cooper thinks that part of the corn absence might have to do with the fact that no one has taken up corn on the processing side. Currently, there are few grinding mills for corn, and almost as few people know about them. He told me a story of an entrepreneur who had brought a pineapple processing business for juice near to his home, which created a huge jump in pineapple production. People need to see that you’ve built a factory, and they want someone before them to test the waters.

He continued, “We only know two ways to cook cassava [another staple food] – boil it and pound it.” No one had hit upon the idea of grinding the root and then frying to serve as a topping on foods like they had in Ghana (they do grind it, but don’t fry it). Certainly, you can’t treat Africans as one homogenous group, but many ideas can be and have been transplanted from other neighboring countries.

It’s conversations like these, and observing how certain products spread like wildfire throughout a country but stop immediately at the border – like boat shoes in Cote d’Ivoire – that underscore the huge opportunities for entrepreneurial activity. These open market gaps can be filled. Consider poultry in northern Mozambique, which I worked on in Mozambique with TechnoServe: people are getting into all aspects of the industry – growing, processing, trading – largely because it’s simply an available, profitable option. Along the same lines, NGOs have found “look see” demo plots to be one of the most effective ways to convince farmers to adopt new agricultural practices. In Africa, more than in the West, seeing is believing.

Without digging around for different studies online, just being in Africa I get a sense that there is an almost “if you build it they will come” size of an opportunity. Of course, there are many complications that need to be carefully navigated, such as politics and quality control. If you could do that, and determine WHY certain products hadn’t reached a consumer segment, I’d bet there are many untapped pools of producers to ready to work and customers waiting to be served.

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