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How to transform African farming: Return to 'orphan crops'

If sub-Saharan Africa is to benefit from advances in agricultural productivity, investments in the so-called 'orphan crops' – sweet potato, cassava, and millet – will be crucial for strengthening the poorest farmers’ livelihoods and improving nutrition.

By Daniel Bornstein / August 6, 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (front, second from right) and Kenyan politicians after a meeting at the parliament in Nairobi Aug. 4. Op-ed contributor Daniel Bornstein writes: 'I recently visited various smallholder farmers in Kenya. Many say that while decades ago their families grew a diverse array of crops valuable for local nutrition, nowadays they have largely shifted to maize production because of its promising global and local market opportunities.'

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/pool

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Nairobi

Farming in sub-Saharan Africa could be transformed, but not by heeding calls for a new “Green Revolution.”

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The 1960s Green Revolution, which averted famine in India and Latin America through the deployment of high-yield crop varieties, is often hailed as one of the greatest humanitarian achievements of the 20th century.

Yet this effort focused largely on globally traded staples, neglecting locally important crops. The outcome partly explains today’s global malnutrition crisis. The countries reached by the Green Revolution became massive producers of rice, wheat, or maize, but at the expense of the crop diversity necessary for well-rounded diets.

And it is large-scale producers who have benefited from production of those major commodities, while the rural poor have been left behind and become more vulnerable to hunger.

If sub-Saharan Africa is to benefit from advances in agricultural productivity in the 21st century, investments in the so-called “orphan crops” – sweet potato, cassava, and millet, for example – will be crucial for strengthening the poorest farmers’ livelihoods and improving nutrition.

For three months, I recently visited various smallholder farmers in Kenya. Many say that while decades ago their families grew a diverse array of crops valuable for local nutrition, nowadays they have largely shifted to maize production because of its promising global and local market opportunities.

Markets are vastly underdeveloped for crops such as sweet potato and cassava, the farmers told me. Yet these crops’ tremendous value to human nutrition makes it imperative to create local food markets for them. Sub-Saharan Africa has for too long depended on global food markets, leaving the continent vulnerable to high food prices.

The 2008 food crisis was a stark reminder of this danger. When Asian and Latin American countries restricted exports to ensure adequate food supplies for their domestic populations, African countries’ situation was exacerbated. The orphan crops hold an untapped potential to be part of national food-security strategies based on local food markets.

Public and private investments are needed at all points in the agricultural supply chain. It starts with the seed. Both international and country-level research will have to work on improving the productivity of locally-valuable crops, departing from a longstanding focus on major staple crops.

A key step  in this direction is to give farmers a voice in the agricultural research agenda. For example, farmers are represented in the work of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). The farmers have been able to effectively expand researchers’ insights to include orphan crops in their work.

And recently the International Institute for Environment and Development convened a “citizens’ jury” in Mali that brought together farmers to make recommendations on agricultural research. They suggested that researchers focus on the production and storage of traditional seed varieties.

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