Multipurpose Crops in Africa & Dates in the Sahara, 1859

Domestication and adoption of crops across Africa has historically rested not just on their eatability, adaptability to agro-climatic conditions, processing procedures, and the like – but also on their ability to serve more that ‘just’ a food function.

Looking at the major staple crops one can see use of their various parts for multiple purposes.  For example, cassava, gourds, yams and sweet potatoes have tasty and nutritious leaves that are made into relishes to eat with a carbohydrate.  Grain crops of sorghum, millet and maize have stocks that are used for numerous purposes – from livestock fodder to building.   Still today, the multipurpose uses of these stocks are still important in daily life, as sketched out here:

Uses of Sorghum (and millet) seeds, stock, and roots – from a training exercise in eastern Burundi

And the residue of rice and various seed plants can be used for animal food, as their stems can be used for thatching, mulching, and fodder.  Where HYVs (high yielding varieties) are introduced that disrupt this balance, failure may be the result – as in short-stemmed HYV wheat that failed to take off in Egypt several decades ago because farmers gained more from the chaff as animal fodder than from the grain – as discussed here 

We need to look into these kinds of trade-offs when tackling problems of food security, rather than only from the perspective of food crop increases.  While HYVs may make very good sense for commercial farmers, they may not be a good bet for smallholders.

More recently, too, vegetable crops have been introduced that are restricted only to food use, such as tomatoes, cabbages, and others.  These often serve both as a food and a cash crop – or are grown solely by commercial farmers.

Here are a several of other blog entries that discuss multipurpose crops and products:

Turning to North Africa and the Sahel, date palms constitute the multipurpose species extraordinaire.  In many areas they have been the sole food for several months of the year, for both people and animals (who eat the split pits), and throughout the region form a key element in long and short distance commerce.

The following passages from the journal of James Richardson explain the multiple uses of the date palm in 1859 together with commonly eaten dishes:

The town of Ghat, in the extreme S.W. corner of what is today Libya. Source: Jackson-Travels, Vol.2

…We tasted the leghma, or “tears of the date,” for the first time, and rather liked it. …  The dates are almost the only food here, and the streets are literally gravelled with their stones.

 … We blew an ostrich-egg, had the contents cooked, and found it very good eating. They are sold for fourpence each, and it is pretended that one makes an ample meal for twelve persons. We are supplied with leghma every morning; it tastes not unlike cocoa-nut milk, but with more body and flavour. R. very unwell, attributed it to his taking copious draughts of the leghma.

 Went to Nefta, a ride of about fourteen miles, lying somewhat nearer the Sahara than Toser….We were offered dates, kouskousou, and a seed which they call sgougou, and which has the appearance of dried apple-seed. The Arabs eat it with honey, first dipping their fingers into the honey, and then into the seed, which deliciously sticks to the honey. …

 [Kouskous] is the national dish of Barbary, and is a preparation of wheat-flour granulated, boiled by the steam of meat. It is most nutritive, and is eaten with or without meat and vegetables. When the grains are large, it is called hamza.

 … The oasis of Nefta, indeed, is said to be the most poetic of the Desert; its gardens are delicious; its oranges and lemons sweet; its dates the finest fruit in the “land of dates.” Nearly all the women are pretty, of that beauty peculiar to the Oriental race; and the ladies who do not expose themselves to the fierce sun of the day, are as fair as Mooresses.

 … The dates have been coming in to a great amount. There are many different kinds. The principal are: – Degalah, the most esteemed, which are very sweet and almost transparent. Captain B. preferred the Trungah, another first-rate sort, which are plum-shaped, and taste something like a plum. There are also the Monachah, which are larger than the other two, dryer and more mealy, and not so sweet as Degalah, and other sorts.

 The dates were very fine, though in no very great abundance, the superior state of ripeness being attributed to there only being a single day of rain during the past year in the Jereed. Rain is bad for the dates, but the roots of the tree cannot have too much water.

 … El-Jereed, or Belad-el-Jereed, the country of dates, or literally, the country of the palm branches, is a part of the Sahara, or the hot dry country lying in the immediate vicinity of the Great Desert. Its principal features of soil and climate offer nothing different from other portions of the Sahara, or the Saharan regions of Algeria and Morocco. The Belad-el-Jereed, therefore, may be properly called the Tunisian Sahara.

 … The trade and resources of this country consist principally in dates. The quantity exported to other parts of the Regency, as well as to foreign countries, where their fine quality is well-known, is in round numbers on an average from three to four thousand quintals per annum. But in Jereed itself, twenty thousand people [and livestock] live six months of the year entirely on dates.

 “A great number of poles,” says Sir Grenville Temple, “are arranged across the rooms at the height of eight or nine feet from the ground, and from these are suspended rich and large bunches of dates, which compose the winter store of the inhabitants; and in one corner of the room is one or more large earthern jars about six or seven feet high, also filled with dates pressed close together, and at the bottom of the jar is a cock, from which is drawn the juice in the form of a thick luscious syrup. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more palatable than this ‘sweet of sweets.’”

 … The sap, or honey of the palm is a delicious and wholesome beverage when drunk quite fresh; but if allowed to remain for some hours, it acquires a sharp taste, something like cider, and becomes very intoxicating. It is called poetically leghma, “tears” of the dates. When a tree is found not to produce much fruit, the head is cut off, and a bowl or cavity scooped out of the summit, in which the rising sap is collected, and this is drunk in its pure state without any other preparation.

 If the tree be not exhausted by draining, in five or six months it grows afresh; and, at the end of two or three years, may again be cut or tapped. The palm is capable of undergoing this operation five or six times…

 … Sap, by distillation, produces an agreeable spirit called Arâky or Arâk: from the fruit also the Jews distil a spirit called bokka, or what we should call toddy. It is usual for persons of distinction to entertain their friends upon a marriage, or the birth of a child, with this pure sap, and a tree is usually tapped for the purpose.

 It would appear that tapping the palm was known to the ancients, for a cornelian intaglio of Roman antiquity, has been found in the Jereed, representing a tree in this state, and the jars in which the juice was placed.

 …Dates are likewise dried in the sun, and reduced into a kind of meal, which will keep for any length of time, and which thus becomes a most valuable resource for travellers crossing the deserts, who frequently make it their only food, moistening a handful of it with a little water.

 Certain preparations are made of the male plant, to which medicinal virtues are attributed; the younger leaves, eaten with salt, vinegar, and oil, make an excellent salad.

 The heart of the tree, which lies at top between the fruit branches, and weighs from ten to twenty pounds, is eaten only on grand occasions, as those already mentioned, and possesses a delicious flavour between that of a banana and a pine-apple.

 The palm, besides these valuable uses to which it is applied, superseding or supplying the place of all other vegetables to the tribes of the Jereed, is, nevertheless, still useful for a great variety of other purposes.

 The most beautiful baskets, and a hundred other nick-nackery of the wickery sort are made of its branches; ropes are made and vestments wove from the long fibres, and its wood, also, when hardened by age, is used for building.

 Indeed, we may say, it is the all and everything of the Jereed, and, as it is said of the camel and the desert, the palm is made for the Jereed, and the Jereed is made for the palm.

 Source:  James Richardson-Travels in Morocco. 1859

Ghat today. Dates remain an important export here, as elsewhere in the Sahara. Source:


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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3 Responses to Multipurpose Crops in Africa & Dates in the Sahara, 1859

  1. I would like to ban the term “food” as a synonym for plants. As you show so well, it ignores non-food uses. And as we have discussed before, it ignores users’ calculation about how long and how difficult it is to turn the product into something that can actually be eaten, processing in short.


    • dianabuja says:

      I agree completely, Rachel. It’s a real problem because, also, African scientists and technical folk have absorbed the western-based categories of what a ‘crop’ is, and this further confounds activities.


  2. Pingback: Nibbles: Millet, Goat, Heirloom Veg, Tamarind, Rice domestication, Rice sustainability, Microbes, Competition

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