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Finding ways to diversify African food systems with nutritious ‘orphan’ crops

by Alina Paul-Bossuet | World Agroforestry
Thursday, 10 December 2020 12:10 GMT

Formulating new value chains will raise food industry’s interest in orphan crops: calcium-rich finger millet is a potentially interesting weaning food or natural emulsifier. Credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Better seeds or demand creation, a new publication from World Agroforestry (ICRAF) and partners questions what is the most effective way to include more orphan crops into African food systems.


Why mainstreaming orphan crops is important for Africa

Ethiopians eat a meagre 80 grams of fruits and vegetables a day, a fifth of the recommended ’five a day’ From Ugali in Kenya to sadza and nsima in Southern Africa, too many Africans rely on a monotonous diet of energy-rich, nutrient-poor staples. The lack of diversity in African diets and the boom of non-nutritious processed food contributes to a rapid rise of diet-related disorders like obesity, diabetes and micronutrient deficiencies.

The dominance of a handful of staples not only affects the nutritional quality of diets but exposes African agriculture to economic and climatic, and other shocks, as the recent destruction of the invasive fall armyworm across the continent on maize farms has shown. Climate change too will affect yields of maize and other major staples in the near future.

Growing more traditional nutritious food crops like indigenous fruits, millets, Bambara groundnut, or African leafy vegetables could play an important role to ensure current and future African food security. The safou fruit (Dacryodes edulis in scientific terms), which looks like a plump aubergine, packed with vitamins A and C, is an important food for Nigerian farmers during the hungry season.

Crop diversification either by rotation, intercropping or agroforestry improves smallholders farms’ nutrition and resilience, and does not impact overall grain yields as associated ecosystems services like soil health largely benefit staple production.


Yet, despite their great potential in terms of nutrition value, adaptation to local agroecology and yield gain potential, crop research and the food industry invest much less in these 'orphan' crops.

‘‘The revival of orphan crops could be the disruption that African food systems need. But what is the best way to make it happen? Create consumer demand, or boost the yields of these traditional foods first?’’ questions Stepha Mc Mullin, ICRAF scientist and lead author of the review study Determining appropriate interventions to mainstream nutritious orphan crops into African food systems.


Market pull or crop yield, what is the best trigger to mainstream orphan crops? 

On the one hand, farmers will grow plants that perform well in often challenging environments, and produce nutritious, marketable produce. Ensuring farmers’ access to good planting material is an important factor of success to scale orphan crops. Interesting approaches include farmer participatory domestication of indigenous trees and investing in modern genetics by the African Orphan Crops Consortium to improve the nutritional value, productivity and climate adaptability of one hundred traditional food crops. 

On the other hand, a strong market demand would drive adoption.  Improving the marketability of orphan crops requires an integrated approach from farm to plate, addressing value chain bottlenecks like access to markets and storability, but also the design of products and food messaging aligned with consumer’s behaviour and preferences.

For instance, the safou fruits keep less than five days, and vary greatly in size, flesh colour and sourness. Valorisation of this nutritious fruit could greatly improve by formulating new value chains like fortified biscuits with safou flour, and better communication between growers and sellers to know the type the consumer wants.

Scaling success requires a combination of both production and demand-side interventions as the promotion of the provitamin A-rich orange flesh sweet potato (OFSP) over 25 years has shown. Over 6.2 million farmers across sub Saharan Africa switched from white sweet potato to the more nutritious orange type. 'Triple S' - seed storage in sand and sprouting technique and the establishment of decentralized vine multipliers networks improved farmers’ access to pest-free high-yielding varieties. In Kenya, young mothers learnt the high nutrition value of OFSP through cookery sessions and nutrition education trainings in post-natal care centers. 


However, there is no clear consensus about the optimum magnitude between production and consumption support, a crucial knowledge gap when investments in scaling orphan crops in Africa are limited.

Whatever the balance, the OFSP example shows it takes time, multi-stakeholder collaboration and investment to significantly scale a 'new’ crop whatever the nutrition and livelihoods benefits.

Leveraging the wholesome value of orphan crops

Scaling orphan crops will require more than seed systems or food innovation fixes.

A strong engagement with farmers is necessary to demonstrate they are better off thanks to these non-monetized benefits of crop diversification, like better resilience and family nutrition. For instance, farmer participatory selection of a diverse range of early and late varieties of fruits, leafy vegetables and grains that are socio-ecologically suitable and nutritious could help provide year-round supply of essential micronutrients. This food crop portfolio can be promoted through schools as demonstrated in Kenya.

Carefully designed policy interventions are also needed, from reviewing crop production incentives and food taxes to strict regulation of food adverts, to nudge consumers, farmers and the food industry towards healthier and sustainable diets, as suggested by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (GLOPAN).

Getting orphan crops into the mainstream requires a radical change of perspective in which we value all the societal benefits they bring over the years; and where biodiverse farming landscapes are thought of as nutri-scapes, contributing to sustainable and  healthy diets for all.