Native vegetables could help solve Africa's food crisis and boost weak rural economies

November 2, 2006

Washington, 31 October 2006

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Powerful tools for tackling many basic problems in sub-Saharan Africa -- namely hunger, malnutrition, and rural poverty -- could literally spring from the ground. The region is home to hundreds of indigenous vegetables that have fed Africans for tens of thousands of years. Most of these plants are resilient enough to thrive in poor soil and well-suited to the small plots and limited resources of village families. These species, however, receive little or no attention from the research community. Greater effort to explore the potential of such vegetables could lead to enhanced agricultural productivity, more-stable food supplies, and higher incomes in rural areas across the continent, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The report examines the promise of 18 African vegetables to help feed the continent's growing population and spur sustainable development. These native vegetables - including amaranth, cowpea, and egusi - are still cherished in many parts of Africa, and even attract some research interest, but they are typically overlooked by scientists and policymakers in the world at large. In the past, these local plants may have been judged less valuable than the well-known vegetables introduced to Africa from other parts of the world. But because few indigenous vegetables have been studied extensively, information about them is often outdated, difficult to find, or largely anecdotal. Despite this neglect, they are not without merit, the report emphasizes.

While rates of chronic hunger have slowly declined in sub-Saharan Africa, about one-third of the region's population lacks the food necessary to meet daily requirements. Roughly the same proportion of children is malnourished, and the number of poor people continues to rise. With more support from the scientific establishment and promotion in public policy circles, native vegetables could quickly make larger socio-economic contributions to many African nations, helping to tackle such problems, the report says. Greater development of these plants would be a boon to women in particular, who make up a large share of rural farmers.

Amaranth. These are among the most widely eaten boiled greens throughout Africa's humid lowlands. Their protein quality is exceptional, and the leaves provide vitamin C and dietary minerals, especially iron and calcium. They are easy to produce and grow so fast that the first harvest can sometimes be gathered three weeks after planting.

Bambara bean. Capable of growing in very hot, dry climates, this legume produces seeds that are typically boiled, roasted, or fried, then ground and blended into many traditional dishes. The seeds are roughly 60 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent protein, and 7 percent oil. The nutritional balance is so good that some consumers claim they could live on the seeds alone, the report says.

Baobab. This tree's leaves, which provide protein, vitamins, and minerals, are sometimes steamed and eaten as a side dish. More often, they are cooked in soups, stews, sauces, and relishes. Baobab produces throughout the rainy season, and its surplus harvest can be dried. Baobab fruit will be covered in a forthcoming Research Council report on African fruits.

Celosia. This self-reliant plant is simple to grow, and the fresh young leaves, stems, and flower spikes are used to make a nutritious soup common in West Africa.

Cowpea. An estimated 200 million people live off this plant, consuming the seeds daily when they are available. Yet cowpea is still far from reaching its potential. Cowpea seeds are rich in protein and digestible carbohydrate, and the plant can thrive in extremely dry areas.

Dika. This tree's fruit is popular in some areas, but the seeds are its major resource. These so-called "dika nuts," similar to cashews, can be eaten raw or roasted. Most are ground and combined with spices to form the key ingredient in "ogbono soup," a popular dish in West and Central Africa. The kernel meal is high in oil and protein, and the fruit has more vitamin C than pineapples or oranges. Dika grows in evergreen forests and adapts well to hot and humid climates.

Eggplant (Garden Egg). Like its better-known Asian cousin, the African species provides a brightly colored, egg-shaped fruit. It is high-yielding, easy to grow, and simple to harvest and handle. The fruit has a storage life of up to three months.

Egusi. This melonlike crop is grown for its large seeds, which are a component of many West African meals. When ground, the seeds are used to thicken stews or form meatless patties. They are also roasted and made into a spread. High in oil and protein, the seed also contains notable amounts of minerals and vitamins, especially thiamin and niacin, and can supply food year-round. In addition, the crop can thrive in dry, challenging climates where malnutrition among infants is rampant. Egusi is popular in tropical markets and even sold worldwide over the Internet.

Enset. An estimated 10 million people consume this treelike herb, which is a staple in Ethiopia's densely populated highlands yet essentially unknown elsewhere. Every part of the plant is useful.

Lablab. It is relatively unknown in present-day African diets, but the seeds are a good source of energy. The leaves are rich in protein and iron. Lablab is also useful for suppressing weeds.

Locust bean. This tree legume, a concentrated and balanced food source, can grow more than 20 meters tall, or about 66 feet. Its pods contain seeds as well as a sugary pulp. The seeds are commonly fermented into "dawadawa," a cheesy solid that is rich in protein, vitamins, and energy. The seeds mature in the dry season, traditionally the "hungry time." This single species provides possible answers to Africa's twin needs for food and tree cover, the report says.

Long bean. A form of cowpea, this legume is pencil-thin and grows up to 1 meter long, or about 3 feet. Long bean plants thrive in hot, humid climates and can quickly produce a lot of food in small spaces. Already popular in parts of Asia, they are eaten like green beans.

Marama. Above ground, this plant produces seeds that rival peanuts and soybeans in nutritive quality. Below ground, it produces a high-protein tuber that is larger than sugar beets and more nutritious than potatoes or yams. Because marama is a wild plant of the southern African deserts and may prove impossible to produce in large quantities there or elsewhere, cautious horticultural research and nutritional testing are warranted, the report says.

Moringa. This rugged, resilient tree provides at least four edibles: pods, leaves, seeds, and roots. It also furnishes many of the raw ingredients for products that make village life more self-sufficient, such as lamp oil, wood, paper, and liquid fuel. The green pods taste similar to asparagus and provide essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins A, B, and C. People in various countries boil the tiny leaflets and eat them like spinach. The seeds can also help purify water, the report adds.

Native potatoes. These vegetables are smaller than modern commercial potatoes but contain about twice the protein. A standard serving also provides a large percentage of the daily requirements for calcium and vitamin A, as well as more than the recommended daily allowance of iron. The plants are high-yielding and resilient.

Okra. Robust, fast-growing, and high-yielding, okra seldom succumbs to pests and diseases. It adapts to many difficult climates and provides three food products: pods, leaves, and seeds - all of which have dietary value.

Shea. The egg-shaped nut of shea trees produces a solid vegetable fat used to enhance the taste, texture, and digestibility of regional dishes. Many Africans also use it for skin care, and the product has gone global as an ingredient in some cosmetics.

Yambean. The seeds of the yambean are about one-quarter protein and have levels of essential amino acids that could equal those of soybeans. The plant's tubers have more than twice the protein of sweet potatoes, yams, or potatoes, and more than 10 times that of cassava. The African yambean grows easily and is well-suited to the tropics. It could potentially benefit millions of malnourished people, the report says. Furthermore, preliminary evidence shows that it could be effectively used for rotating crops and binding soil, as well as for ground cover.

A companion report planned for release this winter will detail the promise of Africa's native fruits, including butter fruit, custard apples, and marula. These two reports will form the second and third volumes of a series.

Funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau for Africa, with additional support from their Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and the National Academies. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Lost Crops of Africa, Volume II: Vegetables will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

The National Academies: Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering and Medicine
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