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Scientists Test Once Popular Native African Vegetables for Commercial, Nutritional Value


Food experts say Africans could reduce food shortages and improve nutrition by expanding the consumption of several overlooked vegetables. They are among foods that some say have been "lost" to scientists and relief groups in the industrialized world, who often favor food crops that have been improved in Western laboratories over lesser known plants that are local to Africa. The experts say these crops are grown on a small scale at the local level but believe they should be examined to determine if they're worth cultivating on a larger scale.

Martin Price, a senior agricultural scientist for the non-profit group Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), is working to improve food production in Africa. He cites the moringa tree as an example. He says its pods, seeds, leaves and roots can have a variety of uses.

He says the group Church World Service has identified a way to enhance the value of the moringa. "They came up with the technique of drying the leaves, turning them into a powder, running them through a screen and then using this as a nutritional supplement for porridges or soups or desserts as well as giving it out in nutrition centers."

Price says the seeds from the moringa tree can also be used to purify water. He says the equivalent of one seed, mashed and stirred into a liter of unclean water, filters out most of the micro-organisms, leaving the water clean and safe for human use.


Egusi: A melon with international potential

The food scientist says there are two overlooked African vegetables that have been successfully grown by his organization, ECHO, in subtropical southwest Florida and may also grow well in parts of Africa. The first is the egusi, a melon local to West Africa. Its flesh is white and bitter, but seeds are flavorful and rich in oil and protein.

The seeds are ground up coarsely as a popular seasoning, to thicken stews and to make steamed dumplings. Price says egusi is valuable not only for local consumption, but as an export as well.

"The benefit," he says, "is that it can grow under some pretty dry conditions and yet is incredibly nutritious. It is already commercially grown in that country and exported to some extent to the West, primarily to sell to people who've emigrated there from Africa."

Celosia: easy to grow and to cook

Price's group, ECHO, has also grown another crop, Celosia, also known in Nigeria as "Lagos spinach." The plant, with beautiful pink and reddish flowers, is grown for its nutritious leaves.

"When you boil them in water," says Price, "the leaves have a nice light green color and a nice smooth texture. A special benefit is that they're not bothered by insects or diseases nearly as much as some of the other edible leaves."

Price says he hopes scientists will do more research on how these crops might be grown on a wider scale for food and profit. He says groups helping the poor should also be aware that many of these vegetables are inexpensive and available in Africa's own back yard.


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