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Women Researchers Across Africa Focus on Indigenous Crops to Boost Food Security – And Other Women’s Livelihoods

Crops like soursop, okra and leafy greens are a source of nutrition and economic security for women smallholder farmers across the continent.

In East and West Africa, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture is supporting four women scientists who are leaders in locally driven research aimed at addressing malnutrition and food insecurity. The work of these researchers — Drs. Naalamle Amissah, Freda Asem, Gloria Essilfie and Penina Yumbya — focuses on several goals: increasing access to more nutritious vegetable crops for women small-scale farmers; diversifying diets by increasing the use and safety of indigenous vegetables and extending their shelf life; reducing post-harvest loss, and improving the incomes, nutrition and livelihoods of smallholder women farmers throughout the continent.

“Women play a significant role in horticultural production, yet they often face greater challenges in accessing resources, markets and decision-making opportunities compared to their male counterparts,” said Yumbya. “By focusing on women small-scale farmers, we aim to address gender disparities in the horticulture sector.”

Photo of a group of people standing outside a building in an African landscape

Attendees of a meeting with the farmers’ association in the Ahafo region in Ghana, during a data collection phase on selected indigenous vegetables. Credit: Gloria Essilfie.

One of the areas of concern for the Horticulture Innovation Lab is the poor diet quality in sub-Saharan Africa due to a high reliance on cereals and grains. Improving the consumption of fruits and vegetables is an important step to improve nutrition, child growth, and overall health. “Variety development of indigenous vegetables with the priorities of women in mind, can improve nutrition density and soil health — as well as yields,” said Erin J. McGuire, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab.

That’s why the researchers are focusing on crops that are indigenous to African countries, such as sorghum, cowpea, millet, okra, various leafy greens and fruits like soursop and African star fruit. Collectively the researchers are gathering data on crops in Ghana, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Togo, Senegal, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Many indigenous fruits and vegetables are extraordinarily nutrient-dense, with high levels of vitamins and minerals; they also require fewer resources to grow and are climate-resilient. This makes them uniquely capable of meeting the challenges of malnutrition and food insecurity, the researchers said.

“Our research focuses on enhancing productivity, reducing postharvest losses and improving market access for African indigenous vegetables in Kenya and Uganda,” said Yumbya. “The project’s goal is to unlock access to vegetables for women smallholder farmers, thereby transforming their livelihoods.”

“Indigenous vegetables are available mostly in the areas they are grown due to a very short shelf life,” explained Essilfie. “The research is looking at extending the shelf life using various technologies to make them available to urban dwellers all year round.”

Essilfie said that researchers are working to determine which technologies can be applied to the crops to reach that goal. She also explained that she hopes to get more women and young people interested in the business of promoting the production and consumption of indigenous crops.

“We will set up an incubator system where seed grants will be given to start-ups owned by the youth, female individuals or groups who will be able to develop winning proposals/pitches,” she said.

Amissah and Asem said that within the next few months to a year, they will develop a database of indigenous crops across West Africa to gain more understanding of their cultural and nutritional significance and people’s consumption patterns and preferences. They will conduct field trials on varieties of amaranth, spider plant and jute mallow in Ghana and Mali.

Traditionally, indigenous vegetables are produced and marketed by women, and the researchers are working alongside the women small-scale producers of these crops to promote awareness and understanding of the crops’ importance and how to grow and care for them.

Rosemary Anim, a smallholder farmer from Eastern Ghana, said that the production of indigenous fruits and vegetables has benefitted her because she’s been able to raise money to pay for her children’s school fees. Another farmer, Violet Kedogo, who lives across the continent in Vihiga County in Kenya, said she is “passionate about growing delicious and nutritious local vegetables.”

“This is what I have done since I got married,” Kedogo said. “People like [the researchers] who pay us a visit and share ideas on how we can do better inspire us, because these vegetables mean everything to my family.”

Photo of vegetable traders in an outdoor market

Women sell indigenous vegetables, including garden eggs and turkey berries, in a local market. Credit: Gloria Essilfie

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