Recent research says native African crops which could feed the hungry and reduce poverty are being neglected. The National Research Council, a private, non-profit institution in the United States, reports that 18 native crops, such as bambara beans and the banana-like enset tree, suffer from lack of attention, research and funding. It says cultivating these crops would combat malnutrition, ensure food security, and earn money for farmers while being gentler on the land.
Calestous Juma is a Kenyan, teaching international development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He served on a committee with the National Academy of Sciences that examined the importance of what is termed Africa’s lost vegetables. He said the reason for the decline is because of changing nutritional practices in African countries which neglect traditional vegetables for commercial ones, primarily because Africa has not invested in the needed research to adapt these crops to modern agriculture. He adds,“in the last 20 years or so we’ve already been seeing declines in research funding to African agriculture, and as a consequence the traditional crops have suffered most.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Juma says these traditional vegetables do have the potential to become commercial crops because there’s already local demand which can be expanded. He says examples of these vegetables include amaranth – which is grown throughout Africa, cowpeas in East Africa, and okra in West Africa.
Juma says there are several advantages in restoring these crops and expanding their distribution. One is that, for the most part, they can be raised throughout the Continent. They’re not limited to specific areas, which he says means “if you develop the research you can engage a lot of Africans in long term partnerships.”
He says another advantage in this development would give African scientists the opportunity to establish partnerships with their counterparts in industrialized countries. And Juma adds that “one of the most significant advantages in having them rediscovered now is that we have new tools, particularly in genetics, that can enable these crops to be improved, diversified and adapted to modern markets.”