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» 27.09.2010 - Cowpea scientists promise to end African hunger
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» 10.03.2010 - Call for common African food market

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Agriculture - Nutrition | Science - Education

"Science ignores Africa's native crops"

Seeds from egusi, a melonlike crop, are a component of many West African meals. High in oil and protein, the seed also contains big amounts of minerals and vitamins and thrives in dry, challenging climates. Egusi can supply food year-round.

© Honoré Tabuna / FAO / afrol News
afrol News, 2 November
- A US research body has confirmed the common knowledge that global science focuses too little on Africa-related research, also on food crops and security. While large sums are invested in research on northern crops, strategies to improve the many hundreds types of indigenous African vegetables remain largely unstudied.

A report by the US National Research Council (NRC), which is an advisory body to the Washington government, concludes that scientists give "little or no attention" to the many vegetable species native to Africa. These species traditionally have fed millions of Africans and "could help solve Africa's food crisis and boost weak rural communities," NRC says, had they only been invested in.

The African tropics are home to hundreds of indigenous vegetables, many of which are being driven back by new species and imported foods. Most of these plants are resilient enough to thrive in the typically poor soils of Africa and well-suited to the small plots and limited resources of village families.

"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 the NRC report.

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.

Until now, these local plants had been "judged less valuable than the well-known vegetables introduced to Africa from other parts of the world," the report says. 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 emphasises.

Contrasting this neglect are the better-known imported crops like rice, corn or wheat, into which large research sums are invested annually - although only a marginal part goes to studies relevant to African soils and climates. These crops, however, are much more prone to drought, locusts and other pests, while poorly adapted to local soils and technologies. As a consequence, the potentially productive continent is getting increasingly dependent on food imports.

Not only African vegetables, also native fruits have largely been ignored by the international research community. Therefore, the NRC plans to release another report this winter will detail the promise of Africa's native fruits, including butter fruit, custard apples, and marula.

While the Washington-based council has received funding from the US development aid agency USAID to compile its reports on the general potential on African vegetables and fruit, funding is the main problem for greater research efforts into how to improve these great resources.

Most agriculture development research is paid by the agro-business and therefore concentrates on northern crops. For indigenous African crops, on the other hand, there barely exists a commercial market as most are grown for subsistence. With private capital thus shying away, African governments with their very limited science budgets cannot keep up paste to establish a home-grown research environment looking into own crops.

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