Nixtamalization adds value for smallholder maize producers

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and Grain South Africa are partnering on an innovative maize project to boost food security in rural communities. Residents from the Elukwatini district in Mpumalanga recently showcased skills acquired during training in nixtamalization, a process of preparing maize in an alkaline solution, which is followed by washing and grinding to produce a dough called masa.


A variety of products can be made from this dough, and local villagers who have mastered the process are adding value to smallholder maize production using masa to make steamed bread, fortified porridge, pancakes, yoghurt and snacks.


The DSI realised the benefits of nixtamalization in 2018 following a visit to South Africa by a group from Mexico who demonstrated the process at a workshop held at the Agricultural Research Council.


The Mexican nixtamalization process is similar to one used by South African rural communities using wood ash to soften maize, but the Mexican process has proved more effective, said Beaulla Mathebula from the DSI’s Agricultural Biotechnology Unit.


The former manager of Grain South Africa's Farmer Development Programme, Jane McPherson, tried out the process in her own kitchen, with successful results. The Agricultural Biotechnology unit of the DSI and Grain South Africa pooled their resources to launch the project and have since held 340 courses, training about 4 145 people.


Additional courses presented to support the nixtamalization training include 79 courses on basic nutrition, which benefited 1 246 participants, and 82 courses on dry bean production, which were presented to a total of 1 195 participants.


The success of the nixtamalization project demonstrated the benefits of agroprocessing in providing food and nutritional security. Small-holder farmers play an important role in providing food and nutrition security to local communities in South Africa. They supply food (major staples) to the local markets that supply many of those communities. They are also more labour-intensive than large commercial farms and therefore a major provider of employment in poor rural communities. Uplifting smallholder farmers can help to address many socio-economic challenges in poor rural communities.


The National Development Plan (2030), the New Growth Path and the Industrial Policy Action Plan all acknowledge the need for small-holder producers to participate more in agroprocessing initiatives. Agroprocessing provides additional value to raw products, and enable producers to improve the profitability and sustainability of their farming business.  Agroprocessing is therefore able to contribute to the alleviation of socio-economic challenges, increase employment, and improve food and nutrition security.


In South Africa, however, smallholder producers lack access to the agroprocessing industry, owing to a lack of infrastructure, poor knowledge or limited market access.


The nixtamalization project has proved to be a successful form of agroprocessing, providing a number of benefits for unprocessed grain. The process makes grinding maize easier, increases available protein and micronutrient content, improves flavour and aroma, makes starch more digestible, and reduces mycotoxins. The process requires minimal equipment and ingredients and therefore is cheap to carry out.  Only a cast iron or stainless-steel pot (instead of an aluminium pot) and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) are needed.


Since infrastructure is not a major requirement and the market is very open to maize-based products, the key to introducing nixtamalization is to provide knowledge, and the project therefore focused its efforts on training producers to process maize through nixtamalization.


The success of any such intervention depends on buy-in from participants, and an intervention intended to help smallholder farmers access the benefits of agroprocessing had to be relevant to local conditions. The nixtamalization training project took a promising technology from Mexico, repackaged it to fit the local farming landscape and then provided extensive training courses, manuals and recipes in several poor rural districts where maize is a staple food.


From there on, producers innovated to create their products, incorporating local traditions and uplifting their communities


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