African Neglected Crops can Unlock Economic Value

edible insects

What do Millets (Lebelebele), Fonio (acha or acca), Cowpeas, Quinoa, Amaranth (Bondwe), Marama Bean, and Cassava have in common? They are some of the many African foods which have been neglected, underutilized, and pushed into forgetfulness by the predominant crops.

What these neglected foods also have in common is their ability to adapt to a wide range of agro-climatic conditions while giving good performance even under marginal growing conditions.  

If you take millets for instance – they are adaptable to heat and aridity environments. There are nine species that form major sources of energy and protein for about 130 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Among these, only four are produced significantly in Africa; including pearl millet, finger millet, tef, and fonio. 

Millet production is distributed differentially among a large number of African countries; the largest producers being in West Africa led by Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, and Sudan. Finger millet is produced mainly in East and Southern Africa. Millets are consumed as a staple food, drinks, and other uses.

On the other hand, these crops are also known to be nutritious, and their formalization and beneficiation may unlock rural economies across sub-Saharan Africa by improving the value chain and develop value-added ready-to-eat products. 


What are neglected crops/foods?

Also known as orphan crops, neglected crops are defined as crops/foods that are not traded internationally and therefore tend to get less attention in terms of research of agricultural training and extension. They are typically grown in Africa, Asia, and South America and eaten as part of local diets. 

Orphan crops are characterized by underfunding for research and development, very little attention from agriculture extension services, weak and underdeveloped value chains, lack of awareness about their nutritional value, a perception that they are a ‘poor farmer’s crop’, and low interest among farmers and industry due to lack of demand.

Where food security is concerned in most developing countries, neglected crops can play a vital role in addressing this challenge and improve the livelihood of resource-poor farmers and consumers.


Why are certain foods neglected?

People are increasingly relying on new types of food products such as fast foods, processed food, and genetically modified products.
According to the University of Eastern Finland, Roseanna Avento, culture, people beliefs and behaviors are major contributing factors. 

The diet of the earliest hominins was probably somewhat similar to the diet of modern chimpanzees: omnivorous, including large quantities of fruit, leaves, flowers, bark, insects, and meat – which proved to provide valuable proteins. 

“Food has assumed enormous social, religious, environmental, and even commercial significance. It has had a huge transformative role and it is the entire foundation of civilization.”


People are picky eaters

Africa is rich in biological diversity, but this is not being used to its full potential. Many indigenous crops and foods are underutilized. These include teff, yam bean, common buckwheat, caterpillars, weevil larvae, longhorn, and edible stink bug (thongolifha in the Venda language, xipembele in the Tsonga language, and podile in the Northern Sotho language, southern Africa).

Recent scientific evidence has shown edible insects are rich in nutrients, which promotes better health. Insects are rich in nutrients such as amino acids, which are often absent in conventional foods. Given their nutritional value and their potential for mass production, insects could help address the challenge of food security.

In Africa, the consumption of edible insects is common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and South Africa. The most commonly eaten insects include caterpillars, termites, crickets, and palm weevils.

How can Africa feed the world?

Speaking at the Connect Conversation Zoom webinar which discussed the various challenges around food security in Africa, and the role that indigenous, currently marginalized foods play in feeding the world. 

Research Triangle Institute (RTI) Innovation Consultant and North Carolina State University Adjunct Professor, Dr. Tawanda Muzhingi, believes that to address this challenge, African population dynamics and food systems innovations need to happen.

“We need to have a functional innovation ecosystem, which is an interconnected network of companies and other entities that co-evolve capabilities around a shared set of technologies, knowledge, or skills, and work cooperatively and competitively to develop new products and services.”

Muzhingi made an example of cassava where in many countries it is a neglected crop and where it is a staple crop, people are running away from it because it reminds them of poverty. 

“Beer manufacturing companies have seen the value of cassava by making the world’s first commercially-made cassava beer in Malawi, Ghana, and Mozambique.”

“This is one of the many instances in which traditional or orphan crops can be commercialized and create economic opportunities for farmers, unemployed young people, and research and development to create different products – this can help us gain an economic advantage in neglected crops.”

Muzhingi warned that, unless if we do not apply innovation and diversity in the supply chain, consumer behavior change, or recipe design, crops will remain neglected.

The commercialization of neglected crops can unlock the economic value and result in more people growing them and consuming them.

This Connect Conversations webinar was hosted by AUDA-NEPAD SANBio in partnership with Pharma Connect, Tshwane University of Technology, and University Innovations Global South Vation.

To get access to the recorded webinar, please click here, passcode: yF?=61vv