Nelly Bassily | January 13, 2014
Gathoni Mwangi is a 78-year-old widow from Ngamba village in central Kenya. Mrs. Mwangi will never forget 2010, the year that drought hit and both rainy seasons failed.
Mrs. Mwangi’s maize withered away, leaving her barely able to feed her five orphaned grandchildren. Her two cows had scarcely enough fodder to produce milk for the children, and there was none left over to sell and buy food.
It was a so-called “orphan crop” that saved the family. “Orphan crops” are plants that receive little scientific research or funding despite their importance for food security. In Mrs. Mwangi’s case, a few yams had survived from previous years’ crops. They had been completely forgotten; no one had bothered to harvest the tubers.
Mrs. Mwangi recalls, “I would dig up two (yams) each day and boil or roast them before serving the meal to the children, and not once did we (go to) sleep hungry.”
A new research institution is now aiming to boost the profile and production of neglected but nutritious crops. The African Plant Breeding Academy opened in Nairobi in December. It will train scientists and technicians to breed plants and trees which until now have received only limited attention, due to their low economic value in the global market.
The Academy’s goal is to help reduce hunger and boost food security in Africa by developing high-yielding varieties of crops that communities used to rely on, but have neglected in favour of global staples such as maize, rice and wheat.
Tony Simons is the director-general of the World Agroforestry Centre. He says the Academy will provide a dedicated place for research and development of food crops with higher nutritional value and better resistance to pests, disease, and a changing climate.
Daniel M’reli is an agriculture expert who works as a private consultant. He says that Africa’s orphan crops contain minerals and nutrients that are scarce in conventional crops. In addition, they can generally withstand adverse weather, while rarely suffering disease and pest attacks.
Mr. M’reli thinks that African farmers and consumers will need to be re-educated to understand that these crops are not “poor man’s food.”
Mrs. Mwangi welcomes the Academy. She says she will be the first to embrace whatever improved plants are on offer. She hopes the Academy will provide traditional sweet potato vines to plant in the short rainy season from September to December.
Mrs. Mwangi says: “The tubers will feed the children in times of food shortages, while the vines can comfortably feed my animals to avoid the kind of problems I saw in the year 2010.”