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. Although these crops are important for improving food security, they cannot cure malnutrition alone.
There is no one-size fits all or single crop solution to solving global hunger, alleviating poverty, or protecting the environment and mitigating climate change. But the good news is that there is a multi-crop solution and it’s already being spear-headed by farmers on the ground: vegetables.
Some 1 billion people worldwide are affected by “hidden hunger,” or micronutrient deficiencies – lack of Vitamin A, iron, and iodine, none of which are found in staple crops, but rather, in vegetables. Vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient deficiencies among the poor.
It’s also the most sustainable and affordable way of improving biodiversity, preserving traditions and cultures, and improving livelihoods. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing period than staple crops, they are less risk-prone to drought, maximizing scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize.
Unfortunately, no country in Africa has a big focus on vegetable production. But that’s where AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center steps in, working with farmers to build a sustainable seed system in Africa. The Center does this by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits—including resistance to disease and longer shelf life—and by bringing the farmers to the Regional Center in Arusha and to other offices across Africa to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market.
Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, is just one of many farmers who visit the Center, advising staff about which vegetable varieties would be best suited for his particular needs—including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.
Mel Oluoch, a Liaison Officer with the Center’s Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (vBSS) trains both urban and rural farmers in seed production. “The sustainability of seed,” says 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. But Oluoch and others at the Center are working closely with farmers to change that.
The hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables become increasingly important as climate change becomes more evident. Many indigenous vegetables use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease without the use of chemical inputs, which are expensive both financially and environmentally.
Of course, it’s not only crucial for farmers to grow indigenous species; people also need to want to eat them. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, local foods are looked down upon by rich and poor shoppers alike. In Senegal, for example, many consumers and cooks consider local rice to be inferior and instead buy imported European brands that can cost four times as much.
At the heart of these issues is a loss of knowledge about agricultural practices and indigenous varieties that create local agricultural, as well as cultural, biodiversity. While what we eat is important, what may be even more essential over the long term is preserving knowledge about how to plant, grow, and cook what we eat.
In Uganda’s Mukono District, Edward Mukiibi, 23, and Roger Serunjogi, 22, founded the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation Project, or DISC, with this premise in mind. The project began in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, generate environmental awareness, and preserve food traditions and culture for local students by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day and boarding schools.
By focusing on school gardens, Mukiibi and Serunjogi are helping not only to feed children, but are also revitalizing an interest in - and cultivation of - African indigenous vegetables, cultivating the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda's culinary traditions and increase food security. Says one 19 year-old student, Mary Naku, who is learning farming skills from DISC, “as youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables to support our lives.” Organizations like the AVRDC and DISC, by inspiring our future farmers, working with current farmers and reigniting an interest and appetite for indigenous crop varieties, are helping to improve diets, livelihoods and local ecosystems around the world.
Staple crops can’t do it alone. Luckily for us, creating a sustainable agriculture system and fighting hunger takes all kinds of crops, for a more delicious and sustainable, well-nourished future. There’s a reason why your mother wouldn’t let you leave the table without eating your vegetables.