African fruits : Seeds needed to alleviate hunger and to bolster rural development (Willem)

I read with great interest the preceding article, republished on my blog from Science Daily

(report of the National Research Council and document of the National Academies of the USA).

I feel very happy about this excellent idea to promote African fruit species production. Indeed, it is “a largely untapped resource that could combat malnutrition and boost environmental stability and rural development in Africa“.

However, in order to “to bring these “lost crops” — such as baobab, marula, and butterfruit — to their full potential“, not only “modern horticultural knowledge and scientific research” should be used, but interested rural people (who wouldn’t be interested ?) should also be offered chances to participate in this re-appraisal process with their indigenous knowledge and skills. The poor rural population of Africa should have its own voice in this debate about the future of small-scale agriculture, horticulture and forestry.Recently, some donors e.g. the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation provided important investments in African agriculture (see AGRA). This is only the start of a new era, in which similar boosts can have a direct effect on poverty alleviation, economic welfare and food security (see for instance the recent World Bank’s “World Development Report” and the “Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme”). Food production should be improved in all regions prone to malnutrition and hunger. In the rural areas of Africa, it can certainly be enhanced by a better use of modern technologies and science, not only with fertilizers and better irrigation systems, but also with integration of cost-effective technologies and systems aiming at sustainable development.

We all remember that the Green Revolution in Asia has been the platform for an economic revival of that continent. In the same way, plans have been developed to give African agriculture and horticulture a boost by enhancing productivity with modern technologies.  It deserves our full appreciation.

Taking into account the diversity on the African continent, tropical fruit production may be “dominated by species introduced from Asia and the Americas, such as bananas, pineapples, and papayas.“, but it is clear that this is only the case in regions with sufficient annual rainfall, and not in the drylands. Again, if “the imported species also received the support of colonial powers who wanted familiar crops that were profitable to grow, indigenous fruits continued their downward spiral of dwindling cultivation and knowledge.“, this almost never happened in the drylands of Africa.

Therefore, if we do not apply the one size fits all-principle in this case, my first question is : ” How will we apply this splendid idea about promoting African fruit species in the drylands in the numerous agricultural systems of the different sub-regions?” Let us for a moment imagine that decision-makers and donors can be convinced of the importance of this idea. Where will we find sufficient opportunities (material and financial ones) to stimulate cultivation of fruit trees in all the countries of the African drylands ? Or should we only start in a chosen sub-region to limit efforts and expenses ?

Would this not remain an major obstacle, my second question is : “How to organize the necessary free distribution of sufficient quantities of seeds of these interesting species ?”. Supposing that national initiatives can be taken for collecting those seeds in the wild, treatment should be foreseen to avoid infections and services should be provided to put them at disposition of the rural population.

“How will nurseries be set up in the different provinces and districts ?”. Will the staff of these nurseries be paid by the authorities or by the population ? Will the seedlings be distributed for free or will they be paid by the farmers ?  These questions came to my mind when thinking at that nice initiative taken in Burkina Faso almost a decade ago, where plans were developed to plant a forest in each village. We all know why this initiative failed.Again, promoting African fruit trees to compete with exotic species sounds wonderful. However, I am looking forward to constructive proposals to avoid failures and deception.

Staying at the sunny side of the street, I remain optimistic : this kind of problems should not be unsolvable. Like my own father always said : “Where there is goodwill, there is an outcome !”. But I wonder if, in the midst of this interesting discussion, we do not forget that some 220 million Africans (a third of the African population) suffer from hunger, and this is a still growing figure. They are not looking for a re-appraisal of African fruits, but for basic food.

So, where are we heading to from now on ? Shall we produce maximal efforts to bring sustainable food security to the hungry Africans or maximal efforts to sustain production of African “lost crops” like baobab, marula, butterfruit, Balanites, Zizyphys, etc. ?

For me there is no doubt : the most urgent need is to offer the Africans opportunities to become self-sufficient in food production, even in the harsh conditions of the drylands. It has been sufficiently and repeatedly proven that family gardens and school gardens can be constructed, in which, thanks to modern methods, enough vegetables and fruits can be produced with a minimum of water, in order to keep famine away (see the UNICEF-project in the refugee camps in the Sahara desert, S.W. Algeria).

Once the stomachs are filled every day with a decent quantity of basic food and an acceptable dosage of vitamins and mineral elements, the rural population of Africa will stand ready to participate in the revival of interest in African fruit trees. I hope that my Belgian initiative “Seeds for Life” will help in some way to realize this dream.


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Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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