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Winter/Spring 2007 Vol. 7 No. 1

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A Lost Bounty

Baobab tree at sunset in Namibia, ©Theo Allofs/zefa/Corbis

Native Vegetables Could Help Solve
Africa's Food Crisis

A greater effort to explore the potential of Africa's native vegetables could make plants such as the bambara bean and the moringa tree as popular as hot dogs and apple pie are in America.

The African continent is home to hundreds of indigenous vegetables and other food plants that fell out of favor as well-known vegetables were introduced from other parts of the world. These native plants provide rich nutrition while surviving harsh conditions, but because they have received little or no scientific investment, they are a lost bounty in a hungry land. Efforts to better understand the potential value of such plants could lead to enhanced agricultural productivity, more-stable food supplies, and higher incomes in rural areas across Africa, says a new National Research Council report.

The report focuses on the exemplary promise of 18 African plants and vegetables to help feed the continent's growing population and spur sustainable development. For example, bambara, locust, and long beans can thrive in very hot, dry climates. The nutritional balance of bambara beans is so outstanding that some consumers claim they could live on this legume alone. Locust and long beans could also be key crops for bolstering Africa's nutritional well-being. And long bean plants in particular can quickly produce a lot of food in small spaces.

Examining crops in rural Ghana, photo by Curt Carnemark, The World BankAmaranth is among the most widely eaten boiled greens in Africa's humid lowlands. The leaves provide vitamin C and dietary minerals and their protein quality is exceptional. Furthermore, the plant is easy to produce and fast-growing. The leaves of the baobab tree also provide protein, vitamins, and minerals, and they can be dried for storage.

Seeds from cowpea, dika, egusi, and lablab plants would be useful in initiatives to tackle chronic malnutrition, given their high protein. In addition, egusi can thrive in dry climates where malnutrition among infants is rampant. Lablab is also useful for suppressing weeds.

The resilient moringa tree provides at least four highly nutritious edibles: pods, leaves, seeds, and roots. It also furnishes many raw ingredients for products that make village life more self-sufficient, such as lamp oil, wood, and liquid fuel. The seeds can help purify cloudy water by causing silt and microorganisms to settle out.

Fast-growing and high-yielding okra provides three valuable food products: pods, leaves, and seeds. The plant adapts to many difficult climates and rarely succumbs to disease. Enset, a banana-like herb, is a starchy staple in Ethiopia's highlands. Like okra, many parts of the enset crop are useful.

The egg-shaped nut of shea trees produces a solid, butter-like vegetable fat used to enhance the taste, texture, and digestibility of regional dishes. Many Africans also use it for skin care, and the product has gone global as an ingredient in some cosmetics.

Tubers of the yambean plant have more than twice the protein of sweet potatoes, yams, or potatoes -- and more than 10 times that of cassava. The African yambean grows easily and is well-suited to the tropics. The marama plant also produces high-protein tubers. Additionally, Africa's native potatoes, high in carbohydrates, provide calcium, vitamin A, and iron.

The leaves, stems, and flower spikes of the self-reliant celosia plant are used to make a nutritious soup favored across West Africa. Also easy to grow is the African species of eggplant, which is high-yielding and has a storage life of up to three months.

These plants are powerful tools for tackling many basic problems across the African continent, the report concludes. Greater awareness and support of these ancient crops would be a welcome boost to Africa today. A companion report planned for release this year will detail the promise of Africa's native fruits. These two reports will form the second and third volumes of a series that also covers African grains.   -- Vanee Vines

Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II -- Vegetables. Panel on African Fruits and Vegetables, Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2006, 378 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10333-9, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The panel was chaired by Norman Borlaug, distinguished professor of international agriculture, Texas A&M University, College Station; president, Sasakawa Africa Association, Washington, D.C.; and senior consultant to the director general, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Mexico City. Funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau for Africa, with additional support from their Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and the National Academies.

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Copyright 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences