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More than just popcorn

Sorghum 'popcorn' is one alternative to well-established maize popcorn (Yasuyuki Morimoto/Bioversity International)
Sorghum 'popcorn' is one alternative to well-established maize popcorn
Yasuyuki Morimoto/Bioversity International

The markets of Nairobi bustle at lunchtime, as workers emerge from offices to pick up something to eat. Increasingly popular among commuters wanting a quick meal, and children with an endless appetite for snacks, are French fries or chips. But at Matayos Self-Help Youth Group based in Busia, western Kenya, a team of experts is developing a healthier snack option: popcorn. Not that maize is the only cereal that can be popped; the group has discovered a whole range of cereals and legumes that make a nourishing and light snack, which promises to add value to some of these often undervalued indigenous crops.

Matayos Self-Help Youth Group has targeted the healthfood market with the intention of introducing a diversity of popped 'corns' as snacks. Examples include finger millet, cowpea, soybean and Bambara groundnut. It is hoped that this initiative will help restore awareness of the value of these once popular crops used in traditional cooking, crops that have been displaced in recent years by imported varieties of maize and wheat which, though high yielding, cannot offer the pest or climatic resistance - nor the biodiversity - of indigenous crops.

Under-exploited potential

The rich genetic diversity and the vitamins and minerals represented in indigenous cereals and legumes has not been lost on the Wahayo people of western Kenya, who for centuries have prepared healthy dishes of finger millet and sorghum as staple foods, accompanied by amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) leaves, African nightshades (Solanum spp.), spiderplant (Cleome gynandra) and Ethiopian kale (Brassica carinata). But with the influx of high-yielding maize varieties, and with changing values favouring introduced foods and beverages over indigenous grains, pulses and leafy vegetables, the use of such indigenous crops is declining and knowledge about their use is being lost.

With technical support provided by researchers from Bioversity International, the Matayos Self-Help Youth Group worked on an experimental investigation to pop new grains and market them locally. The group has developed a machine which uses high pressure to pop and add value to the grains, producing a wide range of healthy popped snacks. This has been achieved by using a pressure cylinder fired by gas. A single grain of rice for example, becomes eight to nine times larger when it is popped.

'Popped snacks' from a variety of grains and legumes are growing in popularity in Kenya (Yasuyuki Morimoto/Bioversity International)
'Popped snacks' from a variety of grains and legumes are growing in popularity in Kenya
Yasuyuki Morimoto/Bioversity International

Different landraces of grains were collected by the group and their popularity as popped grains in the marketplace was noted. Popping recipes and skills were developed through trial and error, based on variables such as pressure levels, duration of heating, quality of grain, flavouring and packing. Successful samples of the popped grains include rice, maize, sorghum and soybean.

Popular snacks

These four grains are offered for sale in plastic packets costing five, ten, 20 and 25 Kenyan Shillings. And, as well as selling to individual buyers, the group is also supplying local shops, kiosks, supermarkets and schools. Different combinations of flavours and colourings are also being tested, including sugar syrup and salt. But, comments group coordinator Francis Oundo, "Not too much sugar or salt! We are aware of the health implications of adding flavourings and only apply enough to add taste."

As for the future and marketing potential of the popped indigenous grains, Oundo recognises that while opportunities exist, they need to be developed: "To meet market needs we really need to achieve higher success rates with pressure-popping, because the current success rates are only 50-60 per cent. There are still some technical problems, such as spontaneous pressure leakage around the lid of the metal cylinder."

But community and urban demand is there. The next steps, says Oundo - apart from improving the efficiency of the cylinder - will be identifying suitable varieties for popping based on people's preferences, improving on quality, labelling and packaging, and scaling up the volumes of popped grain to satisfy an eager market. Perhaps Nairobi's new lunchtime snack will be just what people working with indigenous grains, such as sorghum and millet, have been waiting for, to ensure that these grains regain their popularity and become a valued and integral part of urban diets.

Date published: May 2008


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