Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

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Subjects of Interest

  • Food Security
  • Governance
  • Health
  • Sustainable Development

For a sustainable sourcing and use of wild plants 18 Jan 2024

Access to various fruits, fresh vegetables, and other plant resources that may have not been grown by anyone in the households where they are harvested is one of the fascinating sights when visiting rural communities in Nigeria. Some of such plants or trees may have been spared when clearing the land. In Okitipupa, my marital hometown in Ondo State, located in the Southwestern region of Nigeria, which is about 195 km from the heart of Ibadan where I reside, cashew fruits, Nigerian local apple, oranges, and vegetables grow freely around.

Wild edible plants found in different parts of the world are very important sources of nutrients. Their role is more appreciated during periods of food scarcity, drought, or famine, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Millions of people all over the world use wild foods, especially wild plant parts, regularly. Wild foods in various regions are cheap and readily available alternatives for rural and suburban dwellers. Households do not entirely rely on wild foods all year round, but they come handy as life savers during tough times.

Wild foods are a group of edible fresh fruits, mushrooms, plants, and vegetables that grow on old farmlands that are no longer cultivated or as weeds among managed crops or even in the depths of the forest. Some of these species of plants may have been once cultivated or dispersed by wind and other non-human agents and are again growing freely without human effort. Wild foods are obtained from various sources including forests. The wild gathered products include medicinal plants, fibres, honey, beverages, oil, insects, bush meat, and fish.

Although currently underutilised, wild edible plants somewhat contribute to food security. For decades, low-income households in sub-Saharan Africa have relied on wild fruits, leafy vegetables, and other bush foods for survival. Wild foods are mostly collected and eaten in their raw forms. However, some species are consumed after boiling or cooking to ease mastication and get rid of harmful agents. Others, such as teas, spices, and condiments, are dried before use.

Wild edible plants are often indigenous and consumed by locals in a particular region. In Malawi for example, five species of Uapaca guineensis, commonly called “false mahogany” or “ewe akun” in the Western part of Nigeria, are used as food, wine, herbal medicine, and the woody parts are used for firewood, charcoal, and as building poles. While in some parts of Kenya, wild plants are often used to supplement other foods. Some herbaceous plants in the country’s rural communities are used as leafy vegetables, fruits, tuber or roots, edible gums or resins, spices, and food flavouring.

In Congo, the dominant source of wild food is Gilbertiodendron dewevrei, a tree that produces large number of seeds that are high in calories during its peak season. More than 24 percent of households in rural Congo where it is found include the plant in their meal. The seeds are roasted or boiled and milled into flour to make porridges during periods of food shortages in Central Africa.

In Nigeria, wild foods are obtained from various trees including Vitex doniana, locally known as “Oori nla” in the western part of the country, “Dinya” in the North and “Ucha koro” in the eastern region. The leaves of the plant are consumed as vegetables as well as its ripe fruits, not only in Nigeria but also in other parts of Africa such as Ethiopia where it is popularly known as “Plem”, Tanzania where it is called “mfuu”, Zambia, Uganda and Swaziland where it is known as “Kashilumbalu”, “Yuelo” and “Mfudu”, respectively.

We also have Bombax costatum, a tree specie native to West Africa and locally called “Genger” in Tiv – an ethnic group in the East-Central region of Nigeria where its flowers are dried and cooked as soup. Piper guineense also known as West African black pepper, Ashanti pepper, Guinea cubeb and Benin pepper, Uziza and Ata iyere by the Igbos and Yoruba in Nigeria respectively – is native to the tropical rain forest of Africa. Its fruits are fried locally as an aromatic spice for soups and its leaves as flavouring agent.

These wild edible plants can become valuable food sources if conserved, propagated, and cultivated. They do not only serve low-income communities that may not be able to afford high food prices, but they are also healthy and nutritious food sources for all. Wild edible vegetables contribute to food security with remarkable nutrient values. They are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and can also supplement nutritional requirements of staple foods. Increasing the cultivation of these underutilised food plants in home gardens for consumption can sustainably contribute to the prevention of micronutrient deficiencies.  

In addition to being good nutrient sources, some wild plants also possess medicinal properties that rural communities often use to prevent or treat illnesses as alternative to conventional medicines. An example is Cissus populnea, commonly called “Ogbono”, “Okoho” or “Ajara” in different parts of Nigeria, which is locally used in managing many ailments such as stomach and skin infections, venereal diseases, sexual dysfunction, wounds, and as laxative or purgative. Extracts from different parts of the plant have shown antimicrobial and antioxidant activities among others. Its stem, tender leaves, and flowers are used for soup; ripe fruits of the plant are grinded and prepared as draw soup.

Despite the many benefits of wild plants particularly their consumption as food, there are concerns on the level of toxic compounds present in some of them. For example, Ficus sur, commonly known as bush fig, is mostly harvested from the wild as a multipurpose plant whose ripe fruits are either eaten raw or cooked, made into jam or pudding, its young leaves are occasionally cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Its bark, leaf, and root have also been reported to possess antibacterial, antimalarial, and anti-inflammatory activities. However, great caution must be taken when using this plant because decoctions from the bark and roots have been reported to have caused death. A number of other wild plants can as well be harmful.  

Some wild plants have other economic benefits aside contributing to food security. For example, palms, such as coconut and African oil palm, are major sources of vegetable oil and fat. The husk of coconut fruit is a source of seed-hair superior fibre called Coir that can be used to make brushes or woven into mats and spun into yarns for fishnets and marine cordage. The coir is also promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative for gardening as it helps to retain moisture and aerate the soil. The sap obtained from tapping the stalk is also taken unfermented or fermented and used as a source of sugar, vinegar, or alcohol. The trunks are useful in construction and furniture-making. The African oil palm is mainly a source of palm oil obtained from the seeds. Wine, sugar, starch, among others, are made from other palm species around the continent.

Better understanding of the beneficial roles of wild foods can help governments in Africa create better forest policy to encourage individuals and communities to get involved in forest conservation.

Although wild foods cannot entirely bridge the existing food supply and demand gap, without them the gap would be much wider. Encouraging the domestication of more wild edible plant species will be a move in the right direction towards boosting essential micronutrient supply of households in both rural and urban communities. It will be delightful if urban dwellers like me do not have to travel very far to experience the nutritional, health, and cost-saving benefits of wild plants.

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