Commercialising indigenous plants

Africa has a rich botanical diversity, with at least 2,000 edible food plants. Yet despite enormous potential, few have been commercialised according to Prof Ben-Erik van Wyk of the Department of Botany at the University of Johannesburg, and author of the book Food Plants of the World.
Van Wyk says many of these plants have commercial potential, especially in niche markets such as tourism. Examples include palm wine and hibiscus tea.
Across Africa, 119 plant species have been commercialised, but in southern Africa, only eight. This compares with 182 in Asia and Europe, and 126 in Siberia.
To develop and exploit Africa’s potential, more research – including crop research – is needed as very little, or old, data is currently available. Preparation is also important – some plants are poisonous if not prepared correctly. A need and opportunity exists for improved processing, packaging and branding, says Van Wyk, who categorised Africa’s food plants as follows.
Cereals

  • Finger millet, a drought-resistant staple.
  • Fonio, a staple in West Africa.  Although the smallest of all millet species, it reaches maturity in as little as 6-8 weeks. The grain is used in porridge, bread and beer.
  • Teff, a grass and an important food in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it is used to make injera (flat-bread). It is similar to millet in nutrition and cooking, but the seed is smaller. Teff is gluten-free.
  •  Pearl millet (bullrush millet, cat-tail millet or candle millet), an erect grass that can grow to four metres high. It is grown as a multipurpose grain and fodder crop in the semi-arid tropics and sub-tropics. It is the world’s sixth most important cereal grain and is currently cultivated on over 14m acres in Africa – about 500m people subsist on it. It is used to make beer and has a high sugar content. 

Seeds and nuts

  • Manketti was a staple food of the San of the Kalahari. It has been commercialised on a small scale in Namibia. The nuts yield oil – British company Earth Oil is selling manketti seed oil made in Zambia as a hair and skin treatment.
  • Niger seed from Ethiopia is an oil seed similar to sunflower seed.
  • Oil palm is an African plant that is now grown on a large scale in Malaysia and Indonesia. In the Congo Republic, people produce palm oil by hand. They harvest the fruit, boil it to let the water part-evaporate, then they press what is left in order to collect the reddish-orange oil. Besides an array of uses, palm wine made from the sap of the palm is a popular drink in Africa, India and south-east Asia. It has a short shelf life that could be extended with refrigeration.

Pulses

  • Cowpea, or black-eyed pea, is an important traditional food from southern Africa and is one of the most important food legume crops in the semi-arid tropics of Asia, Africa, southern Europe and Central and South America. In fresh form, the young leaves, immature pods, and peas are used as vegetables, while snacks and main meal dishes are prepared from the dried grain. It provides protein, vitamins, and minerals. Cowpea grain contains about 25% protein, making it extremely valuable where many people cannot afford meat and fish. After the cowpea pods have been harvested, the rest of the plant can be used as animal feed.
  • Jugo bean or bambara groundnut (also called "frog testicles") is seeing a revival as a snack or made into flour.

Beverages

  • Coffee originated in Ethiopia.
  • Palm wine has enormous potential that has not been explored properly, says Van Wyk. ”It tastes like a good white wine with undertones of ginger beer and ordinary beer!”
  • Roselle or hibiscus originates from Angola. It is easy to grow and tough, and is favoured for its unique sweet-sour taste, flavour and colour.  The leaves, eaten as a vegetable, are particularly favoured by pregnant women. Some research has been done in South Africa into making tea from it.

Van Wyk: bevw@na.rau.ac.za or IPUF@rau.ac.za

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