Long-term security for Africa’s food needs may lie in local crops that have never before been produced in large quantities.
"All these crops are very well known to farmers in various parts of Africa, depending, of course, on ecology. They're not all grown everywhere," says Jane Guyer, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
In fact, some of these crops have been called “lost.”
The professor of anthropology says these foods – unlike cocoa and coffee – have never been cultivated for international trade. "They're in regional markets, they're sold from Africans to Africans, and there was much less of an incentive for colonial governments to invest in those crops because they were not going to reap tax benefits or duties, and so on, from those crops,” she says.
The National Research Council, a Washington-based non-profit providing technical advice, is hoping to raise awareness about indigenous crops in Africa that experts consider "lost" to modern research. The council says the word "lost," in this context, means the plants haven't been studied and developed enough to determine their full benefits. It says these crops could enhance agricultural productivity, provide more stable food supplies and raise incomes in rural areas.
"During the 1980s and the 1990s the amount of investment in African agriculture stagnated just at a time when it really needed to be increased because we had rapidly growing urbanization and we had climate change, so there were droughts and various ecological disturbances," says Professor Guyer.
Research is now increasing. "They need to be grown on a somewhat larger scale, they need to be commercialized more, they need the varieties to be improved," says Guyer.
These include leafy vegetables, oil seeds and fleshy fruits, such as the western Nigerian egusi melon. She says all these foods have interesting tastes and important vitamins.
Crops for cash
Promoting their sale in local and regional markets, exporting them to the Diaspora and raising awareness among non-Africans are ways to make the crops profitable.
The National Research Council has published a three volume series about traditional African grains, vegetables and fruits called the "Lost Crops of Africa." Volume one explores grains; volume two, vegetables; and volume three is about fruits.
Guyer says the benefits of these crops could be spread through increased use of the media, for example, having recipes published in the cooking section of newspapers. Guyer also suggests that parts of the "Lost Crops" books be translated into French, Portuguese and Swahili. The National Academies Press has made the books available free on the web in Africa and on CDs.