False Yam: A Famine Prevention Trifecta

By Matt Styslinger

False yam (Icacina oliviformis) is a savannah shrub indigenous to West and Central Africa. The wild plant simultaneously produces three types of food: a fruit that is enjoyed as a snack, a seed that is utilized as a staple, and a tuberous root that is eaten as emergency food when other crops have failed and communities are threatened with famine.

The “false yam” shrub produces an edible fruit, seed, and root, and is especially important for famine prevention.(Photo credit: West African plants – A Photo Guide)

The bright red fruits of the false yam shrub are particularly sweet with a plum-like flavor, and a favorite of children. They are 2-3 centimeters in diameter and are covered with short hairs on the outside with a thin white pulp on the inside. They are generally eaten fresh, but are sometimes dried. Not much is known about the nutritional quality of the fruit pulp itself. Each wild shrub yields large numbers of fruits. The fruit ripens at the end of the dry season when other food-producing wild plants have generally run out of produce. This makes it an especially important food store for the hungry who otherwise have very little food options during this time.

Inside each fruit is a single seed. Dried seeds are incredibly hard, which helps protect them from rodents. And they store very well, making them an important back up staple. The seeds are soaked in water and then ground into a flour high in carbohydrates and containing 8 percent protein. The flour has a nutty flavor and can be a substitute for cassava flour.

The false yam plant is best-known, however, for its edible starchy root—where it gets its name. The root contains significant amounts of protein, calcium, and iron, and is generally eaten when yams are in short supply. False yams, which look more like large turnips or beet roots, are sometimes ground into a flour or starch. The root could be cultivated as a commercial starch in areas where crop failures are common. In fact, some rural farmers regularly cultivate the root in Senegal, though it is generally harvested from wild shrubs.

The false yam shrub is drought-resistant and grows in sandy savannah soils in Senegal, The Gambia, northern Ghana, Guinea, and Sudan—where the threat of famine is pervasive.

The common English name for the crop, “false yam,” is unfortunate because it gives the sense to farmers, agricultural policymakers, and investors that it is not a legitimate crop. And in fact, it is generally considered a weed. In Senegal, however, the false yam is sometimes referred to in local languages as barkanas or kouraban. It is called manankaso in The Gambia, takwara in Ghana, and basouna in communities throughout West Africa. Some researchers have begun calling the plant by its genus name, icacina.

Do you know of a wild plant that is eaten as a substitute for more common crops? Let us know in the comments!

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

To read more about 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 Black Plum: Fruit, Timber, and Agroforestry.

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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