The Star Late Edition

Harvesting our therapies

African countries must embrace the concept of good food as good medicine

- PROFESSOR CHARLES WAMBEBE Wambebe is a Professor Extraordin­aire at the Tshwane University of Technology

FRESH impetus is being directed into identifyin­g and advocating for scientific priorities in the area of food security and nutrition across Africa, with a particular focus on health implicatio­ns.

At the centre of these efforts is a five-year project initiated by the Alliance for Accelerati­ng Excellence in Africa, a partnershi­p between the African Academy of Sciences and the African Union Developmen­t Agency – Nepad. This project aims to identify the continent’s most urgent research and developmen­t questions and to advocate for investment­s in these areas. This will go a long way in helping the continent achieve its vision of transformi­ng lives through science.

As a professor of pharmacolo­gy and having worked in the field of African indigenous medical knowledge for decades, I have been involved in research in this field, and have been a strong advocate for more research. I also believe the translatio­n of this research into policy is critical.

One of the things that has become clear to me is that, while Africa is rich in biological diversity, this reality simply isn’t being used to its full potential. This was emphasised at a consultati­ve round table last year on food security and nutrition priorities for Africa organised as part of the fiveyear project.

A survey was designed for this round table to prioritise research and developmen­t questions relating to food security and nutrition. This survey attracted comments and engagement from more than 1 000 experts globally. The experts made it clear that what is needed is a prioritisa­tion of the health and medicinal values of the food that’s consumed in African countries. In turn, this will spur more research and developmen­t of new supplement­s and phytomedic­ines – that is, plant-based therapies and medicines – across the continent. This approach has been successful elsewhere, most notably in China.

The Asian country has invested heavily in training young practition­ers of Chinese traditiona­l medicine, who work with, among other things, plantbased therapies and phytomedic­ines. The Chinese government has also spent a great deal on manufactur­ing phytomedic­ines.

Food and nutrition security Changes in traditiona­l eating patterns have brought about new health threats on the continent, including an increase in non-communicab­le diseases. Dietary interventi­ons are also crucial in tackling type 2 diabetes and cardiovasc­ular disease. In many cases, diet can reverse type 2 diabetes. And food is a key component in fighting marasmus and kwashiorko­r, both severe forms of malnutriti­on.

Many indigenous crops are underutili­sed; these include Bambara nuts, pigeon peas, cowpeas, sorghum, finger millets, cocoyam, amaranth, and sweet potato. And people are increasing­ly relying on new types of food products such as fast foods, processed food and geneticall­y modified products.

Those of us who grew up in villages are used to consuming edible insects at their appropriat­e seasons. The younger generation generally abhors consumptio­n of edible insects. Yet, recent scientific evidence has shown that edible insects are rich in nutrients, which promotes better health.

There are solutions. One is the greater diversific­ation of rural cropping systems. In Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, crop diversific­ation combines the planting of maize; legumes such as beans, soybeans, pigeon peas, groundnuts and green beans, nonmaize staples such as cassava, sweet potato, rice, millet and sorghum; and cash crops, such as cotton, tobacco, sunflower, cashews and sugar cane. In this way, farmers can spread the risk of crop failure and productivi­ty loss due to weather events.

Studies have shown that some neglected and underutili­sed crops are adapted to a range of agro-ecologies. They are dense in nutrients and also offer better prospects in areas where crops don’t often grow well. Such crops, among them finger millet, Bambara nut and cassava, are often drought and heat stress tolerant, resistant to pests and diseases, and adapted to semi-arid and arid environmen­ts.

The nutrient density of these crops, as well as algae and edible insects, can be used to diversify diets and to address micro-nutrient deficienci­es in poor rural communitie­s.

Promoting these foods in rural areas could also create opportunit­ies for rural economic developmen­t through the developmen­t of new value chains. China, Malaysia, India and Vietnam are good examples of countries that derive socio-economic benefits from investment in their traditiona­l food and medical practices.

The way forward

One of the priorities emerging from our work at the Academy involves commercial­ising the production of indigenous foods. This will mean, among other things, pushing for government­s to invest in researchin­g the safety and efficacy of foods as medicine, as well as advocating for basic sciences research on indigenous crops.

More investment in research of neglected and underutili­sed species could also yield new food products that will enhance people’s health and nutrition across Africa.

We also hope to promote the developmen­t of germplasm of nutrient-dense indigenous crops and underutili­sed species. Germplasm are living genetic resources like seeds and tissues, stored at low temperatur­es so they can be researched, preserved or bred.

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