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the web of life in southern Africa

Sorghum bicolor (Sorghum, Grain sorghum)

[= Sorghum caffrorum]

Graansorghum [Afrikaans]; Mabele [Pedi, Sotho, Ndabele]; Amazimba [Xhosa]; Amabele [Zulu]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Poales > Family: Poaceae

Sorghum is an indigenous African crop (including native to southern Africa) that grows well in areas that experience droughts. To a large extent it has been replaced by maize (which originates from South America) but it is still grown quite extensively in southern Africa both as a subsistence crop, and commercially. It has a number of uses including beer making and for porridge, but the commercial crop is used mainly for stock feed.

Sorghum is an indigenous African crop and was domesticated more than 3000 years ago, possibly in Ethiopia. Sorghum bicolor bicolor is the domesticated subspecies while the wild form is classified as Sorghum bicolor arundinaceum. An advantage of sorghum over maize is that it is able to yield grain even under drought conditions (see also Pearl millet).

Sorghum produces large heads of seed and these are harvested and stored until needed.


  • Whole grain is boiled and eaten
  • The grain is ground into flour and used for making bread and porridge.
  • The grain is soaked and allowed to germinate a little and then dried (a process termed malting - the germination turns starches to sugars). The malted grain is then ground up and used either for making beer or for making a porridge that in southern Africa is referred to as 'malted mabele' or 'maltebele'.
  • The residue of the plant is used used for thatching, basketry and fuel or as hay.
  • Most of the the commercial harvest of sorghum in southern Africa is used for stock feed.
  • Special cultivars, collectively referred to as 'broomcorn' are grown that have stiff heads and are used as brooms.

Maize was introduced to Africa from Central America in the 1500's and 1600's and has gradually replaced sorghum as the staple food. It is more nutritious than sorghum and with adequate rainfall is able to produce a greater harvest. However, sorghum and Pearl millet are still favoured crops in areas of Africa with unpredictable rainfall. Sorghum is still grown commercially, mainly for stock feed, but also for human consumption.


  • van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's Plants. A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.