Icacina (Icacina oliviformis)1 is a small, drought-resistant shrub forming dense stands in the West African and Central African savannas. It is remarkable for yielding three fundamentally different types of food: a snack, a staple, and a famine food. In a sense, icacina (pronounced ik-a-SEE-na) is a living grocery store during normal times and an emergency relief-food supplier during hungry times.
Although the plant is essentially unknown to agronomists, horticulturists, or even the technical literature, several million people rely at various times upon its three different products: fruits, seeds, and tuberous roots. The fruits, for instance, are widely enjoyed during the annual harvesting season. Bright red and plum-like, they are sweet and usually consumed fresh. Plants can grow so densely and yield so exuberantly that a family can sometimes collect several hundred kilos of fruits a day even from untended wild stands.
The seeds from the center of the fruits are also edible. They, too, are often plentiful. Dried, they turn rock hard, but then can be stored with negligible loss. In a test in a mouse-infested storeroom, for example, seeds remained untouched during several weeks. This is an important attribute because icacina grows where people lose a lot of food to rodents and insects. However, the seeds contain bitter substances and cannot be eaten directly. They are soaked several days, boiled in new water, dried, dehusked, and ground. The result—a floury solid with a rich, nutty flavor—takes a lot of work to make but it is greatly appreciated, especially where diets are bland staples such as cassava.
The third edible product is a fleshy, tuberous root. Known widely as “false yam,” it resembles turnip or beet but can grow to giant size, sometimes weighing more than 60 kg. The usable portion is about 80 percent starch and a crucial resource during famines. People leave them underground until absolutely needed. The tubers are then sliced and soaked in clean water for several days to soften the flesh and leach out bitter compounds. They are then dried in the sun, pulverized, and sieved. What results is a white, grayish, or creamy-yellow flour. Drying the damp flour in a pot over a fire produces clear, hard “rocks” of what is probably almost pure starch.