Fighting malnutrition in Africa with improved traditional plants

AOCCAfrica’s top plant breeders are working to fight malnutrition and poverty across the continent through improving traditional crops.

An article in African Farming explains the work being done by the African Orphan Crops Consortium to map and make public the genomes of 101 indigenous African foods. These ‘orphan crops’ are so named because they have largely been ignored by science and seed companies as they are not traded internationally like commodities such as rice, corn and wheat.

Despite this, many of these crops “are crucial to African livelihood and nutrition,” says the article.

The consortium was launched in 2012 as a collaboration between the University of California Davis, Mars Inc., a wide range of researchers, industry groups and policymakers.

At the World Agroforestry Centre’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, plant breeders make use of state-of-the-art genomics laboratory to receive training through the African Plant Breeding Academy. The genomic data they gather will help plant breeders to quickly select for traits that improve the nutritional content, productivity and resilience of Africa’s most important food crops.

“By improving these neglected crops, we help the children who eat them and the farmers who depend on them to support their families,” says Busiso Mavankeni, a plant breeder with Zimbabwe’s department of research & specialist services.

The article explains how to improve a crop, breeders traditionally cross plants with desired traits and select the best offspring over multiple generations. “Some traits, such as flavour and size, are often determined by many genes acting together, while other traits, like disease resistance, may be regulated by a single gene. Once a plant genome has been sequenced, breeders can home in on genes that affect specific traits and select for those genes at the seedling or seed stage. This accelerates the crop improvement process.”

Among the 101 crops are the highly nutritious baobab, pigeon pea, a form of grain called finger millet and spider plant, a leafy green vegetable that is about twice as nutritious as spinach.

Read the full story: UC Davis collaborates with African consortium to revive traditional African plants

Find out more about the African Orphan Crops Consortium'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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