New compendium identifies 100 promising forgotten foods for Africa


Africa is paradoxically reliant on imported food and home to a disproportionate share of the world’s hungry while at the same time boasts the potential to be a global breadbasket and food superpower. Part of realizing that potential depends on tapping the continent’s vast array of food crops, which too often have been pushed off stage by global commodity foods produced elsewhere.

These include traditional local mainstays such as Bambara groundnut and pigeons peas, superfoods such as fonio or baobab fruit, and naturalized vitamin-rich crops such as amaranth or taro.

The new Compendium of forgotten foods in Africa aims to move the needle by identifying so-called orphan foods that very often are “locally adapted and less fastidious than exotic cultivars” such as maize, rice or wheat. Produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in partnership with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the compendium presents 100 examples of neglected local foods that have the potential to sustainably provide the much-needed dietary nutrients to various communities across Africa.

The compendium is a scoping study and a first step in what will be “an exhaustive identification and characterization of forgotten foods in Africa,” said Abebe Haile-Gabriel Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa and FARA Executive Director Aggrey Agumya. Both leaders made it clear that while the current list may be expanded over time, the key litmus test is to generate increased attention and funding by researchers and agricultural development practitioners able to shepherd pioneering investments into sustainable agrifood transformation.

The 100 examples collated in the Compendium, with imagery, agroecological suitability, agronomic requirements, and nutritional qualities, were selected after an initial canvassing of experts around Africa, whose specialties range from value-chain development to genetic improvement.

The project, begun as an initiative between FAO and the African Union, also dovetails nicely into The Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS), a newer project spearheaded by FAO and the State Department of the United States of America which is strongly geared to leveraging Africa’s indigenous agricultural products and techniques.

“These projects are moving together and will work together,” especially as VACS is quite focused on improving seeds and developing hardy and higher-yielding varieties of the orphan crops, said Mphumuzi Sukati, Senior Food and Nutrition Officer at FAO’s Regional Office for Africa and a leading author of the publication.

Crafting the Compendium, published alongside a companion tome explaining the initiative, has generated lively arguments over criteria and terminologies. In fact, nine main descriptors ended up being used: traditional, forgotten, minor, neglected, underutilized, orphan, underdeveloped, cheat-hunger and poor people’s.

Other ideas from various experts are to call these crops “opportunity crops” given their potential to transform African agrifood systems to be MORE efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life, leaving no one behind, in line with the FAO Strategic Framework 2022-2031.

No selection can be perfect from the start and the list will be steadily updated, with forest products likely to figure more prominently over time as the initiative gathers steam.

Sometimes the foods are relatively forgotten due to progressive loss of cultural image in the face of more exotic imported foods, and sometimes they are not forgotten or neglected at all but – like cassava or bush mango – remain traditional crops used in local markets and not used in longer-distance trade. A common attribute, however, is that they have received little or no policy and research attention until now.

They are what Haile-Gabriel and Agumya call “backbench” foods and should be targeted for promotion due to their adaptability to Africa’s production domains, cultural and socioeconomic structures and nutritious needs.