Aizen: The Sahel’s Number One Famine Food

In the Sahel—a semi-arid area along the southern edge of the Sahara desert that stretches from Senegal’s Atlantic coast to the Ethiopian highlands—drought persisted from the late 1960s to the 1990s. The region has experienced repeated bouts of famine since the 1960’s, and once productive croplands have given way to desert. But in the face of adversity, some farming communities across the Sahel have been reviving traditional land management practices to reverse desertification. Among these practices is planting native, food-producing, and drought-resistant trees and shrubs in and around crop fields to improve soil fertility and moisture and reduce erosion.

A girl harvests Aizen in Niger. (Photo credit: Eden Foundation)

Aizen (Boscia senegalensis) is one of the native edible species that has the potential to make conditions more bearable in the Sahel, a region rife with poverty and coping with rapid population growth and increased incidence of drought as a result of climate change. Aizen can handle extreme drought and heat. The shrub naturally occurs in poor, rocky, hardened, and barren soils on slopes, sand dunes, and cracking clay plains. It can withstand intense direct sunlight year-round, offering slight shade relief to surrounding plants—including crops—that otherwise could not bear the exposure. These qualities make it ideal for use in farmer-led re-greening practices to reverse desertification.

A variety of useful products is derived from aizen. These products include fruits, seeds, roots, leaves, flowers, wood, emergency fodder for livestock, pest repellent, and water clarifying coagulants. According to Sudanese professor and famine expert Omar Mohammed Salih Abdelmuti, aizen was the number one famine food in the famine that hit Sudan in 1984. According to Abdelmuti, aizen saved more people’s lives than the food aid that was given out by international organizations.

Aizen produces clusters of yellow cherry-sized berries that have a sweet, soft pulp not unlike jelly. When exposed to the dry air, the pulp becomes thicker and more like caramel. Left to dry long enough and it becomes a brittle, sugary, and tasty snack like a toffee. The fruits are eaten fresh and sometimes boiled. A butter can be made from the boiled down juice extracted from the fruit, which is mixed with milk and millet to make cakes. The aizen shrub fruits at the beginning of the rainy season, a time when food is scarce and crops have just been planted.

Each aizen fruit has one or two seeds, which is more important than the fruit as a food source. The seeds are green and look much like peas, and are often dried and can be stored for times when other foods are less available. They are generally soaked to remove bitterness, dried, and ground into flour. Aizen flour is used to make porridge, substituting for millet, sorghum, or lentils. They can also be roasted and ground to substitute for coffee. The carbohydrate content of aizen seeds is comparable to sorghum and millet, and they have a higher level of protein than the two grains.

Aizen roots are scraped of bark and ground. They are then added to a mix of cereals and boiled into a porridge, helping stretch grain supplies. The roots are very sweet, and they can be thinly sliced and boiled slowly to make a sweet syrup. They roots, like the seeds, can be dried and stored for later use.

Aizen leaves are typically not eaten because they are bitter and have a leathery texture. Even wildlife and livestock consider the leaves unpalatable, and will leave it untouched until other food options have been exhausted. This emergency fodder can be important for getting livestock—a vital source of food security in Sahel’s rural communities—through particularly scarce periods. In some communities, farmers add aizen leaves to grains to protect against pests. It is believed that the leaves repel pests, such as rodents and insects.

The aizen shrub produces flowers that can serve as food for bees. In some areas of the Sahel, few flowering plants can survive. Beekeepers rely on aizen in areas where bee colonies have few other plants to feed on.

Aizen wood is used in tool making and house construction and as backup cooking fuel. The plant contains natural coagulants that are used to clarify murky water. Aizen bark, twigs, leaves, and roots are cut into small pieces and floated on the surface of unclear water in a bucket or tank. This causes clay and other particulates to clump and sink to the bottom, and clear water can be skimmed from the top.

Although inhabitants of the Sahel have long relied on the aizen shrub, little research has been done on the plant. Projects and investment to increase the coverage of aizen in the region, as well as research and breeding to select superior varieties as a domesticated crop, could go a long way to improve food security and support sustainable land management.

What are some edible species that you know of that can withstand harsh conditions? Tell us in the comments!

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read more about other indigenous crops, see: Imbe: Africa’s Queen of Fruits, Ackee: West-African Expatriate, Guar: Food, Fodder, Fertilizer & More, Wild Ethiopian Coffee: Harvesting the Perks of an Indigenous Crop, and Potato, Potahto.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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