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Africa's neglected bounty

October 31, 2006 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

Report highlights native vegetables needing extra attention.

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Ever snacked on bambara beans or lablab? If not, it may be because these vegetables are among the "lost crops of Africa" identified in a new report by the US National Academies1.

The report highlights 18 crops that the team of experts says suffer from a lack of attention, research and funding. These range from enset, a mammoth herb almost unknown outside Ethiopia, to okra, a more common side dish.

In Africa, home to more than 300 million hungry mouths, almost all the food is grown from no more than a couple dozen species, nearly all from off-continent. The most popular vegetables in Africa sweet potato, cassava, peanut and plantain, for example have been imported from aboard.

Such crops are suited to the climate and help to generate money as well as feeding the local population. But the authors, including agronomists, nutritionists, ecologists, entomologists and policy experts, argue that any native plant with good potential ought also to be encouraged.

The group, headed by Nobel Peace prize winner Norman Borlaug, say that developing native crops already more-or-less suited to local cultivation will combat malnutrition, ensure that more Africans have something to eat every day, and make farmers some money while being gentler on the land. As a bonus, they may cause less erosion and help preserve the ecology and genetic heritage of the continent. But many crops could use some scientific improvement and need to be promoted to farmers.

They recommend that scientists nutritionally analyze the local crops, toxologically test them, work to breed better varieties, study how best to grow them and how to maximize yield. They also encourage foundations and NGOs to give cash and spread the word.

Green revolution

Harvard biologist and development expert Calestous Juma, who grew up on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria eating one of the report's featured vegetables cowpeas says that there is security in having many crops. He'd like to see "a new green revolution that is based on diversified crops rather than monoculture", genome-sequencing for the crops and a blossoming of partnerships between African and American universities.

Perhaps the most compelling of the species highlighted is the moringa tree, described in the report as "a sort of supermarket on a trunk". Without the benefit of any domestication, it provides extremely nutritious leaves, pods and seeds, and a tasty horseradish-flavoured root. It also produces a fine oil for lubricating delicate machinery or for lamps, wood, skin salve, traditional medicines and even a means to purify water. In the latter, the seeds are thrown into cloudy water in place of expensive alum to settle the silt. And it grows up to five metres a year.

Klaus Becker, at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, has spent 15 years working on the plant, most recently as a renewable fish feed for aquaculture. "It is a miracle tree," he says.

The report is a sequel to a 1996 volume on grains, and will be followed by two additional volumes on fruits.

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  1. National Research Council Lost Crops of Africa. Volume II: Vegetables (National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2006).


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