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Documenting the Potential of Africa's Native Grains

Africa is home to many native crops that scientists say have the potential to improve food consumption on the continent. However, food experts say many are “lost” to Western scientists, who have failed to document their potential. Instead, they’ve focused largely on crops, including grains and cereals, common to the industrialized world.

Adi Damania, a genetic resources data analyst with the Department of Plant Sciences at the Davis campus of the University of California, says one African grain with great potential is tef. It’s a grain from Ethiopia and Eritrea used for making a local bread, injera.

He says it grows in low rainfall areas and needs few inputs like news seeds or fertilizer.

“Its more nutritious,” says Damania, “than wheat; the seeds have a greater proportion of bran and germ, and also because tef is produced as a whole grain flour.

The agricultural expert points out that unlike other native African crops, tef does have relative - though limited - success as an export for Ethiopian restaurants in Europe and North America.

Besides tef, Damania is enthusiastic about another grain, millet, which he says is useful in Chad, Nigeria and parts of West Africa.

“The African early millets that I’m referring to,” he says, “are really huge. The head of the crop can be as long as 10 feet in height.”

The agricultural specialist says more should also be done to document and promote African varieties of sorghum. He says they have brownish-red tops, or heads, that are compact, and comparable in size and shape to, for example, a baseball.

Damania says the expanded use of African sorghum would be helpful in Somalia and Kenya, which he says have short rainy season. “It’s a crop for planting when you don’t have the rains,” he explains. “It’s stored underground and consumed throughout the year.”

Adi Damania says many African grains like tef, millet and sorghum are low in fat and have more protein than wheat. “Therefore,” he says, “ I would consider [them] to be equally nutritious as the major grains of the western hemisphere like wheat, barley and corn.”

The UCLA conservation scientist says that increasing export potential for these undervalued African are better suited for Asian countries than Western ones, which already have a sizeable amount of wheat, barley and corn.

But he says that that could change with advertising aimed at Western consumers.

To increase awareness about these and other local African crops, the U.S.-based National Research Council published a series of books called "Lost Crops of Africa." The complete series is available on their website.