Food insecurity remains a top concern in Africa, especially with the continent's population expected to double in the next 35 years.
But now some researchers say Africans are ignoring unconventional sources of nutrition — potentially at their own peril.
According to Professor Aissetou Yaye of the African Network for Agriculture, Agro-forestry and Natural Resources Education, a new program has been designed to promote the use of neglected or underutilized types of food resources that are readily available.
“We realized that people are mainly focusing on transformation of usual crops or animals," she said, describing research findings that are now being used to develop university curricula on neglected or underutilized sources of nutrition. "When it comes to crops, trees and animals, particularly wildlife, you have a lot of species that could also be used to develop enterprises and business that are kind of forgotten.”
Specific examples, she says, include the grain amaranth and Bambara groundnuts.
Fruit and vegetable specialist Sylvia Banda, who has trained thousands of farmers to diversify crops in her native Zambia, as well as in neighboring Mozambique and Tanzania, says pumpkin leaves represent another unusual example.
“I have tried to dry the cabbage and pumpkin leaves, take them in the lab and analyze them, [and I found] the shelf-life for dried cabbage is six months. That’s when it will be attacked by weevils. The shelf life for pumpkin leaves is three years," she said. "No weevils will attack the pumpkin leaves. Why is it like that? Because local vegetables produce [a] self-preservative.”
Other neglected plants, such as African eggplant, locust bean and moringa, are actually more nutritious than ones traditionally eaten, Banda says.
Wilson Kasolo of the Nyabyeya Forestry College in Uganda says Africans must make a conscious effort to see their farming and eating habits evolve.
“We are faced with very many challenges of climate change, increasing population, increasing demand for food, for basic livelihoods, but also challenges of improving the livelihoods socioeconomic livelihoods of our people," he said. "Therefore it’s necessary to look outside the box, to think outside the box.”
In the past, people have labeled some of these food sources as minor or famine crops, underestimating their benefits. But researchers say these foods could nonetheless stave off hunger and give African farmers an opportunity.