African countries have become dependent on a few food products. Just 20 plant species now provide 90% of our food, three of which – wheat, corn and rice – account for 60% of all calories consumed on the continent and around the world. This deprives the continent of diverse food sources at a time when research reveals massive food and nutrition insecurity in Africa.
In 2020, around 20% of the continent’s population (281.6 million) faced hunger. This figure has likely increased, given the successive impacts of droughts, floods and COVID-19.
Yet historically, Africa had 30,000 species of edible plants, and 7,000 were traditionally grown or harvested for food. The continent is a treasure trove of agrobiodiversity (a diversity of types of crops and animals) and its countries could easily feed themselves.
As society and agriculture evolved, many foods that defined diets and self-esteem on the continent disappeared. Many of them now occupy the status of neglected and underutilized crop species. Knowledge of their production is gradually fading.
We reviewed studies and policies related to wild edible plants, nutrition and justice and found that many underutilized but nutritious and robust crop species could be cultivated to end hunger in Africa. These included Bambara groundnut, cowpea, pigeon pea, millet, sorghum and African leafy vegetables such as amaranth and wild mustard.
Our results identify nutritious crops that can tolerate heat and drought and could be planted by smallholders on land unsuitable for mass monoculture.
But for this to happen, policy changes are needed. Governments should encourage their production and consumption through incentives. Campaigns are needed to raise awareness and educate about the health and environmental benefits of these crops and to dispel the social stigma that they are only consumed by the poor.
Resetting African food systems
The current agri-food system has not kept up with Africa. Our research shows that food and nutrition insecurity in Africa is not, as is often thought, the result of low agricultural productivity, poverty or a hot and harsh climate. Africa has millions of hectares of fertile soil, now threatened with degradation and worsened by climate change.
The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, in which monocultures like corn, wheat, and rice were grown on a large scale, with large quantities of fertilizer, heralded the industrial agribusiness system. However, this has not translated to success in Africa, where monoculture has led to ecological and environmental degradation. This has undermined the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and created a paradox of food and nutrition insecurity: hunger amid plenty.
Neglecting agrobiodiversity in favor of monoculture has made these cash crops lacking resilience and vulnerable to external shocks. This has made food production even more unsustainable, leading to hunger, vulnerability, poverty and inequality.
Climate change is already affecting yields due to recurring floods and droughts, worsening hunger on the continent. Integrating neglected and underutilized crop species could boost agrobiodiversity on the continent and improve plant resilience in times of climate change. However, this requires giving these cultivated species a status equal to that of the main crops by stimulating their production by smallholder farmers.
Governments must also support and fund research into the development of these crops. Campaigns are needed to raise awareness and educate about their health and environmental benefits.
Research shows that smallholder agriculture in Africa is a means to achieve poverty reduction and rural development. Recent research on crop and diet diversity, smallholder farming and malnutrition in South Africa has found that smallholder farmers who grow a wider range of crops have a more diverse diet. They also achieve better sales in local markets and use the profits to purchase a wider range of food products.
The research also found that, if supported with training, market access and credit, smallholder farmers could contribute to the dietary diversity of communities. This also results in an improvement in the income of rural households and the creation of jobs. Growing underutilized crops can help escape poverty.
Another potential positive outcome could be the empowerment of women. Women are primarily responsible for the production and conservation of neglected and underutilized crop species. Shifting to these crops could empower them if they were included in the new value chains set up to bring these crops to market. But new government policies are imperative, for example providing women with credit facilities, land, water rights and viable markets.
Finally, the integration of these cultures could contribute to the establishment of a more socially just agri-food system. Returning to forgotten fruits and vegetables would also represent a local solution that harnesses Africa’s natural and social capital. This would empower African communities to achieve food sovereignty, sustainable livelihoods, social justice, and human and environmental well-being.
With support, neglected and underutilized crop species could become “opportunity crops” to achieve an Afrocentric agri-food system that celebrates Africa’s heritage.
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