Worldwide, there are a rich array of crops that are high in nutrients and resilient to climate-related shocks, yet only three main crops (rice, maize, and wheat) supply 50% of all calories consumed by the human population. Despite the diverse basket of nutrient-rich crops, African communities, especially children, continue to have a low intake of essential vitamins and minerals. This is known as micronutrient deficiency.
Globally, iron, zinc, and vitamin A deficiencies continue to prevail. For example, in Tanzania in 2019, the prevalence of anaemia in pregnant women was 48%, mainly due to iron or vitamin B12 deficiencies. Vitamin A deficiency was 15% in pregnant women and 24.2% in children. Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SGD2) promotes improved nutrition using sustainable agriculture. Thinking about the food we grow, share, and consume is thus vital if we are to achieve this goal of zero hunger.
Indigenous crops – plants that are native to a region and consumed as part of the traditional diet there – are crops that have a cultural heritage embedded in their ties to the land and natural resources where they are grown. These crops have become known as “neglected”, “orphaned”, “forgotten”, or “minor” because, despite the various benefits associated with them, they are underutilised. Indigenous crops contain essential nutrients required for maintaining human health and strengthening resistance to disease and infection. Indigenous crops include a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and roots. These crops have a range of environmental, economic, socio-cultural, and nutritional benefits. Indigenous crops are characterised by environmental tolerance, adaptability to climate change, and high nutritional value.
Economically, these crops can increase income levels for low-income households, particularly in the face of environmental shocks. For example, the indigenous crop pigeon pea has a higher chance of survival during dry spells with minimal rainfall than maize. Pigeon pea is rich in various essential micronutrients and has a much higher protein content than maize, wheat and rice, which are primarily high in carbohydrates. In addition to increased tolerance to drought, in the market, pigeon pea fetches a relatively high price compared to maize. For example, the current price of 1kg of pigeon pea is 3000 TZS (USD 1.28), while that of maize is 1400 TZS (USD 0.59). High margins for farmers create opportunities for diversification and sustainable farming.
Given their many benefits, the question arises: why are indigenous crops underutilised and neglected? While they serve as a symbol of cultural heritage or trademark for many Africans, these crops have been portrayed as “poor men’s food” by colonisers, leading to their post-colonial displacement. Furthermore, these crops are viewed as low-yielding despite their high tolerance to harsh climates. The low yields stem from the fact that no significant research has been done on improving productivity, given the over-emphasis on cereals such as maize and wheat. These crops are also faced with neglect due to changes in diets over time, particularly with urbanisation and the growth of supermarkets across Africa, which did not initially promote indigenous crops in their supply chains. Consequently, other conventional crops, which are not native to Africa, not as resilient to climate change, nor as nutritious, have gradually permeated African markets and replaced traditional crops. Such conventional crops include squash, wild carrots, wheat, common beans, certain varieties of potatoes (yellow and white), and bananas.
There is increasing demand to return to indigenous roots and embrace traditional crops that can improve health and income. Indigenous crops can offer a diverse plate throughout the year. Fruits such as jackfruit, monkey oranges, and baobab fruits are cheap and readily available compared to exotic fruits such as seasonal pineapples, watermelons, and mangoes. Indigenous legumes include bambara bean/groundnut, cowpea, finger millet, lablab, locust bean, and pigeon pea. Indigenous vegetables (including amaranth, African nightshade, spiderflower, crotalaria, Ethiopian mustard, hyacinth bean, jute mallow, drumstick tree, okra, pumpkin, bitter lettuce, blackjack, cowpea leaves, sweet potato leaves, and cassava leaves) can easily be grown in backyards.
Dr Innocensia John is a researcher participating in the FSNet-Africa fellowship. Her FSNet-Africa research project aims to unpack why there is such low uptake of indigenous crops in Tanzania. The study explores the household use of indigenous crops and establishes their economic potential. It explores indigenous crops’ value chains while demonstrating their nutritional value compared to conventional crops.
Some initial findings reveal that jackfruit is sold in the Temeke-Stereo market in Dar es Salaam. Sellers identify these fruits as having exceptionally low demand. One respondent stated that “there aren’t a lot of customers for these fruits compared to other fruits”. The respondent went on to further explain that “these fruits, although they require a relatively low amount of capital to get into business, are less known to most consumers, despite being very nutritious and affordable in comparison to other fruits. A processed jackfruit can easily be bought for as little as 500 TZS (USD 0.2)”. The prices are reasonable, considering the high nutritional content.
Another example of a traditional fruit is monkey oranges (known as mabungo in Swahili). They have a hard shell and thus, a longer shelf life than many other fruits, making them resilient to damage during long-distance transportation. The fruit is also rich in minerals. Depending on the species, it has an iron content of up to 33% of the recommended daily intake. Such fruits can potentially contribute to the iron needs of pregnant or lactating women and children. However, monkey oranges are not commonly found in markets in Tanzania; very few sellers sell them. These fruits are usually processed with other fruits for juice in urban areas, owing to their low market recognition. One of the sellers in the market stated that “most of the customers that seek such fruit use them as medicine to cure urinary tract infections.” Monkey oranges are relatively cheap, costing around 200 TZS (USD 0.08), but have various health benefits.
Dr John and her research team are exploring the economic and nutritional benefits of indigenous fruits and vegetables, which often exceed the benefits of exotic varieties. These crops have health benefits associated with an increase in dietary diversity. This research intends to increase appreciation of these crops and encourage their incorporation into diets. Furthermore, their use preserves cultural heritage and protects their importance in communities where they are becoming endangered. Indigenous crops are available throughout the year, which begs the question: why are we not investing in and utilising these crops? A more widespread investigation and promotion of indigenous crops should be encouraged so that both producers and consumers can understand their value and, in turn, communities can experience improved food security – physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food – and overall health.