Indigenous food can help improve food security


Bambara Groundnuts. Black-billed beans and pumpkin leaves.

Researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) have found in a recent study that indigenous foods can give a significant boost to food security, but that the nutritional potential and benefits of these foods have yet to be properly appreciated and explored.

According to researchers from SU’s Division of Human Nutrition in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, it seems that not enough value is attached to indigenous food crops and the potential they have to eradicate poverty and hunger, promote health and nutrition and provide income to households. not to provide.

“The consumption of indigenous foods such as Bambara groundnuts, batjapin beans (or black-billed beans), green leafy vegetables and pumpkin leaves is declining in most Southern African countries. This decline can be attributed to several factors, including the westernization of African diets, the bitter taste of wild vegetables that deters people and the perception that wild vegetables are low-income food,” say the researchers.

“A lack of interest in learning more about indigenous foods, or the absence of the older guard passing on the information about the identification, harvesting, preparation and preservation of these foods to the younger generation, has also led to this decline.

“Commercial farming, research and development have also largely ignored these food crops, making them less competitive than established staple crops.”

The researchers conducted a systematic review of existing data (between 2011 and 2021) on the availability of indigenous foods in Southern Africa to determine the availability, regularity of consumption, utilization, preparation, harvesting and preservation of indigenous foods. They also wanted to record in detail the knowledge, perceptions and beliefs about these foods.

The findings of their review were recently published in the international open access journal Sustainability appear.

Many uses

The review study indicated that the availability and knowledge of indigenous foods were important determinants of their intake. This was followed by the belief that it had a higher nutritional value than foreign foods.

Studies in Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, Eswatini and Zimbabwe have indicated that these foods are consumed more frequently in rural areas by the elderly and the unemployed in particular.

They also found that some indigenous vegetable species obtained from multipurpose plant species are used as food and medicine to promote health. Furthermore, there are also various drinks available that are made from indigenous foods, including traditional beer, fermented non-alcoholic drinks and herbal teas.

“Indigenous foods are not only accessible, but are also consumed in various communities to provide nutritional value and health benefits. This is particularly important because most rural areas in Southern African countries have little or no access to medical care facilities, or people have to walk long distances to get to medical facilities.”

According to the researchers, indigenous foods also have the ability to improve food security through their availability, accessibility, sustainability and utilization.

They point out that only a few studies deal with the conservation of indigenous food species, which explains why the seed supply industry for indigenous food plants in Southern Africa is underdeveloped.

“The long-term storage of these foods is hampered by the lack of scientifically proven preservation techniques. Therefore, it is essential to scientifically test these techniques to ensure that no nutrients are lost.”

According to the researchers, cooking is the most popular method for preparing indigenous foods to improve their digestibility and flavor.

“Indigenous vegetables are cooked before consumption, while native fruits, which are not poisonous, are usually eaten as soon as they are picked.”

They say the research also highlights the importance of successful international, regional and national policies to promote indigenous foods – although very little to no supporting policies exist in most Southern African countries. South Africa is the exception and has set the pace by promoting research on these foods with financial help from institutions such as the Department of Science and Technology and the Agricultural Research Council.

The researchers emphasize the need for skills to build capacity, as well as for appropriate infrastructure in rural communities and enough money for comprehensive research and marketing so that those involved in the cultivation of indigenous foods can make a living from their work.