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May 29, 2009

Local African fruits valuable during food shortages

by Cole Mallard

In African agriculture, many crops are considered “lost” to modern research, meaning they’ve not been studied and developed to their fullest potential. Experts say the crops could reduce malnutrition and hunger while boosting food security by providing inexpensive food. Among them are fruits like the tamarind, baobab tree or the desert date.

“Fruits are a real key," says African agriculturist Noel Vietmeyer. He says lost fruits, as well as Africa’s other lost crops, provide excellent nutrition and their use should be expanded.

"It’s incredible to think that Africa is considered the continent of malnutrition and yet there are all these fruits around between South Africa and Senegal and they literally don’t get any attention from the scientists. They don’t get attention from the foreign scientists because we don’t know them, we’re not aware of their potential and we tend to try to introduce our kind of fruits,” he says.

He also says even local scientists may not be familiar with the fruits because they use textbooks and research papers written in the West.

Vietmeyer is enthusiastic about the tamarind. It’s often associated with India, but not often used in Africa. "It’s an African native, rich in calcium and exported as a popular ingredient in sauces," he says.

Another important but overlooked crop is the baobab. Its fruit can be as big as a melon with packets of sticky pulp inside. With sunshine, it dries into a powder which is soluble in water. It can be dissolved in water as a drink or made into a flour with a gingerbread flavor.

A third fruit Vietmeyer favors is the desert date, which he says is exceptional in its ability to thrive in very arid conditions.

“It’s not the palm date, it’s not the regular date, it’s a thorny shrub, but it’s so drought tolerant it can grow right in the heart of the Sahara."

The desert date has sugary fruits, and seeds that contain a vegetable oil for food and for cooking. From the boiled seeds, some people make a paste, like peanut butter.

Unlike the tamarind and the baobab, Vietmeyer says the desert date is not a good crop for Sub-Saharan Africa, although it’s a life saving fruit where it is grown.

The three foods are among over scores of fruits found in a series of books Vietmeyer published through The US National Research Council. The Lost Crops of Africa are available at


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