Sorghum, a forgotten ancestral grain of Burundi

“_You should cook it in our restaurant!_”, enthusiastically exclaims one of Jeanne Cimpaye’s sons.

They are all comfortably seated at one of the tables of his restaurant in the Burundian village of Ruhagarika, located near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it is the first time they have tasted sorghum.

Only a few decades ago this ancestral grain was considered a staple food but today it has been almost entirely replaced by rice and corn introduced by German and Belgian colonizers.

Jeanne is famous in the village for her impeke And ikiyamatraditional drinks of Burundi, but sorghum-based dishes are rarely on his restaurant’s menu.

“_This cereal is expensive and many people here are not used to sorghum dishes. So if I cooked it all the time, I’d lose money,” she explains.

“_Slowly I’m getting them used to consuming this new ingredient_”.

Sorghum is not new to Burundians, but it has been forgotten. So restaurateurs like Jeanne are determined to put it back on the plate.

A symbol of the monarchy

The kingdom of Burundi was preserved by the colonial administration and lasted until 1966. During this period, sorghum was a staple ingredient, one of the symbols of royalty and wealth. After harvesting, sorghum was stored in granaries to be distributed to the population in case of famine.

“_It was a symbolic grain that gave legitimacy to Burundi’s power_,” explains Esperance Habindavyi, a researcher at the Burundi Institute of Agronomic Sciences (ISABU).

“_Today it is an important plant on a social level, especially in rural areas where sorghum beer is produced for many ceremonies such as weddings or parties_”.

Burundians call Ikiyama and Impeke beers, but these sorghum-based drinks have very little to do with European beers. – Clarisse Shaka for Euronews

Burundians call Ikiyama And Impeke beers, but these sorghum-based drinks have very little to do with European beers.

L’impeke it is brown and very intense. It is fermented, sour and bitter. Also, some like to sweeten it with honey.

During the holidays, guests gather around a large container filled withimpeke and they dip their straws into the thick drink to symbolize their unity.

L’ikiyama it is lighter and sweeter.

According to Esperance Habindavyi, sorghum has another importance for Burundians: “_It is one of the crops that can help guarantee food security_”, she indicates.

Burundi is a landlocked country in East Africa. With a population of 12 million people, it had the lowest GDP per capita in 2021.

According to the World Food Program (WFP), 52% of children under five suffer from rickets and many people living in rural areas suffer from malnutrition.

“_Sorghum contributes significantly to reducing malnutrition in children and in particular in women because it contains phosphorus and iron. These elements play a crucial role in the fight against malnutrition in Burundi,” says the researcher.

Return to sorghum a central place

Like corn, sorghum is a tall plant with small seeds. It is drought tolerant and germinates only three days after sowing. However, not all varieties are equally productive.

“_We advise our communities to opt for short cycle varieties so that they can be harvested and consumed in just three months_”, indicates Audace Ndikumana, program manager at Inades Formation-Burundi.

Supported by the pan-African NGO, more than 300 Burundian farmers from Cibitoke and Kirundo provinces are learning modern methods of sorghum production.

Clarisse Shaka for Euronews

Another goal of the training is to work with restorers like Jeanne. – Clarisse Shaka for Euronews

Since 2018, sorghum production among the farmers in the program has increased from 300 to 500 kilograms per season per household.

Another goal of the training is to work with restorers like Jeanne. In 2021, the owner attended a workshop organized by Inades, on the use of traditional ingredients to preserve Burundian food culture and strengthen food security.

“_Inades taught us how to prepare bean fritters, bean porridge and white sorghum and encouraged us to prepare these dishes in our restaurants_”, explains Jeanne.

“_These workshops opened my eyes and motivated me to continue cooking sorghum. They also showed me the importance of its production and processing. I am also convinced that I cannot stop making impeke because this drink is important for the Burundian culture_”.

Clarisse Shaka for Euronews

Jeanne serves traditional Burundian ikiyama beer. – Clarisse Shaka for Euronews

Impeke and Ikiyama

Ingredients for the fermented base:

Sorghum flour – 1 kg

Cornflower – 1 kg

Cassava flour – 500 grams


For ikiyama:

Honey, sugar or any sweetener.

Basic recipe for both drinks:

Toast the cornmeal on a hot, dry skillet until golden brown.

Mix with the sorghum flour.

Add 100 mg of boiling water and mix well.

Add the cassava flour and more boiling water.

Mix well.

Add water until the mixture becomes mush.

Pour a small amount of sorghum flour on top, cover tightly and put in a warm place for 48 hours until it ferments.

For the impeke

Impeke is more focused than ikiyama.

Take the base given above and add boiling water until you get the consistency of a very concentrated drink.

Mix well.

To make the drink alcoholic, add any available beer.

Pour the drink into a clean resealable container.

Store overnight in a warm place to facilitate fermentation.

For ikiyama

Ikiyama is more liquid, so you have to add twice as much water as impeke.

Also add sugar or another sweetener.

Enjoy your meal !

If you want to discover more recipes and stories about African ingredients, listen to the first episode of our series, in which we talked to Pierre Thiam about his precious childhood staple, fonio.

the podcast The surprise of the chef was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator programme. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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