Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

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Subjects of Interest

  • Food Security
  • Governance
  • Health
  • Sustainable Development

Promoting neglected and underutilised crops for food security 19 Jun 2018

Cocoa Yam
Cocoa yam plant and tubers

When I was growing up, weekends in our home were incomplete without a serving of garden egg sauce. My mother would boil the garden egg and gently pull out the skin, crush the fleshy part inside and fry it in palm oil with onions, pepper and crayfish. My siblings and I enjoyed the sauce with boiled cocoyam and we always looked forward to every weekend for this delicious meal.
Unfortunately, indigenous foods like this are becoming unpopular and almost forgotten. Underutilised food crops are indigenous crop species that were popular diets for centuries but are no longer optimally used or valued. Many of the plant species that are cultivated for food in developing countries are underutilised and majority are at the verge of being forgotten. Most of these species are rich in nutrients and have been shown to possess medicinal values.

According to the International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC), only about 30 crop species provide most of the world's food energy today. However, over 7,000 species were used for food in the past. Even among the 30 crop species currently used to feed the world, some are not being fully utilized. For example, cassava appears to be one of the most utilized crops in Nigeria. But only the starchy roots of the plant are mostly consumed in the country.

Interestingly, cassava has much more to offer than just the roots. The leaves of the plant are very nutritious. They contain significant amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, cassava leaves are not widely consumed except in a few countries in Central Africa where it is used in making a delicacy called Saka or Pondu.

Another example is sweet potato. The starchy tuberous root of sweet potato plant is used in different recipes but not many people consume the vitamin-rich leaves. This behaviour may sometimes be attributed to poor consumer awareness.

However, malnutrition, hunger, poor health and starvation still rank high as some of the world's greatest challenges. And the vast majority of the world's hungry people live in developing countries, where 12.9 per cent of the population is undernourished. As a result, it is important that we reorient our palates and embrace all available sources of nutritious food and maximize their use. Underutilised traditional foods can also contribute to the mix of affordable and nutrient-filled food options available.

A number of factors are responsible for the neglect and underutilisation of some types of crops. One of such factors is reputational problem. Most of our indigenous foods are now perceived to be 'poor people's food.' A typical example is cocoyam and its leaves. One major reason for this misperception about local foods is urbanisation. In many developing countries in Africa and Asia, urbanisation has contributed to the neglect of indigenous food crops and has even eliminated some cuisines from household diets.

According to a 2016 estimate by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affair, Population Division, 54.5 per cent of the world's population lives in cities. And by 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60 per cent of people globally. Despite the numerous advantages of urbanisation, locally consumed nutritious foods might be at the risk of being abandoned completely as hordes of people move to urban centres. Neglected foods, which are mostly vegetables and legumes, have been blindly replaced with western canned, frozen and pre-packaged foods, believed to be 'classy'.

Another factor responsible for the neglect of traditional foods is unrecognised nutritional values. As technology advances and more additives are introduced into food processing to make them more attractive, have pleasant flavours and last longer on the shelves, consumers tend to lose sight of the nutritional value of traditional foods made from indigenous plants.

These plants are known by different names in different communities. For example, Gnetum africanum cultivars are known as Ukazi or Afang in different parts of Nigeria. Its slightly bitter leaves are used in soups and sometimes chewed with palm oil for medicinal purposes.

The Afang leaf is rich in fibre, which aids digestion. It is called Eru in Cameroon, and koko in Angola, Gabon and Congo. The soup also contains vitamin A (from the palm oil used), Vitamin E, C and minerals like potassium, iron and calcium. The benefits of this local soup include boosting immune system, strengthening bones and improving eye sight.

Poor shelf lives also discourage the consumption and use of underutilised food crops. Unlike pre-packaged exotic foods, many of our traditional foods are best consumed as soon as they are harvested or prepared, at most, two days after. Moreover, young people find the cooking and other methods of preparing these foods time-consuming and stressful.

But at a time when the world is looking to make more nutritious food available to feed our teeming population, especially in Asia and Africa, we need to urgently promote the cultivation, consumption and use of underutilised foods. This will contribute to food and nutritional security, boost income and support a more diverse array of available foods.

The current reliance on a very limited number of crops to meet the needs of staple diets will pose a challenge to attaining food security in developing countries. In order to meet the increasing demand for food, we must encourage diversification of food crops, rather than concentrate on a few staple foods. Since underutilised crops are often rich in nutrients and health-promoting agents, diversifying the food value chain to include these underutilised species could be an effective tool to curb malnutrition and promote well-being.

Examples of some cereal crops that fall into the category of underutilised food crops in Africa are the finger millet, pearl millet and fonio African rice. Examples of underutilised leguminous crops are bambara groundnut, grass pea and amaranth. Many of these crops are drought-resistant, and they are reasonably free of diseases and pests. They are also adaptive to poor soil conditions, which affect a lot of other traditional crops.

Prime examples of crops that are grown in adverse soil and weather conditions include bambara groundnut, whose seeds are good sources of protein, and millet. The water requirement for growing amaranth is 53-58 per cent less than the requirement for growing wheat, and 40-50 per cent less than the water required to grow maize. Faced with the effects of climate change, it is very essential to develop more of these resilient crops.

Public awareness on the nutritive values of abandoned foods, vegetables and fruits should be created and sustained. We can improve consumption by publicizing the value of these indigenous crops. Another important step is to encourage local farmers to cultivate more of these crops and sell them to people in urban areas under hygienic conditions. This will prevent such crops from going into extinction. It will also help to preserve local cuisines made from such crops.

Equally important is the fact that underutilised food crops provide economic benefits for farmers. Farmers can grow these crops on their own, or as part of crop rotation systems or inter-plant them with other crops. This will definitely yield more income.

Furthermore, when farmers have a wider range of crops to choose from in a crop rotation system, the cycles of some pests and diseases are disrupted and infestation possibilities are minimized. It also allows farmers to have a more sustainable production system. In addition, encouraging the cultivation of underutilised crops species for food will boost the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

For us to make food security a reality in developing countries, we must bring back into the food value chain our forgotten and underutilised crop species. We must also seek to promote the consumption of local cuisines and develop ways to lessen the burdensome methods of preparing some of these foods and soups. Due to their resilience to drought, poor soil and weather conditions, underutilised crops may also help to stem the decline in food crop production, caused by climate change.

Financial Nigeria Columnist, Mojisola Karigidi, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources, is a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.