Eval­u­at­ing indige­nous food source for Africa

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Ethel Phiri and Palesa Mothapo

ALARGE por­tion of Africa’s peo­ple rely on sev­eral indige­nous plant species for sub­sis­tence. These plants are of­ten pri­mary food sources for peo­ple and an­i­mals, and are also used for other non-food pur­poses. Most are farmed as food crops and are pre­ferred by indige­nous peo­ple and farm­ers. They are of­ten hardy and tol­er­ant, which means that they can be ex­pected to sur­vive bet­ter un­der vary­ing cli­matic con­di­tions.

But their agri­cul­tural im­por­tance is un­der­val­ued and they of­ten play sec­ond fid­dle to more com­mer­cial crops. Re­ferred to as “or­phan crops” – they are not clas­si­fied as ma­jor crops, and are un­der-re­searched and un­der-utilised. Ex­am­ples of or­phan crops are: African per­sim­mon, marama bean, prickly pear, guava, and marula.

Di­ver­si­fy­ing global food sources with or­phan crops can be a vi­tal tool in com­bat­ing food and nu­tri­tion in­se­cu­rity that are wors­ened by global change.

Or­phan crops have the abil­ity to bat­tle a range of stresses like droughts and ex­treme tem­per­a­tures. But in­va­sive species also threaten their sur­vival.

Be­sides cli­mate change and in­va­sive species, an ad­di­tional threat to or­phan crops is the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of these crops on the global mar­ket as well as the dearth of in­vest­ment in or­phan crops re­search. Most re­search funds from the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors are in­vested in the ma­jor arable crops such as maize, rice and wheat, which are con­sid­ered eco­nom­i­cally im­por­tant in the west.

Bet­ter per­cep­tions

More than 95 per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion’s food needs re­lies on maize, rice and wheat; with global food se­cu­rity de­pen­dent on fewer than 30 plant species. Es­sen­tially, peo­ple have lost in­ter­est in the use of indige­nous crops for food and pre­fer the more costly com­mer­cial crops, de­spite high rates of poverty.

If per­cep­tions of these or­phan crops were im­proved, poverty in Africa could be bet­ter man­aged. The de­pen­dence on ma­jor crops is dis­con­cert­ing con­sid­er­ing that Africa has its own crops.

There’s a rice cri­sis in western and cen­tral Africa, money and re­sources are be­ing in­vested on poli­cies around rice. This doesn’t make sense con­sid­er­ing that the ma­jor­ity of the tra­di­tional dishes in this re­gion are mostly or­phan crop species like yams, fin­ger mil­let, fav­abean, and bam­bara ground­nut. In­deed, there’s a grow­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that Africa needs to fo­cus on its indige­nous and en­demic crops. The New Part­ner­ships for Africa’s De­vel­op­ment (Nepad) has recog­nised the need for the pro­mo­tion of food sys­tems that in­clude indige­nous and or­phan crops to di­ver­sify di­ets beyond sta­ples such as rice.

Nepad, and its part­ner­ships, is driv­ing re­search that aims to im­prove the di­ets and liveli­hoods of 600 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in ru­ral sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Through the African Or­phan Crops Con­sor­tium, 101 African crop species have been iden­ti­fied as im­por­tant food crops to be re­searched by 2021.

Mo­bilise re­search

It’s im­por­tant to mo­bilise re­search net­works within African aca­demic and re­search in­sti­tu­tions to un­der­stand the agri­cul­tural and eco­nomic value of or­phan crops. Also, the fo­cus on in­va­sive species re­search in other African coun­tries needs to be pri­ori­tised.

It is also im­por­tant for African re­searchers to equip each other with the ap­pro­pri­ate skills for com­bat­ing in­va­sive species in or­der to pro­tect food se­cu­rity. It is up to the new gen­er­a­tion of young re­searchers to bring knowl­edge cre­ation back to Africa.

The only way to change this, is through fair col­lab­o­ra­tion and knowl­edge ex­change. In so do­ing, we can tackle the threat of cli­mate change and in­va­sive species on the con­ti­nent’s food se­cu­rity us­ing new and holis­tic ap­proaches. Ethel Phiri is a Post­doc­toral re­search Fel­low, Depart­ment of Ge­net­ics, In­sti­tute for Plant Biotech­nol­ogy, Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity. Palesa Natasha Mothapo is a Post­doc­toral Re­search Fel­low Depart­ment of Botany and Zo­ol­ogy, Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity. This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished in The Con­ver­sa­tion. Go to: http:// the­con­ver­sa­tion.com/

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