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

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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.

Next, the appropriate post-harvest technologies – such as storage facilities attuned to the requirements of particular orphan crops – must be in place so that farmers can avoid flooding the market. This ensures that farmers receive sustainable prices, and it shows the benefits of switching to an orphan crop. Farmers are unlikely to start growing a new crop if they’re not assured of their ability to access a market.

The importance of storage is nowhere more evident than in Ethiopia’s 2003 famine. Despite huge crop yields for Ethiopian farmers in 2002, the country was missing an efficient market to absorb those yields. The lack of storage facilities caused the surplus crops to flood the market, driving down prices to the extent that farmers had to curtail production because otherwise their costs would have far exceeded their sales revenues.

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