Finding ways to diversify African food systems with nutritious ‘orphan’ crops

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Read full article By Alina Paul-Bossuet @ Thomson Reuters Foundation News Photo Credit: Alina Paul

Better seeds or demand creation, a new publication from World Agroforestry (ICRAF) and partners questions what is the most effective way to include more orphan crops into African food systems.

Why mainstreaming orphan crops is important for Africa

Ethiopians eat a meagre 80 grams of fruits and vegetables a day, a fifth of the recommended ’five a day’ From Ugali in Kenya to sadza and nsima in Southern Africa, too many Africans rely on a monotonous diet of energy-rich, nutrient-poor staples. The lack of diversity in African diets and the boom of non-nutritious processed food contributes to a rapid rise of diet-related disorders like obesity, diabetes and micronutrient deficiencies.

The dominance of a handful of staples not only affects the nutritional quality of diets but exposes African agriculture to economic and climatic, and other shocks, as the recent destruction of the invasive fall armyworm across the continent on maize farms has shown. Climate change too will affect yields of maize and other major staples in the near future.

Growing more traditional nutritious food crops like indigenous fruits, millets, Bambara groundnut, or African leafy vegetables could play an important role to ensure current and future African food security. The safou fruit (Dacryodes edulis in scientific terms), which looks like a plump aubergine, packed with vitamins A and C, is an important food for Nigerian farmers during the hungry season.

Crop diversification either by rotation, intercropping or agroforestry improves smallholders farms’ nutrition and resilience, and does not impact overall grain yields as associated ecosystems services like soil health largely benefit staple production.

Yet, despite their great potential in terms of nutrition value, adaptation to local agroecology and yield gain potential, crop research and the food industry invest much less in these ‘orphan’ crops.

‘‘The revival of orphan crops could be the disruption that African food systems need. But what is the best way to make it happen? Create consumer demand, or boost the yields of these traditional foods first?’’ questions Stepha Mc Mullin, ICRAF scientist and lead author of the review study Determining appropriate interventions to mainstream nutritious orphan crops into African food systems.

Market pull or crop yield, what is the best trigger to mainstream orphan crops?

On the one hand, farmers will grow plants that perform well in often challenging environments, and produce nutritious, marketable produce. Ensuring farmers’ access to good planting material is an important factor of success to scale orphan crops. Interesting approaches include farmer participatory domestication of indigenous trees and investing in modern genetics by the African Orphan Crops Consortium to improve the nutritional value, productivity and climate adaptability of one hundred traditional food crops.

On the other hand, a strong market demand would drive adoption. Improving the marketability of orphan crops requires an integrated approach from farm to plate, addressing value chain bottlenecks like access to markets and storability, but also the design of products and food messaging aligned with consumer’s behaviour and preferences.

For instance, the safou fruits keep less than five days, and vary greatly in size, flesh colour and sourness. Valorisation of this nutritious fruit could greatly improve by formulating new value chains like fortified biscuits with safou flour, and better communication between growers and sellers to know the type the consumer wants.


Posted on

December 11, 2020

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