West African cuisine is internationally renowned – especially its soups, sauces, and stews – and offers many innovation opportunities in terms of commercial food trends. Every traveller to the sub-region is sure to be told to sample the varied and spicy soups and sauces. These usually have one main ingredient – often an indigenous and underutilised crop, such as leaves of cocoyam, solanum species, and edible seeds of cucurbit species – which is the distinguishing factor of the dish. Unfortunately, the recipes of many West African dishes are folkloric, with very limited research interventions aimed at tailoring the recipes for optimal nutrition. Thus, the nutritional and sensory quality of a given dish is determined by the preferences of the individual cook or vendor that supplies the dishes to households and food-vending outlets. The variability in dish quality is aggravated in rural West Africa, where compounding factors such as seasonality of ingredients (now largely dictated by climate change), income level, and family size further define the dish ingredients and the serving portions, and compromise the nutritional value. This is a concern because, increasingly, families are no longer able to gain maximum benefit from these dishes, particularly in communities where there is widespread malnutrition, child stunting, and wasting.
So, what is wrong?
Many communities in Northern Ghana suffer from malnutrition. Nonetheless, there are limited nutrition-sensitive interventions that include recipe modifications of commonly consumed dishes and standardisation of traditional dishes to improve community nutrition and well-being. Investigations that explore recipe standardisation channels can improve community nutrition. New recipes also increase opportunities for new business ventures and can improve livelihoods.
The way forward
It is against this backdrop that my research explores value-added interventions to optimise the culinary experience and food use of one major food category – egusi (cucurbit seeds) – in the diets of selected communities in Northern Ghana. Egusi is classified as a food category due to the diversity in species, coupled with the extended and diverse use of this food in different cultures and geographical locations. Some types of egusi can withstand drought and are viewed as a saviour from famine during lean seasons. My research includes development of an evidence-based database of the nutrient contents of egusi varieties found in Ghana and recipe standardisation interventions for traditional soups and sauces made from egusi for enhancement of and consistency in nutritional quality. The aim is for these recipes to become a repository to support adoption of these dishes in vulnerable communities.
Immediate benefits to the study communities
Updating traditional recipes will help to provide accessible, affordable, and culturally acceptable nutritive dishes. These can contribute to efforts to improve and increase nutrient intake, particularly among undernourished and food-insecure groups, and further optimise the culinary use of egusi.
Will the research findings be of any benefit outside Ghana?
Yes! This research will provide empirical evidence and a study reference to inform policy aimed at exploiting indigenous but underutilised crops for sustainable food and nutrition security interventions across the African continent.
Specifically, the composition database of egusi varieties will serve as a basis for further exploitation of egusi in industrial and non-industrial food applications in the West African sub-region. Secondly, the impact of the standardised recipes will, in the short-to-medium term, provide lessons of best practices that contribute to the innovation and branding efforts in the production environments of indigenous crops so as to transform local food systems. The promotion of indigenous crops can increase demand for them, creating new market opportunities for farmers who grow these crops.
Who can partner with us?
Anyone with an interest in improving communities that are climate-vulnerable and experience malnutrition can partner with my research team to support community nutrition in malnourished rural Ghana and West Africa more broadly. Funders can support the investigation foodscapes, particularly opportunities related to the use of indigenous food for improved nutrition within communities. This exploration can assist the research team to tailor appropriate interventions. Non-governmental agencies and civil society organisations operating in such communities can support with data collection and sharing the knowledge produced, including the recipes, with communities. Interested stakeholders can reach out to us directly through FSNet-Africa platforms (email and social media) to join our effort as we commence these investigations. We anticipate that the research will become a model of best practice for researchers and policymakers in their quest for sustainable measures to improve community nutrition and wellbeing and achieve zero hunger in Africa.
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