Africa is a continent where, at least outwardly, we like to celebrate our diversity – the rich variety that can be found in our many cultures, languages, fashions, flora and fauna. It is therefore perplexing to see such a large segment of the African population depending on a very small number of food crops, such as maize, rice and wheat.
This is more than simply boring to the palate; it severely diminishes the quality of people’s diets and makes farming systems more vulnerable, especially during severe drought.
There has been much talk lately about how Africa’s agriculture sector is primed to become a new economic engine for a continent that has long been too dependent on commodities such as oil.
Last month, heads of state and top officials from across Africa and around the world came to Nairobi for the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), where they were hoping to secure millions of dollars in new commitments for Africa’s smallholder farmers.
But Africa is unlikely to achieve its agriculture potential, or be prepared to deal with challenges such as drought, unless its people change their mindset about crop diversity.
For the last two decades, my work has revolved around developing and promoting nutritionally enhanced sweet potatoes. It has convinced me that, given the right approach, farmers would cultivate a wider variety of crops, and consumers would embrace the new additions to their dinner tables.
Disadvantages of maize
Africa is blessed with a wealth of crop diversity. Much of it, including sorghum, yam and cowpea, is native to the continent. But many other crop types have arrived via trade; these include bananas, pigeon peas and wheat from Asia, and beans, cassava and maize from the Americas.
However, rather than capitalise on this full basket of food options, we have bet too heavily on just a few crops.
Take the case of maize in Eastern and Southern Africa. Yes, maize can grow in different farming environments and supply large quantities of calories. But the crop has significant weaknesses; it is susceptible to drought and pests, and its nutritional quality is mediocre.
And while recent research has delivered more resilient and nutritious maize varieties, these are not sufficient. According to a 2015 report from the Montpellier Panel, rising temperatures and increasingly erratic rainfall will cause maize yield to fall by up to 22% in many areas, and up to 60% in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Embracing crop diversity
Comprehensive research indicates that farmers are far less likely to suffer catastrophic loss from pests, disease or drought if they plant a wider array of crops. The devastation caused by outbreaks of lethal necrosis in maize and stem rust in wheat is greatly intensified by the lack of alternative crops.
In Malawi, while drought ruined maize and bean crops this year, farmers growing naturally hardy, nutritional crops, such as chickpea and sweet potato, fared much better. If the benefits are so clear, why don´t farmers simply diversify? The answer is that they may want to, but often don’t due to policy and institutional barriers.
When crops like maize started to dominate years ago, governments and the private sector accelerated their take-over by providing subsidies, research and other support.
Other potentially useful crops, such as cassava and sorghum, were neglected, sometimes acquiring derogatory labels like the ‘poor man´s crop’ or ‘crop for marginal lands’. It does not have to be this way. I have learned from my work with sweet potatoes that we can turn Africa´s ‘Cinderella crops’ into the belles of the ball.
Promoting other crops
Firstly, we need research that focuses on adding value to these crops, while further enhancing their already natural resilience. In the case of sweet potato, we bred for higher levels of beta-carotene (the chemical precursor of vitamin A), better drought tolerance and virus resistance.
Secondly, farmers need a reliable source of healthy seed. This is not easy, considering that some of these crops are typically ignored by local and multinational seed companies, especially if they are propagated with bulky and perishable plant parts, as in the case of sweet potatoes.
For sweet potato, we worked through local farmer networks and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to achieve large-scale multiplication and dissemination of improved planting material.
Lastly, marketing and branding is crucial. We employed a variety of marketing and communications tools to make consumers aware of the many benefits of the sweet potato as a staple food, animal fodder, snack, and ingredient in processed foods.
A new report titled, Africa Agriculture Status Report 2016: Progress towards Agricultural Transformation in Africa, served as a platform for the recent high-powered AGRF in Nairobi.
Providing an in-depth and unsparing review of agricultural development in Africa over the last decade, the report stresses the importance of increased diversification, citing this as one of the key “components of a resilient system”.
The report further notes that “most farmers in Africa are already diversifying both their activities on-farm as well as out of agriculture”, and suggests that this is easing the “transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture”.
To speed the shift toward reduced reliance on a few commodities, the authors call for a more enabling policy environment that actively promotes diversification.
The theme for the AGRF was “Seize the Moment”, and it offered the perfect occasion for influential leaders attending to make crop diversity a central part of their plans for African agriculture. Just as many admired the colourful dress of West African attendees, they should also be embracing a larger mosaic of food crops.
I have already seen the good things that happen when a big, colourful splash of orange-fleshed sweet potato is added to African farms and diets.
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.
Maria Andrade, a plant breeder at the International Potato Centre, is among the four winners of the 2016 World Food Prize. She is a member of AGRA’s Board.