Research revolutionising food security in Africa

AFRICA’S poor who consume traditional vegetables and sweet potato may be the richest in health as research to improve yields and controlling and lowering disease tolerance among these crops has revealed.

There is need to urgently match Africa’s booming population with adequate food systems because if people are well nourished they become healthy and productive, which is good for development. As the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) puts it, “good nutrition begins with food and agriculture”.
The continent is the second most populous after Asia with about 2.1 billion people. One in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition, according to the 2016 global nutrition report. Societal costs of malnutrition have resulted in 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) being lost every year in Africa where the number of stunted children under five is not declining.
Beyond the social cost, FAO notes that the cost to the global economy caused by malnutrition, as a result of lost productivity and direct health care costs, could account for as much as five percent of GDP equivalent to US$3.5 trillion per year or US$500 per person.
At Graça Machel Trust, we believe that good nutrition must start at an early stage, for example, the first 1,000 days from conception to birth are very critical. We work with key regional partners to increase capacity and build up the institutional establishment of national civil society nutrition networks. Strengthening these national civil society nutrition networks helps to keep nutrition advocacy in Africa on the global agenda.
Now researchers are looking at innovative ways to boost agricultural production to feed the continent’s booming population by focusing on some of the ignored crops that have been used for many years by Africa’s poor to relieve famine.
Research is mainly concerned at increasing yields, adding of nutrients, otherwise known as crop bio fortification, and control and lowering of diseases and one of them is encouraging the cultivation of traditional vegetables because they are highly nutritious.
The Water Research Commission has identified three inter-related challenges, which are water scarcity, population growth, and food and nutritional insecurity of essential micronutrients, one of which is vitamin A.
This also means agricultural production needs to increase against a backdrop of issues such as climate change (extreme weather, flooding, and droughts), soil fertility depletion, and land degradation.
The majority of Africa’s population live in areas with poor soil fertility, and in addition, there are problems of access to capital and agricultural inputs, which affects yields.
Traditional vegetables are capable of providing more than 50 percent of the recommended daily requirements of vitamins such as iron, zinc and beta carotene and they are drought-tolerant. An example of this vegetable is Swiss chard, widely eaten by poor South Africans in combination with thick maize meal porridge known as pap.
Also of interest are the most common species growing in the wild or as weeds, and collected for consumption as vegetables by African people. These include Chinese cabbage, pumpkin and watermelon leaves, cowpea leaves and spider flower. They are equally nutritious with iron, zinc and vitamins A and C, and are also drought-resistant.
The Water Research commission says: “The use of wild food forms part of the safety net that rural people use to cope with poverty, disaster and livelihood stress.” And for many years, researchers and policy-makers have ignored these types of leafy vegetables, but during the past two decades, this has changed, particularly in countries like Zambia, Malawi and South Africa.
The Agricultural Research Council of South Africa, for example, is making an effort to promote the cultivation and utilisation of these vegetables by farmers, especially women and other vulnerable groups, to mitigate malnutrition, climate change and create wealth for all participants along the entire value chain.
Researchers are also focusing on the sweet potato crop because it is the seventh most produced food crop in the world after maize, rice and wheat, potato, cassava and barley. That’s according to FAO.
And as a tuber crop, it is the third most important after potato and cassava. It is a staple food in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. It is also a common crop among poor farmers because it grows in marginal conditions with limited agricultural inputs and low labour requirements. And again, research is underway to improve sweet potato yield and make it more disease-tolerant.
FAO states: “Sweet potato roots produce more edible energy per hectare per day than wheat, rice or cassava and contains considerable amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fibre, pro-vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, thiamine and niacin.”
It has been proven in countries carrying out research in improving the orange fleshed sweet potato variety, for instance, that it can be used to combat and alleviate vitamin A deficiency. This explains why crop-bio-fortification of sweet potatoes is in progress in most sub-Saharan Africa including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zambia, Mozambique, Ghana, Madagascar and South Africa.
The article is authored by regional co-ordinator Women in Media Network Millie Phiri with the assistance of the Graca Machel Trust scholarship PhD students, Sonia Naidoo and alumni, Nadia Ibraimo.

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