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Addressing Africa's nutrition challenges by strengthening indigenous crops

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Addressing Africa's nutrition challenges by strengthening indigenous crops

5 June 2020
The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) is an international effort to improve nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s most important food crops
The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) is an international effort to improve nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s most important food crops

The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) is an international effort to improve nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s most important food crops, thus helping to decrease malnutrition and stunting among the continent’s most vulnerable population, especially rural children. The AOCC aims to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 100 traditional African food crops, which will enable higher nutritional content for society over the decades to come.

Malnutrition and stunting are common challenges that Africa faces, where 31 of the 36 countries with a high hidden hunger index (HHI) - a combination of iron deficiency, zinc deficiency and vitamin deficiency - are from the continent. The 31 countries harbour 91% of the world’s HHI- affected preschool children. The continent is poised to contribute 50% of the world population in 2050, hence interventions that are aimed at addressing nutritional challenges need to be promoted.

Climate change continues to impose agronomic and climatic challenges of the agricultural systems in Africa; especially to those of smallholder farmers. To overcome these constraints, Africa needs to continue to domesticate indigenous germplasm which is known to be diverse and resilient to both biotic and abiotic stress. Unfortunately, most of Africa’s indigenous crops are poorly studied because limited investments have been made to research and development of indigenous crops. They have therefore been dubbed as “orphan, neglected and underutilised crops”.     

The AOCC is contributing to addressing the nutrition challenges the continent faces, by strengthening capacity to increase production and profits of edible crops/trees from the indigenous and naturalised biodiversity on the continent and making data freely available in line with the open access policies and agreements.

The AOCC was endorsed by the Africa Union in 2011 to address the above challenges and potential. It was established to reduce stunting and malnutrition by providing nutritional security through improving locally adapted nutritious, but neglected, under-researched or orphan African food crops. This involved taking a bold step of working on edible crops and trees that had inherent challenges of non-availability of reliable cultivation and production data, nutritional quality data, breeding technologies and data on local and regional markets and value chains, etc. The promise behind the determination of the consortium members was premised on the fact that building a strong R&D base for the African Orphan Crops would offer a great reward of contributing to addressing the problems of malnutritional, productivity and profitability of such crops and trees. Dr. Mayaki, the CEO of AUDA-NEPAD was part of that team that harnessed the idea and saw it through to implementation.


Nutrition security is the top agenda of the AOCC where research on indigenous and naturalised crops and trees is being promoted so that successful genetic improvement can be carried out on them. The goal is to integrate orphan crops into the African food systems because they are rich in vitamins, essential nutrients and other micronutrients. The AOCC has to-date achieved the following:

  • 101 crops/trees have been identified for sequencing
  • Sequencing of 6 crops/tree is near completion
  • Sequence data has been produced for 60 crops
  • 150 lead African scientists have been trained to breed high yield, nutritious and climate-resilient crop varieties for farmers. Of these, 33% are women and 80% have PhDs.
  • Partnerships have been developed involving public, private and academia stakeholders

The AOCC is impacting food production systems from several spheres for Africa and the developing world in general as follows:

  • Orphan crops which have not benefitted from modern scientific and technological advancements are increasingly becoming of importance in contributing to food production systems and they are now being seen as “crops of the future”;
  • The African Plan Breeders Academy is building a cadre of African breeders who are able to apply advanced genetic approaches and share genetic solutions in order to harness the genetic diversity of the continent for addressing the needs of African producers, processors and consumers;
  • Democratisation of DNA sequence information and other genomic data which will be readily available for scientific research. All AOCC data will be publicly available through gene banks, partner websites and other outlets.

Consortium members

The African Orphan Crops Consortium includes:

  • The African Union Development Agency- NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD)
  • Mars, Incorporated
  • LGC (Plant sampling kitsDNA extraction and KASP genotyping chemistry)
  • World Agroforestry Centre 
  • BGI (doing the initial sequencing)
  • Life Technologies Corporation (donor of sequencing equipment)
  • World Wildlife Fund 
  • University of California, Davis
  • iPlant Collaborative (managing the data produced)
  • Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute.
Health Campaign