Scientists at a research center in Nigeria are working to improve the resistance and nutritional value of crops found in western and central Africa. As VOA's Nico Colombant reports from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria, the research could help ease regional malnutrition.
Experimental corn is being watered on the lush land of the institute, about two hours north of Nigeria's bustling commercial capital Lagos.
Researchers are working to make varieties of pest and disease-resistant corn, enhanced with nutrients such as beta carotene, which is good for vision, body tissue and healing.
Maize expert Abebe Menkir says such research has been done elsewhere on other food products, but never before on corn. "Yellow maize has been used in Europe and in America for animal feed, and there was not really very much concern about the concentration of the beta carotene and other important carotinoids in maize because it was directed mainly for animal feed," said Mr. Menkir. "And there was very little research which was done with respect to how breeding should be done to enhance beta-carotene content in maize for human consumption. It is Africa where maize is a main staple and it is consumed in large quantities, but in America it mainly comes through animals, or in Europe it is the same, that is why there has been less emphasis."
Outside Mr. Menker's office, a worker from the institute tends to a field of protein-enhanced cassava. Regular cassava provides carbohydrates, calories and energy, but lacks key micro-nutrients essential to good health. Often an African meal consists of just one staple food, so scientists at the institute are trying to pack as many nutrients as they can into new varieties of each crop, without changing the taste.
Food scientist Busie Maziya-Dixon says this type of research could ease malnutrition, which affects up to 50 percent of the population in some of the countries in West and Central Africa.
"When you look at the level of malnutrition, especially in children under five, the numbers across the region, then you do get concerned," explained Mrs. Maziya-Dixon. "If the variety was there then we combine the strategies, we bring in supplementation, we bring in fortification, we bring in dietary diversification, we use different strategies to solve the problem, then we can say, 'Yes maybe we hope to make progress very soon.'"
Sophisticated biotechnology advances are also being used. Down the hall from where Mrs. Maziya-Dixon works, molecular biologist Christian Fatokun is working with the west-African plant cowpeas to try to make them resistant to insect pests without the need for chemical spraying.
"We can now look at it at the molecular level, using the DNA. That is what I do, to use DNA, to have better understanding of how different genes in cowpea are organized, arranged, so that we can have a better understanding of that structure," said Mr. Fatokun. He said his work at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture is ultimately aimed at helping local farmers become more productive and consumers better fed.
"We are trying to intervene here at IITA to see how we can make life easier for these farmers to grow these crops, produce enough for people to eat, because cowpea is a food crop for people in this part of the world," said Mr. Fatokun. "We are very hopeful that if we can get a variety that is resistant to the insect pests that affect it, we will have made some significant contribution to the livelihood of the people, and enhancing food security at the same time."
Other staple foods that are being worked on include bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, and plantains. Scientists say final success at enhancing key African crops is still several years away. But they say tens of millions of dollars in recently received funding from western donors is helping their cause.