School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Research Collaboration Shedding New Light on Potential of African Crops

Collaborative research between a former African head of state, a UKZN researcher and an eminent expert on agroecology is drawing attention to important African wild food plants which have previously been overlooked in farming systems but which could enhance livelihoods, biodiversity and social justice for smallholder farmers.

Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, Research Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems (CTAFS) in UKZN’s School of Agricultural Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), co-authored the research with former Mauritian President Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and renowned agroecology expert Professor Roger Leakey, who is Vice-Chairman of the International Tree Foundation.

Published in the Sustainability journal as part of the Special Issue: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Mainstreaming Underutilized Crops, the article is titled: African Lives Matter: Wild Food Plants Matter for Livelihoods, Justice, and the Environment – A Policy Brief for Agricultural Reform and New Crops.

It comprises a review of advances in smallholder agriculture’s sustainable intensification in the tropics and sub-tropics, leveraging the domestication and commercialisation of wild indigenous tree species that produce nutritious, marketable, and useful food and non-food products.

Explaining that strategies to address hunger and malnutrition in the world’s tropical and sub-tropical regions are often based on intensive farming methods which are effective within specific, industrialised economies, the authors point out that the social, economic, and environmental conditions and infrastructure in Africa do not always correspond with international agricultural policies imposed upon them.

A result of this myopic, uniform approach is the decline of agricultural productivity in Africa where ecological and environmental systems are collapsing and the mainstream crops promoted in intensive farming systems are failing in marginalised production systems, with traditional and indigenous crops often looked down upon. The livelihoods of vulnerable smallholder farmers suffer as a consequence.

The cultivation of wild, indigenous tree species in diversified farming systems in Africa, together with conventional food staples and local orphan crops, reduce land degradation, pollution, water extraction and nutrient mining, and promote various ecosystem services. It has far-reaching benefits for combatting hunger, malnutrition, poverty, social injustice, a stagnant economy, climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.

The authors also point out that strategies such as the valorisation of neglected and underutilised species (NUS) and enhancement of smallholder farming systems could reduce the risk of future pandemics and contribute to attaining the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

At UKZN, a focus of Mabhaudhi’s research has been the valorisation of NUS, with these crops featuring in his PhD work investigating their water use as the world moves towards producing more food with fewer resources. He also champions the agricultural component of the international Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems project, directs the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) that also has a focus on enhancing smallholder farmers’ resilience to the impacts of climate change, and has been recognised for his contributions to capacity building and informing policy in the agricultural and water sectors.

His multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, which covers food systems, global environmental change and the water-energy-food nexus, is collaborative, dynamic, transformative, informs policy, and has tangible impacts.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Christine Cuénod and supplied