reliance on other people’s plants. More correctly, it is tipping against the use of, and appreciation for, the traditional vegetables that have fed Africans for tens of thousands of years. While science makes the top resources better, the lesser ones fall farther behind, shunting the vast majority of the cuisine into anonymity, if not extinction. This means most of Africa’s own edibles have yet to receive due attention, let alone a chance to develop to their potential under the power and promise inherent in modern capabilities.
The global homogenization of lifestyles is not fully to blame for squeezing out traditional vegetables, for modern connections and wealth have also led to an explosion in the availability of novel foods in every developed market. Rather, to a considerable extent this neglect seems to be an unintended consequence of agricultural successes in research-rich regions. And not unnaturally, Americans, Europeans, Asians, and others see Africa’s future in the vegetables they themselves depend upon. Thus soybean and the rest garner the research spotlight, rise to ever-greater levels of food and cash generation, and seem thereby to justify even more research support.
Something of this scientific spiral can be deduced from the amount of research now dedicated to soybean. By comparison, Africa’s yam and okra can hardly be said to get any support at all; even cowpea, probably the best-funded of all African vegetables, falls far short of a soybean standard. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the continent’s top three traditional vegetable resources basically languish while their foreign counterparts seize ever more momentum within the lands to which cowpea, yam, and okra have contributed with distinction for millennia. And beyond those three “visible” African vegetables lies a huge array of “invisibles,” whose names remain unknown in the world’s leading vegetable research institutions and which as a consequence get left without support. An irony that demonstrates the potential for such “lost” African crops is that soybean itself was little-known outside Asia a century ago, yet within a lifetime it has become a crop of global heft.
Emphatically, to the extent soybean can benefit Africa, research support is a very good thing. Competition is as healthy in crops as it is in commerce, and there will always be losers. However, to feed a continent as vast and diverse as this requires more and better adapted food crops. That in turn points to the age-old vegetables, feeding people long before Africans discovered Asia, Europe, and America; these “lost crops” should be included among Africa’s future options.
When compared with the ancient stock of modern crops, these traditional African food crops remaining outside the fold of science have not been rejected because of any inherent inferiority. It is time to open minds to the power and promise of this indigenous edible wealth. It is not that the ancestors’ vegetables should be placed in the forefront of efforts to feed Africa, but they deserve to be pulled out of anonymity and given a fair