Breeding Vegetables with Farmers in Mind

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Danielle (far left) with representatives from AVRDC in Arusha, Tanzania, including Abdou Tenkuaono, AVRDC Regional Director (second from left) (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Danielle (far right) with representatives from AVRDC in Arusha, Tanzania: (from left to right) Olawale Taiwo Adenjii, Dr. Marilyn Belarmino, Jan Helsen, Dr. Mel O. Oluoch, Takemore Chagomoka, Ronia Tanyongana, and Dr. Abdou Tenkouano. (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is the first in a series of blog posts about my visit with the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

As hunger and drought spread across Africa , there’s a huge focus on increasing yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice. And while these crops are important for food security, providing much needed calories, they don’t provide much protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, other important vitamins and micronutrients—or much taste. “None of the staple crops,” says Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center’s Regional Director for Africa, “would be palatable without vegetables.” And vegetables, he says, “are less risk prone” than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods of time. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize often scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize which need a lot of water and fertilizer.

Unfortunately no country in Africa, according to Dr. Tenkouano, has a big focus on vegetable production. But that’s where the Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Center (which is a part of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs.

Despite the focus on staple crops, vegetable production generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises, according to the Center’s website. And unlike staple crops, vegetable production is something that benefits urban and rural farmers alike (See our posts on urban farmers in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya).

In addition, vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient deficiencies among the poor. Often referred to as “hidden hunger,” micronutrient deficiencies—including lack of Vitamin A, iron, and iodine—affect some 1 billion people worldwide. They lead to poor mental and physical development, especially among children, and cause poor performance in work and in school, further crippling communities already facing poverty and other health problems.

But by listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, the Center is helping to alleviate these problems. Watch for more blogs about our visit to the World Vegetable Center and their efforts to raise nutrition and income in Africa.

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