Ghanaian Ministers claim traditional crops as assets in fighting Africa’s food challenges

09 Oct 2013

Traditional crops can play a more prominent role in African countries’ quests for food and nutritional security, agricultural sustainability and adaptation to climate change. Yet, to ensure that research on neglected and underutilized species (NUS) is demand-oriented and that results are better shared and applied, researchers, extension agents, the private sector and farmers must engage in more collaboration. Supportive policy frameworks are required at national, regional and global levels to promote neglected and underutilized species in science, education, extension and commerce.

These are the key points which emerged from the panel discussion that concluded the 3rd International Conference on Neglected and Underutilized Species - for a Food-Secure Africa (NUS 2013), held in Accra, Ghana from 25 to 27 September, 2013.

Neglected and underutilized crops have attracted scientists’ attention for many years, but it was only in 2008 that the first International Conference on this theme was held in Arusha, Tanzania, followed by a similar event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2011.

This year, NUS 2013 was held in West Africa. Many of the conference’s 160 participants came from this region, and 36 nationalities were represented in all. Bioversity International, whose researchers have been working on neglected and underutilized species for over ten years, and the International Foundation for Science (IFS), Sweden, who provides research grants to young scientists working on such crops, were among the co-organizers.

The conference was officially opened by two Deputy Ministers of the Ghanaian Government: Dr M. Mohammed-Alfa, Deputy Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, and Dr Yakubu Alhassan, Deputy Minister of Food and Agriculture. Dr Alhassan emphasized the importance of traditional crops as strategic assets in fighting Africa’s formidable challenges of food insecurity, climate change, and poverty. He also pointed out that vigorous promotion of these crops will require “funding to support all activities across the entire value chain, from the farm to the table”.

Dr Yemi Akinbamijo, the Director General of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), pointed out the severe genetic and cultural erosion that is affecting neglected and underutilized species: “What you do not know, you don’t conserve any longer”, he said. Research organizations have therefore a responsibility to give these crops and their custodian farmers the attention they need.

Three parallel themes were the focus of NUS 2013: ‘Resilience and Livelihoods’ covered research on conservation, agronomy, nutrition, and post-harvest processing of neglected and underutilized species. Climate change was also covered under this theme. The ‘Value Chain’ theme demonstrated a range of examples and methods for upgrading value chains of both crops and tree products. Finally, the ‘Policy’ theme analysed issues related to institutional and policy support for neglected and underutilized species, as well as capacity development issues.

One innovative aspect compared with previous conferences was that all presenters were asked to reflect on the policy implications of their research. The wealth of recommendations gathered is now being used to craft a solid policy brief to be shared with decision makers across Africa.

There were also four well attended side events. The FAO led a session on ’Promoting and expanding the use of underutilized fruit and vegetable diversity‘, which focused on strategic partnerships to develop joint proposals, and the validation of a publication on indigenous fruits and vegetables of tropical Africa. Other side events covered NUS in higher agricultural education, the role of NUS in marginal areas, and the upgrading of value chains.

Chaired by Ambassador Mary Mubi, Zimbabwe’s Permanent Representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the final panel discussion offered a reflection on the many valuable policy messages emanating from as many as 120 presentations.

“We do not see the links between agriculture, nutrition and health at the national level, but neglected and underutilized species clearly play a role at this intersection,” noted Stefano Padulosi of Bioversity International. “NUS 2013 was a great occasion for the scientific community and other relevant stakeholders to share knowledge, ideas and solutions on how to help move African policies for mainstreaming neglected and underutilized species into governments’ actions and frameworks,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of West Africa’s Regional Farmers’ Organization (ROPPA), Mr. Faliry Boubacar Bolly of Mali, said that “Farmers’ organizations do not have access to all relevant  information. Knowledge is indeed essential and needs to be shared with farmers”.

In her closing remarks the Chair of the Local Organizing Committee, Dr R.E.M.  Entsua-Mensah, Deputy Director General of CSIR, urged all stakeholders to work together in the quest for promoting neglected and underutilized crops in Africa: “We need strong collaboration to bring the agenda forward,” she stressed.

NUS 2013 was jointly organized by Bioversity International, Italy, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Ghana and the International Foundation for Science (IFS), Sweden, with financial support from CTA, FAO, GIZ and the CGIAR research programme on Policies, Institutions and Markets.