The following is a three part series about Danielle's trip to the World Vegetable Centre in Arusha, Tanzania.
As hunger and drought spread across Africa , there's a huge focus on increasing yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice. And while these crops are important for food security, providing much needed calories, they don't provide much protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, other important vitamins and micronutrients--or much taste. "None of the staple crops," says Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center's Regional Director for Africa, "would be palatable without vegetables." And vegetables, he says, "are less risk prone" than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods of time. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize often scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize which need a lot of water and fertilizer.
Unfortunately no country in Africa, according to Dr. Tenkouano, has a big focus on vegetable production. But that's where the Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Center (which is a part of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa to breed cultivars that best suit farmers' needs.
Despite the focus on staple crops, vegetable production generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises, according to the Center's website. And unlike staple crops, vegetable production is something that benefits urban and rural farmers alike (See our posts on urban farmers in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya).
In addition, vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient deficiencies among the poor. Often referred to as "hidden hunger," micronutrient deficiencies--including lack of Vitamin A, iron, and iodine--affect some 1 billion people worldwide. They lead to poor mental and physical development, especially among children, and cause poor performance in work and in school, further crippling communities already facing poverty and other health problems.
But by listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, the Center is helping to alleviate these problems. Watch for more blogs about our visit to the World Vegetable Center and their efforts to raise nutrition and income in Africa.
Part II: Listening to Farmers
The World Vegetable Center is focusing on "building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa." What does that mean? According to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, Director of the Regional Center for Africa, it requires "bringing farmers voices into the choices of materials they are using."
The Center does this not only by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits--including resistance to disease and longer shelf life--but also by bringing farmers from all over eastern, western, and southern Africa to the Regional Center in Arusha, Tanzania, to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market. Mr. Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, was at the Center when I visited, advising staff about which tomato varieties would be best suited for his particular needs--including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.
The Center works with farmers not only to grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Dr. Mel Oluoch, a Liason Officer with the Center's Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (VBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times. "Eating is believing," says Dr. Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes--and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook--they don't need much convincing about the alternative methods.
Dr. Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. In fact, one of the women farmers we met in Kibera slum in Nairobi had been trained at the Center and is selling seeds to rural farmers, increasing her income. "The sustainability of seed," says Dr. Oluoch, "is not yet there in Africa." In other words, farmers don't have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops. As a result, the Center is working--partly with CNFA, an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) grantee--to link farmers to input or "agro-" dealers who can help ensure a steady supply of seed.
In addition, the Center is providing how-to brochures to farmers in Swahili and other languages to help them better understand how to grow vegetables in different regions.
Part III: Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste
They have unfamiliar names, like amaranth, baobab, cowpea, dika, enset, moringa, and spider plant. And many of them are typically thought of as weeds, not food, but these African indigenous vegetables and many others provide an important source of nutrients to millions of people.
Some have been used for thousands of years, providing an important cultural link, while also helping increase food security and incomes. But these "weeds," which are a rich source of protein, calcium, and important micronutrients, are typically neglected on the international agricultural resource agenda. Although they've often been ignored by researchers and policy-makers alike, who tend to focus on staple and cash crops, these vegetables can be an important part of helping alleviate hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. As food prices continue to rise on the continent--in some countries food is 50-80 percent higher than in 2007--indigenous vegetables are becoming an integral part of home gardens.
And as the impacts of climate change become more evident, the hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables is becoming increasingly important. Many of them use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease, which will likely increase as climate change becomes more evident.
Ignas Swai, a Senior Research Assistant at the World Vegetable Center, guided us through their demonstration plot, explaining the different nutritional qualities of the vegetable "weeds." Not only are these vegetables hardy and resistant to drought and disease, but they also taste good.