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Africa – ‘Indigenous’ Crops and Food Security

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Research suggests that the potential contribution of native crops to African food security could be huge.

The answers to problems of food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa are often seen, by organisations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and international agribusiness companies, as lying with new highly developed crop varieties. However an article published by Nature explores a different avenue which looks at the abundance of ‘indigenous’ crops grown across the country, often overlooked by seed companies and researchers as lagging behind in terms of productivity and quality

The article explains how in some urban areas such as Nairobi these food crops are now becoming more popular; Kenyan farmers increased the area used to grow such crops by 25% between 2011 and 2013, and they are increasingly available in markets.

Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural researcher at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Juja, Kenya said that “in Africa, malnutrition is such a problem. We want to see indigenous vegetables play a role”; Abukutsa began surveying and collecting Kenya’s indigenous plants in the early 1990s.

It is hoped that more emphasis on indigenous foods, those that are well adapted for a particular climate and environment, rather than foreign plants that often are less nutritious and take large external inputs to be successfully grown, can contribute to some degree towards food security and improved nutrition in Africa.

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The large majority of vegetables being studied in East Africa are leafy greens such as the African Nightshade, Amaranth Leaves and the Spider Plant; such plants according to Abukutsa can be important sources of protein; “some people just live on vegetables, and they cannot maybe afford meat.”

The US National Research Council (NRC) in the 1990s convened a panel to explore the potential of Africa’s ‘lost crops‘, chaired by renowned researcher Norman Borlaug. It concluded that native plants held huge potential to improve food security and nutritional intake across Africa. Today in Nairobi the World Agroforestry Centre is studying more than 3,000 indigenous fruit species finding nutritional, drought-tolerant and pest and disease resistant characteristics.

However these crops are not subject to the same standards as modern farming and are not genetically designed for a maximisation of yield or uniformity in seed. Some commentators have said that efforts to genetically improve these crops, while possibly increasing yields, could eliminate many other benefits, as would incorporating these crops into monoculture-type systems.

Important research into the potential of ‘native crops’ as well as the performance of low-input agriculture is  increasingly being conducted in Africa; in Ethiopia Dr Melaku Worede, having previously held positions in the Ministry of Agriculture, has made an invaluable contribution to the genetic research and food sovereignty in the country, establishing the Genetic Resource Centre in Addis-Ababa, the first gene-bank in Africa, now known as the Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. A film documenting his work is available here.

Elsewhere the African Biodiversity Network, a regional network of individuals and organisations working towards socio-economic and ecological problems facing the continent, is also conducting important work relating to genetic diversity, indigenous food crops and food sovereignty.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

East African Community: Climate Smart Agriculture
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.51, Issue. 9, Pp.20550A-20550C

Food Security
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.50, Issue.2, Pp.19889A-19889B

Women in Africa
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.49, Issue.10, Pp.19743B-19743C

Subscribe to the Africa Research Bulletin today

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