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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2019

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), ‘Les Afriques dans le monde’, Bordeaux, France


This article examines the evolution of dietary knowledge about French colonial Africa, from the 1920s to the early 1950s. More specifically, it focuses on efforts to quantify daily food intake by tracing the different meanings assigned to nutrition over time. While such statistics were used as early as the 1920s to evaluate the food consumption of populations most useful to the imperial economy, it was only after the Second World War that they became a means of measuring living standards according to universal metrics. This history invites us to reflect on how poverty in Africa came to be recognized as a problem, by showing that such a process has neither been based entirely on social reality nor on the knowledge produced to delineate privation. Rather it also emerged from the changing set of meanings associated with this knowledge.

Forum on Poverty
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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Translated from the original French by Rachel Kantrowitz


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21 CAOM GG-AEF-3H38, Gouvernement général de l'AEF, ‘Note sur la comparaison entre les types A, B et C de la ration dans l'arrêté du 6 avril 1926’, 1926.

22 CAOM GG-AEF-3H38, Rapport du chef du service médical du chemin de fer Congo-Océan sur la ration des travailleurs, 1924.

23 CAOM GG-AEF-3H38, Inspection général des services sanitaires de l'AEF, ‘Note au sujet de la composition de la ration des travailleurs du CFCO’, février 1929.

24 CAOM GG-AEF-3H38, Société française des produits alimentaires azotés, ‘De l'alimentation de l'homme. La ration d'azote indispensable’, 1928.

25 CAOM GG-AEF-3H40, Lettre du directeur de la Société française des produits alimentaires azotés au secrétaire général de l'AEF, 2 mars 1931.

26 CAOM GG-AEF-3H49, Lettre du gouverneur général de l'AOF aux gouverneurs des colonies, janvier 1933. The properties of this product, developed by the food industry, easy to use and made from peanuts, were strikingly similar to the ‘Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods’ that would be developed much later in the fight against malnutrition in poor countries. The best known of these foods is Plumpy Nut, developed in the 1990s. See Caremel, J.-F., ‘Les aliments thérapeutiques prêts à l'emploi et la “pharmaceutalisation humanitaire” de la malnutrition au Sahel’ in Badji, M. and Desclaux, A., Nouveaux enjeux éthiques autour du médicament en Afrique (Dakar, 2015), 231–46Google Scholar.

27 This also concerned the military, even if their ration was less open to debate within the colonial services. See Gravellat, H., ‘Note sur l'alimentation du tirailleur en Afrique occidentale française’, Annales de médecine et de pharmacie coloniales, 25 (1927), 81102Google Scholar.

28 CAOM GG-AEF-2H28, Berbérati Subdivision (Oubangui-Chari), rapport périodique sur la main d’œuvre, 1934.

29 Martial, J.-E., ‘Contribution à l’étude de l'alimentation du tirailleur sénégalais en Afrique occidentale française’, Annales de médecine et de pharmacie coloniales, 29 (1931), 532Google Scholar.

30 Bonnecase, ‘Avoir faim en AOF’, 154–8.

31 CAOM AGEFOM 940, Académie des Sciences coloniales, ‘Rapport sur la question de l'insuffisance alimentaire des Indigènes dans les possessions françaises’, 1925.

32 Ibid.


33 C. Brantley, ‘Kikuyu-Maasai Nutrition’.

34 Iliffe, J., The African Poor: A History (Cambridge, 1987), 160CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 CAOM AGEFOM940, Ministère des Colonies, ‘Instruction relative à l’étude hygiénique de la ration alimentaire des populations indigènes’, 4 avril 1925.

36 Research conducted around the same time on ‘tribal diets’ in Kenya was also based on this assumption. See Brantley, ‘Kikuyu - Maasai Nutrition’, 50.

37 Cheyssial, A., ‘Étude de la ration alimentaire des indigènes du territoire du Togo’, Annales de médecine et de pharmacie coloniales, 29 (1935), 503–16Google Scholar.

38 Hardy, G. and Richet, C. (eds.), ‘Préface’ in L'alimentation indigène dans les colonies françaises, protectorats et territoires sous mandats (Paris, 1933), 6Google Scholar.

39 Ibid. 9.


40 Ibid. 40.


41 Ibid. 207.


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50 National Archives of Mali, Bamako (ANM) NI 1D2026, Commission d'enquête dans les territoires d'outre-mer, ‘Enquête sur l'alimentation des indigènes’, 30 décembre 1937.

51 Créac'h, Paul, Aliments et alimentation des indigènes du Moyen-Tchad (Afrique équatoriale française) (Marseille, 1941)Google Scholar. Créac'h first conducted this research for his thesis in pharmacy.

52 CAOM GUERNUT 100, Commission Guernut, ‘Enquêtes n° 1C sur l'alimentation des indigènes’, 1937–1938. For more on these surveys, see Bonnecase, La pauvreté au Sahel, 52–66.

53 Created in Paris in 1904, during its first decades of existence this scientific society devoted itself to the principles of what it termed ‘the rational diet of man’ before focusing on food conditions around the world in the 1930s.

54 Société scientifique d'hygiène alimentaire, La science de l'alimentation en 1937, III (Alençon, 1937), 6.

55 Ibid. 158.


56 Ibid. 119, 125.


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61 FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture: Review of a Decade and Outlook (Roma, 1955), 1820Google Scholar.

62 See Jane Guyer's contribution to this forum on the imaginaries of hunger and poverty in postwar Europe. Guyer, J.I., ‘Pauper, percentile, precarity: Analytics for poverty studies in Africa’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 463–74Google Scholar.

63 FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture. Review of a Decade and Outlook (Rome, 1955), 1820Google Scholar.

64 CAOM 1AFFPOL356, ministère de la France d'outre-mer, ‘Rapport sur la conférence de l'ONU pour l'agriculture et l'alimentation’, octobre 1946.

65 Inter-African Conference on Food and Nutrition, Dschang, Cameroon, 3–9 October 1949 (Paris, 1951).

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68 United Nations General Assembly Resolution No. 179-III of 13 May 1949.

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70 CAOM BIB-SOM BR11715, United Nations, ‘Report on the definition and assessment of living standards from an international point of view’, June 1953.

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74 See Wayne Dooling's contribution to this forum, discussing the ways in which poverty and worker's wages were linked in the specific context of postwar Cape Town. Dooling, W., ‘Poverty and respectability in early twentieth-century Cape Town’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 437–61Google Scholar.

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76 CAOM GG-AEF-1H103-105, Inspection générale du travail du Moyen-Congo, ‘Note sur la ration prévue à l’école de police de Brazzaville’, 25 octobre 1950.

77 ANS 1H90, lettre du docteur Raoult à l'inspecteur général du travail et des lois sociales de l'AOF, 31 mars 1954.

78 ANS 1H92, ministère des Colonies, décision du 9 juillet 1945.

79 ANS 1H92, Mission anthropologique, ‘Rapport n° 1’, 1945.

80 ANS 1H89, Mission anthropologique, ‘Anthropologie des populations de l'AOF – Anthropologie des parties molles’, 1948.

81 Archives de l'Office du Niger, Ségou (AON) S0166, ‘Bilan de la mission anthropologique de l'AOF (janvier 1946–août 1948)’, 1948.

82 CAOM 1AFFPOL346, Mission anthropologique de l'AOF, ‘Rapport du médecin lieutenant-colonel Pales’, octobre 1948.

83 Conférence interafricaine, 152.

84 AON S0166, ‘Bilan’.

85 Ibid.


86 Institut de médecine tropicale du service de santé des armées, Marseille (IMTSSA) 398, Mission anthropologique, ‘Le problème des sels alimentaires en AOF’, 1950.

87 AON S0166, ‘Bilan’.

88 Conférence interafricaine, 278; CAOM 1AFFPOL947, Direction générale de la santé publique de l'AOF, ‘Rapport sur l'hygiène et la santé publique en AOF. Documentation destinée à l'ONU’, 1950.

89 ‘Bibliographie sur l'alimentation et la nutrition en Afrique noire’, Conférence interafricaine, 491–531.

90 FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture: 1947 (Geneva, 1947)Google Scholar, IV and 8.

91 FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture: 1951 (Roma, 1951), 3233Google Scholar.

92 In her 1935 article, Cicely Williams evaluated the mortality rate of children with kwashiorkor in Gold Coast at 90 per cent, while mentioning other similar studies in East and South Africa. ‘Kwashiorkor’, 1151. Three years later, she estimated that ‘probably less than 50 per cent of the babies born alive survive to maturity’ in the Gold Coast. ‘Child Health in the Gold Coast’, Lancet, 231 (1938), 97.

93 ANS 1H90, Inspection générale de la Santé publique de l'AOF, ‘Notes sur les éléments susceptibles d’être fournis pour la composition du rapport annuel sur l'agriculture et l'alimentation du comité français de la FAO’, 1951.

94 CAOM 2FIDES766, ministère de la France d'outre-mer, Direction de la Santé, ‘Les problèmes alimentaires et nutritionnels en Afrique noire’, 1952.

95 ANS 1H90, Inspection générale de la Santé publique de l'AOF, ‘Réponse au questionnaire du 20 avril 1951 sur l'agriculture et l'alimentation’, 1951.

96 CAOM 2FIDES766, Ministère de la France d'outre-mer, Direction de la Santé, ‘Les problèmes de la sous-nutrition et de la malnutrition’, 1955.

97 J.-H. Jézéquel, “‘Le Lait qui soigne’” : tâtonnements thérapeutiques, réforme de l’État et déploiement des institutions internationales en Afrique Occidentale Française (1950–1960)’ (unpublished paper, Colloque ‘Lutter contre la faim en Afrique’, Bordeaux, 2013).

98 CAOM 1AFFPOL2257 ‘Journées d’étude des indépendants d'Outre-mer’, juillet 1950.

99 Espeland, W. N. and Stevens, M., ‘Commensuration as a Social Process’, Annual Review of Sociology, 24 (1998), 313343CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 A. Thiroux, ‘La natalité et la mortalité infantile dans les colonies françaises’, Revue philanthropique, 51-408, 1931, 561–569; G. Lefrou et M. Allard, ‘Une décade démographique à Saint-Louis: Natalité, mortalité généerale, mortinatalité, mortalité infantile, Annales de medicine et de pharmacie coloniales, 30, 1932, 406–427.

101 Browntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, xvi.

102 ANS 2G39.9. Inspection générale des services sanitaires et médicaux de l'AOF, rapport annuel, 1939.

103 The first assessment of infant mortality at the scale of a French colony in Africa was conducted in Guinea in 1954. According to findings of the survey, ‘a newborn child who has a fifty per cent chance of living beyond 30 years of age in Guinea has the same chance of living longer than 70 years in France’. CAOM 2FIDES766, Gouvernement de la Guinée, ‘Enquête démographique par sondage’, premier fascicule, 1954.

104 On the changing meanings of production statistics in colonial and independent Africa see, Bonnecase, V., ‘Généalogie d'une évidence statistique. De la “réussite” économique du colonialisme tardif à la “faillite” des Etats africains (v.1930–v. 1980)’, Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, 62:4 (2015), 3363CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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