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Promoting neglected crops to diversify diets


Often neglected, many traditional crops are nutrient rich and environmentally resilient. Developing value chains for these crops will help to diversify diets and provide new livelihood opportunities.

There are around 30,000 edible plant species in the world, but just 30 species of crop account for 95% of what we eat. Most edible plant species – known as neglected and underutilised species (NUS), or orphan crops – are overlooked in agricultural development. These crops are often nutrient rich and perfectly adapted to local environments, making them more resilient to some of the effects of climate change, such as water stress. But, gradually, they have been overtaken and displaced by improved, high-yielding varieties of familiar crops such as maize and rice.

Neglected species – ranging from the African plum to fonio, breadfruit, African eggplant and baobab – are still grown as ‘back garden’ crops, often by women. But volumes can be small and value chains undeveloped, so the potential nutritional and economic benefits are often not fully exploited. “There are many nutritious species being forgotten and there’s a risk they could be lost,” says Gennifer Meldrum, research assistant at Bioversity International, which works to safeguard agricultural biodiversity. “Some, like bambara groundnut, are used popularly but on a small scale, and they don’t get the research and value promotion to enhance their contribution in food systems.”

Developing nutritional value chains

Developing value chains for NUS has the potential to increase overall consumption and turn the crops into a new source of income, especially for women, who may already grow the crops on marginal land. But simply increasing production is not enough: people also have to want to buy and eat them. “You have to look at the whole chain and identify bottlenecks for supply as well as demand, and raise consumer awareness,” states Meldrum.

One project – the Good Seed Initiative run by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) in Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia since 2013 – started by identifying species for which there was already increasing and unmet consumer demand. These included African nightshade, African eggplant, Amaranths, June mallow and Crotalaria; with these identified species, CABI then worked to improve farmers’ access to good seeds. The project also provided training to seed producers and farmers, linked them together, and raised awareness of the nutritional qualities of the crops, bearing in mind the local market demand. “In Uganda, the scarlet eggplant is preferred in the central region, whereas cowpea leaves are preferred in the northern region,” explains Daniel Karanja, deputy director of development at CABI.

In one village in the Mpwapwa district of Dodoma region, Tanzania, participating farmers growing amaranth leaf reported returns of TSh 2,751,580/ha (€1,040) compared to TSh 612,560/ha (€232) for sunflowers, the cash crop they had grown before. This is partly because they can grow two to three rounds per season of amaranth leaf in the same plot. CABI also reported increased consumption: a radio-based nutrition campaign reached half a million farmers, 43,000 of whom reported behaviour change as a result. “New products and cooking methods that were introduced to consumers had been taken up,” says Karanja.

Streamlining smallholder supply

In West Africa, fonio is a traditional species that has caught the attention of researchers – including Bioversity International – and entrepreneurs. Fonio is nutritious and prized for its flavour, but processing it is time-consuming and difficult. Bioversity’s current research on the fonio market in Mali has found it weak and disorganised, with the lack of processing technology posing a particular challenge. Individual smallholders struggle to invest in equipment, but the private sector can play a role in kick-starting a value chain.

Ghana-based Unique Quality Product, founded in 2014, initially sourced fonio from 10 landless women, processing and packaging it under the DIM Fonio brand. It now sources from 350 women and 150 men, and its founder, Salma Abdulai, was the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award 2017 Laureate for sub-Saharan Africa. “The women who supply us earn €517 to €560 seasonally,” says Abdulai. “Previously, these women never had the opportunity to farm because of land access issues” (see Spore article, Profiting from Neglected Crops).

Unique Quality Product buys at guaranteed prices and markets the product within Ghana, including to urban consumers, as a healthy, sustainable product. Urbanisation in Africa means there are growing concentrations of potential consumers for well-marketed products, and there are markets further afield too: earlier this year, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that sales of powdered baobab were up 27% in 2018. Aduna, a UK company importing baobab and moringa products from Ghana, promotes their nutritional qualities (such as vitamin C for baobab, and all nine essential amino acids for moringa), as well as the positive impact on the livelihoods of women producers in Ghana.

Aduna’s baobab is sourced from 850 women in 20 communities, some of whom now report earnings of €193 annually from a crop which, previously, they did not have a market for. But if a value chain links producers to distant urban markets, does it improve nutrition within producer communities? “I doubt that the fact that a new export market has been created has necessarily had a huge impact on consumption in the local market,” says Nick Salter, co-founder of Aduna. But even if producers are not eating more baobab, the development of the value chain can still lead to positive nutritional outcomes. The World Bank, for example, has found that income earned by women is more likely to be invested in children’s health and wellbeing, so the earnings for the women who supply Aduna are likely to wield positive effects on health and nutrition.

Improving local nutrition

Another international operation – Kuli Kuli, which sources moringa from Ghana, Haiti and Nicaragua for the US market – has a more explicit strategy of improving local nutrition. As well as providing seeds and training its producers in growing and processing, Kuli Kuli raises local awareness of the nutritional qualities of moringa and encourages household consumption. “Our goal is to enable every household in every community that we source from to have a moringa tree in their backyard and knowledge of how and why they should consume moringa,” explains Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli. “We also encourage suppliers to sell moringa locally. In surveys with moringa farmers conducted in 2017, we found that 57% learned about moringa through selling to Kuli Kuli, and 52% reported consuming moringa regularly as a result.”

As Professor Ruth Oniang’o points out, the neglect of traditional crops is partly a legacy of colonialism and its introduction of cash crops for export (see Spore article, Everyone has to Participate in Nutrition Security). Today, businesses such as Kuli Kuli and Aduna demonstrate that export markets can actually stimulate a value chain for traditional crops instead – and if access to these crops increases locally and regionally as well, people will benefit from the nutritional impact. “Having the stimulus of a high-value export market makes all the difference,” says Meldrum. “But locally, policymakers also need more convincing. There is growing interest, but still scepticism about the efficiency of promoting these crops. Once you have the policy, you can increase demand, production will go up, and breeders will be interested. If the economic motivation is there, people will grow them.”