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Invest in Native African Crops

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By: Shira Petrack

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes 

Africa has more native cereals than any other continent. Before cassava, sugar cane, coffee, and other cash crops became widespread, Africa grew a wide variety of Indigenous and Traditional Food Crops (ITFC) that were highly nutritious and particularly well adapted to the local climate. Now, much of Africa faces chronic food insecurity, even though the region is home to hundreds of potential contributors to the food supply that are not accorded scientific support, official promotion, or inclusion in development schemes. Companies that invest in native crops can establish new markets and sell their products regionally and globally.


Why Native Crops? 

The move away from native crops and towards western cash crops can be traced to the colonial era, when officials encouraged the cultivation of crops that were durable, transportable, and valuable to western markets. Farmers gradually abandoned indigenous crops. After de-colonization, ITFCs were still often considered “poor man’s food,” and were often ignored by agriculture policy-makers. 


 ITFCs are often richer in protein and other nutrients than popular non-native crops, and they present a healthy, accessible, affordable, and nutrient-dense alternative to global crops. Recently, plant breeders and other agricultural stakeholders have recently expressed renewed interest in reviving Africa’s traditional roots, grains, and vegetables. Companies that want to support food security in Africa while building innovative businesses can invest in agricultural research in the region.


Investing in Processing and Storing Native Crops 

Since native crops were largely ignored over the past couple of centuries, the methods of processing and marketing ITFCs on a mass scale are not as developed as they are for other crops such as wheat or maize. This is where the private sector can step in. With the right investments, companies can develop ways to process sorghum, millet, and other traditional cereals in ways that appeal to the modern urban lifestyle. 


Indeed, throughout most of their 5,000-year history as crops, wheat, rice, and maize were generally boiled into porridge or gruels, just like other traditional cereals. Now, wheat is becoming increasingly popular, in large part due to the increasing urbanization and shifts in preference towards fast and easy foods such as bread and pasta. Since urbanization is one of the drivers of changing food demand in the region, companies that can figure out how to process ITFCs for quick cooking and efficient storage to appeal to Africa’s growing urban population will position themselves for success. 


Researching the nutritional profiles of ITFCs 

Since many ITFCs are very nutritionally dense, these ITFCs could also be marketed globally, where the demand for natural health foods is projected to reach US $364.4 billion by 2027. For example, Sibocali Traders, a South African company, processes indigenous roots into gluten free snacks, flower, and porridge.


Some of the ITFCs may even be considered superfoods, since many superfoods are native to tropical parts of the planet. Much of Africa enjoys a tropical climate, and so these native ITFCs may have superfood potential. By researching the health benefits and nutritional profile of traditional African crops, companies can capture new markets while diversifying Africa’s agriculture.



Role of the Private Sector in Promoting Indigenous Crops 

Agricultural companies that research native crops in Africa can position themselves for success both in Africa and globally. By finding more efficient ways of storing and processing native crops, companies can sell these indigenous crops to the growing urban population on the continent while supporting local farmers. By researching the health benefits of native crops, agribusinesses might discover new superfoods to be marketed globally. Now is the time for private sector agricultural research in Africa. 

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Foreign companies have often viewed Africa as a repository of mineral and agricultural raw materials without considering the continent’s manufacturing potential. This is not just a missed opportunity for companies that could increase their supply chain efficiency and enjoy tax breaks geared towards agriculture processors in many African countries; it also prevents local Africans from reaping the economic benefits of their country’s agricultural commodities

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