Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Indigenous, underutilised crops can boost food and nutrition security in Africa
Author: Ethel Phiri
Published: 01/11/2023

​Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security was celebrated on Monday 30 October. In an opinion piece for the Cape Times, Dr Ethel Phiri from the Sustainable Agriculture Programme in the Faculty of AgriSciences writes that indigenous and underutilised crops can transform Africa's food systems and boost the continent's food and nutrition security.

  • ​Read the original article below or click here for the piece as published.

Ethel Phiri*

Observed annually on 30 October, Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security is an opportunity to reflect on the persistent challenges and tremendous opportunities that define the continent's food landscape. It also serves as a reminder of what we must do to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry on this vast and diverse continent.

Africa is a place of incredible diversity, from its sites and cultures to its agricultural potential. This diversity is both a blessing and a challenge when it comes to ensuring food and nutrition security for the continent's rapidly growing population. In celebration of this year's Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security, I would like to explore the importance of indigenous and underutilised crops in transforming Africa's food systems and, in turn, boosting the continent's food and nutrition security.

The challenge of food and nutrition security in Africa is multifaceted. Rapid population growth, climate change, and socioeconomic disparities have intensified this problem. In their 2023 report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that, in 2022, nearly 20% of the African population suffered from severe food insecurity. In the same report, it was indicated that the prevalence of undernourishment in Africa rose from 19.4 % in 2021 to 19.7 % in 2022. Moreover, malnutrition remains a major issue, with 61.4 million children suffering from stunted growth and wasting due to inadequate nutrition.

At the same time, Africa is disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. Erratic weather patterns, droughts, and unpredictable rainfall have disrupted traditional agricultural practices, leading to yield fluctuations and food shortages. Additionally, income disparities persist, leaving a significant portion of the population without access to adequate nutrition. In order to address these interconnected challenges, the transformation of Africa's food systems must become a strategic imperative that demands collective effort, innovation, and a deep respect for the traditions and biodiversity that define our continent.

Africa is blessed with an incredible biodiversity of indigenous and underutilised crops that have adapted to the continent's diverse agroecological conditions. In addition, many indigenous crops have evolved to thrive in Africa's challenging conditions and are often more tolerant to pests, diseases, and adverse weather events, making them a crucial resource in the face of climate change.

Incorporating indigenous and underutilised crops into the mainstream food supply can drive transformative change in Africa's food systems. As erratic climatic conditions continue to threaten traditional commodity crops like maize, rice, and wheat, indigenous and underutilised crops can serve as a safety net because they tend to require fewer agricultural inputs and can endure harsher conditions, thereby contributing to agricultural resilience. Moreover, the focus on these few staple crops (maize, rice, and wheat) has limited the variety of foods consumed, leading to loss of diversity, malnutrition, and diet-related health problems.

Several African countries have already recognised the potential of indigenous and underutilised crops and are actively integrating them into their food systems. For example, in Ethiopia, teff, a tiny cereal that is a staple in the country, has been recognised for its nutritional benefits and is increasingly making its way onto global markets. The Ethiopian government has invested in research and development to improve teff varieties and promote its cultivation.

In Nigeria, the production and consumption of African yam beans, a highly nutritious legume, have been revitalised. This not only addresses food and nutrition security, but also provides an income source for farmers. The promotion of moringa, a nutrient-rich tree, has gained momentum in Kenya. Its leaves and pods are used to combat malnutrition, and the plant is also valued for its ability to provide a sustainable source of income. Fonio, a small, drought-tolerant grain, is being hailed as the “crop of the future", with its cultivation transforming the lives of smallholder farmers who are benefiting from increased yields and income in West Africa.

Nonetheless, while the potential of indigenous and underutilised crops is clear, there are significant challenges to their widespread adoption and integration into Africa's food systems. For example, there is a lack of research and development. Many indigenous crops have not received the same level of research and development as mainstream commodity crops, which has limited their productivity and commercial viability. As such, access to markets and value chains also remains a significant challenge for smallholder farmers who grow indigenous crops as these farmers often lack the resources and infrastructure to connect with larger markets. Also, many consumers are unfamiliar with indigenous crops, leading to a lack of demand. So, promoting these crops requires raising awareness about their nutritional value and cultural significance.

Africa's journey towards food and nutrition security is a complex and urgent challenge. Embracing indigenous and underutilised crops is a pivotal step in addressing this challenge. Outdated or restrictive policies can hinder the cultivation, sale, and distribution of indigenous crops. Therefore, governments need to reform regulations and policies to boost the farming and sale of these crops. This includes revising land tenure laws, promoting biodiversity, and creating incentives for farmers.

As we celebrate Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security, we must recognise the importance of indigenous crops and commit to their development and integration into mainstream food systems. By doing so, we can unlock the transformative potential that they hold, ensuring a more food-secure, nutritious, and sustainable future for Africa. Getting there will require a collective effort, innovation, and a deep respect for the traditions and biodiversity that define the continent.

*Dr Ethel Phiri is a lecturer in the Sustainable Agriculture Programme in the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Underutilised Crops Research.