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Food series: Africa’s domestication of 2000+ foods

During the history of mankind, there was a point when humans began planting and growing their foods, there was a shift from hunting animals and gathering food sources to farming and animal domestication.

This period is referred to as the Neolithic revolution. With the Neolithic revolution came inevitable changes in the social life of humans.

All humans did not simultaneously transit to farming and cultivation of plants at the same time or period; this is as a result of several reasons.

For starters, not every environment favoured farming, the soil quality, types of available plant, amount of rainfall, climate change and social depletion are all factors that might have affected this.

In Africa, as silly as it may seem, some people are of the opinion that Africans remained hunter-gatherers and were ignorant of agriculture until a more “civilized people” taught them how.

This, of course, is false and contrary to glaring evidence available. For example foods like the finger millet, pearl millet, Emmer, yams amongst many others were cultivated more than 3000 years, some even much older.

We take a look at some foods independently domesticated by Africans. They include fruits, grains, vegetables, nuts, tubers and wild plants.

WILD FRUITS

EBONY (Diospyros species): African Ebony is widely known to be one of the most beautiful woods in the world. It is may as well be the smoothest, shiniest and the most beautiful of all the woods. It produces a fruit akin to the persimmon.

Ebony Tree

GINGERBREAD PLUMS (Parinari and kindred genera): They are usually red or yellow with a crunchy texture, they do not have a sour taste like most wild fruits but are rather sweet. Gingerbread plums are found virtually within the whole Sub-Saharan Africa especially the vast stretch of lands between Senegal and Madagascar.

GUMVINES (Landolphia and Saba species): Gumvine fruits also known as rubber fruits are found mainly in West and Central Africa and look like apricots. They have red, yellow or orange tough skin. This tree is very valuable. The flowers are loved for their jasmine scent, its fruits are plentiful and its stems filled with latex which once supplied Europe and the rest of the world with rubber.

TREE GRAPES (Lannea species): About 40 different trees of the genus Lannea are spread throughout Asia and Africa. While its Asian counterparts have all received some form of horticultural attention, the species found in Africa(about 20 species give or take) have remained unchanged.

AIZEN (Mukheit): The Aizen grows in extreme climatic conditions. It has been known to contain, Vitamin A, C and some B vitamins. Aizen also contains calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iron and a little amount of protein.

CHOCOLATE BERRIES (Vitex species): They are mostly found in West Africa. Little is known of their nutritional value due to lack of study, but apparently, they are a good source of Vitamins.

CUSTARD APPLES (Annona species): African custard apples are attractive, sweet and flavourful. Also based on the study of custard apples of other regions it may contain calcium, Phosphorus and some amounts of vitamins B and A.

ICACINA (Icacina species): This fruit has not been studied at all to know its nutritional value. However, people do not doubt its positive nutritional content, especially when you consider it is renowned as a living grocery store. And a popular emergency food during times of famine.

IMBE (Garcinia livingstonii): Imbe can be eaten raw, Its pulp is yellow and watery with a sweet flavour. It is most commonly consumed cooked, most times with porridge or other cereal products. Because of its popularity in diets, it is adjudged to make a good tool for the prevention or reduction of nutritional deficiencies.

Imbe

MEDLARS (Vangueria species): The trees are rugged and resilient. Before the fruit is stored, it is dried. Usually, it is boiled for consumption into a thick liquid. It is popularly known to be used to flavour staple foods like maize porridge and is known to be packed with nutrients.

MONKEY ORANGES (Strychnos species): The nutritional value of this fruit is not well known even though they are a very popular native wild fruit. What is known of them, however, is that they are an excellent source of vitamin C and also contain vitamin B.

STAR APPLES (Chrysophyllum and related genera): African star apples are popular and a good source of vitamin C.

SUGARPLUMS: This fruit can be eaten raw, but mostly it is consumed by pounding with water and then served as drinks. The pulp can be processed into delicious snacks by mixing with flour and other ingredients. It also has a very high vitamin C content.

SWEET DETAR (Detarium Senegalense): This fruit can be found plentifully in Senegal. Its pulp has the highest vitamin C levels. Also, the purple-brown seeds are sweetly scented and edible too. It is crushed to extract oil used for culinary and contains proteins.

VEGETABLES

AMARANTH (Amaranthus species): Also known as Chinese spinach, Joseph’s Coat or Spiny pigweed grows in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa. Its leaf and stem can be eaten raw. But mostly they are consumed boiled and used for different cuisines. Its seed can be ground and made to flour or as a stew thickening flavour. It contains vitamins E and C, iron, protein and calcium.

Amaranth

BAMBARA BEAN (Vigna subterranea): This fruit goes by so many different names like Bambara groundnut, ground bean, Congo goober, Congo groundnut, njuba bean, earth pea, Kaffir pea, stone groundnut, Madagascar groundnut and some other names. Its fruits are two or three-seeded pods. The seeds are round and when dry are very hard. The seed is boiled before consumption.

BAOBAB (Adansonia digitata): This is very well known and is a traditional food in Africa, but little of it is known elsewhere. In Sudan, it is known as Tebaldi. In Mali, its powdered leaf is known as lalo. The baobab fruit is usually between 15 cm to 20 cm long although it can grow up to 25 cm. Its pulp can be eaten fresh or dissolved in milk or water.

CELOSIA (Celosia argentea): This fruit is also known as plum cockscomb or silver cockscomb. It is a herbaceous plant popular for its bright colours. Its leaves and flowers are edible and very popular in West Africa. The leaves go by many names in Nigeria depending on ethnicity it is called Lagos spinach, Sokoyokoto and farar alayyafo by the urban dwellers, the Yoruba and Hausas respectively.

COWPEA (Vigna unguiculata): This goes by so many names, asparagus bean, black eye pea, catjang, Chinese long pea, cream pea, etc. This is easily one of the most popular grain legumes in Africa. Its seeds are highly valuable human food. It is native to central Africa but very widespread throughout the tropics. Cowpea contains a high amount of protein.

DIKA (Irvingia species): Dika is found mostly in West African countries of Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and the Congos. The seeds when dried can be stored for a long time. The dika nuts can be ground into a smooth paste that can be used in cooking. It constitutes the essence of the popular ogbono soup in southern Nigeria. The oil is a yellowish liquid that can be used in soap making, can be cooked and consumed or used for pharmaceutical purposes. Its wood is a hard and heavy timber that is very suitable for building.

Dika Plant with Fruits, Inset is the dried nuts

EGGPLANT (Solanum aethiopicum): Also known as Bitter tomato, Makati etiope or aubergine Africaine is a fruiting plant found in the tropical areas of Africa. Its leaves and fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. The taste ranges from sweet to a downright very bitter taste. The fruit is bitter as a result of its saponin content.

The Igbo people of Nigeria use it as a substitute for kola nut in rituals and events.

EGUSI (Citrullus lanatus): Most botanists sometimes mistake the Egusi plant for the watermelon because it looks just like a small round watermelon. It is grown for its seeds that look like large white melon seeds. They are a major source of food in West Africa where soups are integral to life. In these regions, they are a major soup ingredient and easily the daily meal for most of its population. It can also be roasted with peanuts and other ingredients and ground into an oily paste that is used to eat kola nuts.

ENSET (Ensete ventricosum): This is perhaps on the biggest vegetables. It looks similar to a banana tree. Of all the plants, none comes close to the Enset in usefulness and value. The plant is so valuable that an enset farm less than 10 m by 10 m can feed a family of five forever. Practically everything about this plant is very valuable from the roots to the leaves. The lower trunk contains starchy pith that is edible. Its roots produce potato-like fruits that are filled with carbohydrate. Unfortunately, this plant is barely known to even science.

LABLAB (Lablab purpureus): This plant because of its popularity in Asia is often wrongfully thought to be of Asian origin. It originated in tropical Africa; this is reaffirmed when you consider that Africa is the centre of diversity of the genus lablab. They are a good source of protein.

LOCUST BEAN (Parkia biglobosa): This is a multi-purpose legume tree found in tropical African countries. In Sudan it is called dours, it is called narghi, ogiri okpei by the Fulani and Igbo people of Nigeria respectively. It can grow to about 20 cm – 30 cm high. Its seeds, fruit and leaves are used in the preparation of many foods and drinks and can also be used as livestock feeds.

LONG BEAN (Vigna unguiculata): This is another popular vegetable in Asia even though it originated from Africa. Valued by farmers for its productivity, chefs and professionals for its appearance and consumers for its flavour and crispy yet tender texture. Its pods range from green to a pale green colour and are sweet and succulent. Long beans do very well in hot and humid climates. As early as 21 days its leaves are ready to be harvested while the pods take about sixty days to mature.

MARAMA (Tylosema esculentum): The plant is of southern Africa origin. Its seed rivals the likes of soya bean and peanuts in terms of nutritional value. Its tuber is high in protein more nutritious than potato, yam or even sugar beet. Also, very high-quality vegetable oil can be extracted from the Marama plant. This plant can thrive under the harshest of climates and poor quality soil. Despite the enormous value of this plant, it seems strange that it still has not been introduced into commercialized cultivation.

MORINGA (Moringa oleifera): Only a few Europeans might have heard of this plant, but it is easily one of the planet’s most valuable plant. One can even say it is one of the fastest growing valuable trees. It can be called a supermarket with roots. Apart from its uncountable health benefits derived by consumption, it provides the raw materials for so many products. Products like wood, skin treatment formulas, lubricating oil, liquid fuel to mention but a few. It can even be used to purify water. Every part of the tree from the roots to the seeds in its pods is very useful and valuable. However, the most sought after part is its young green pods. Even the living tree itself makes for wonderful shade and provides shelter from natures elements.

NATIVE POTATOES (Solenostemon rotundifolius and Plectranthus esculentus): These plants are grown solely for their tubers. Despite its name they are not potatoes neither are they related to yam or cassava. They are of the mint family, they are the only mint crop that produces food for human consumption below ground. They are believed to have originated from the warmer eastern South Africa spread northwards to Ethiopia and then westwards to as far as Senegal. These potatoes are generally smaller than the modern commercial potato; the tubers of the S. rotundifolius are oval shaped and small while that of the P. esculentus are longer and thinner and they extend like fingers from the bunch at the base of the plant.

Native Potatoes

OKRA (Abelmoschus esculentus): The okra plant can grow anywhere that is tropical and has a warm temperate climate. This plant is well known to many nations. Although a well known African vegetable it can be found in many cuisines all around the world from New Orleans in the USA to French cuisines to even Japanese dishes. Okra is more of a diet food than just a staple food source. It is very low in calories, has practically no fat and also very nutritional.

SHEA (Vitellaria paradoxa): Shea or shea butter is also known as karite-nut is native to the Sahel region of West Africa and also an important source of edible oil. Shea butter is obtained from the seeds, and it also has extensive applications in the cosmetic industry and pharmaceuticals. Over the years its popularity outside of Africa has continued to increase significantly regarding its value as a cash crop. Its wood is termite resistant and is therefore highly sought after.

YAM BEAN (Sphenostylis stenocarpa): The African Yam bean also called yam pea is a perennial climbing bush with trifoliate leaves that grows up to three meters high. It is cultivated because of its edible tubers which often can be mistaken for elongated sweet potatoes. And also its seeds which are housed in long hard pods. The yam bean is native to West and Central Africa but thrives in any tropical region there is loose sandy and loamy soils with good organic content.

CULTIVATED FRUITS

BALANITES (Balanites aegyptiaca): Also known as the desert date is a spiny shrub tree. It can grow up to 10 meters tall and grows in the dry land areas of Africa. It can also be found in South Asia. The medicinal value of this crop is second to none. It has long been used in the treatment and prevention of a huge number of diseases. It has been scientifically proven that Balanite possesses anticancer, diuretic, antioxidant, wound-healing, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, hypocholesterolemic, antinociceptive, cardioprotective, analgesic, anthelmintic, antivenin, antiviral, anticancer, antidiabetic, hepatoprotective and mosquito larvicidal properties.

BAOBAB (Adansonia digitata): Baobab is also known as dead rat tree, monkey bread tree or cream of tartar tree. This is the only specie out of the eight species of baobab that is native to Africa. It is a massive tree of about 20 to 30 meters high and can live for centuries. Its trunk is swollen, often hollow and can be as wide as 3 to 7 meters in diameter.

The baobab is mainly a food source. Everything about the tree is edible from its roots to the seeds of the fruits. Even its flowers are edible. Its fruit is known as monkey bread.

BUTTER FRUIT (Dacryodes edulis): Also called African plum, bush pear, bush plum or bush butter tree is found only in gallery forests and swampy grounds. It is a shade loving specie in the non-flooded zones of humid tropical regions of Africa. The butter fruit is evergreen and gets to grow up to 18 to 40 meters in height. Its fruit an ellipsoidal drupe can be consumed fresh. It can also be cooked or roasted. It possesses some medicinal properties and has long been used in traditional medicine to treat a wide range of problems like fever, wounds, skin ailments, dysentery and even ear problems.

CARISSA (Carissa species): The carissa is an African specie of shrubs and small trees, although it can also be found in Asia and Australia. Depending on the specie they can either grow as trees or shrubs up to a height of 10 or 2 meters respectively. They are notable for their sharp thorns. Again depending on the specie, the thorn can be forked, branched or simple. Its fruit varies also depending on species but is mostly oval shaped. Some turn red when ripe others turn a glossy purple-black colour. The fruit can be poisonous when still green and not yet ripe. The recognised species are Carissa bispinosa, Carissa boiviniana, Carissa carandas, Carissa haematocarpa, Carissa macrocarpa, Carissa pichoniana, Carissa spinarum, Carissa tetramera and Carissa opaca Stapf ex Haines.

HORNED MELON (Cucumis metuliferus): The horned melon is an annual climbing herb, its stem can grow up to 3 meters and radiates from a woody rootstock. Its fruit is ellipsoid-cylindrical sought of triangular shaped, and when ripe they are yellow or orange-red coloured. They naturally grow in tropical Africa at the south of the Sahara, in shallow or deep, well-drained sand mostly the alluvial soil of river banks. Because of the sharp spines of its fruits, they need to be handled carefully. The fruits can be bitter or non-bitter. While the bitter fruit might be poisonous, the non-bitter can be eaten raw. It also has some medicinal properties.

KEI APPLE (Dovyalis caffra): This is a shrub or a small tree that grows up to a height of 6 meters and has many sharp spines. Although when not trimmed they are often spineless. The kei apple is native to southwest Africa. It does well in any soil that does not have a high water table and is very drought resistant. The fruit can be consumed raw and fresh although most people consider it too acidic. It is best consumed cut in half, seeded and peeled, sprinkled with sugar and then served as fruit salads or as deserts after a few hours. The fruit contains amino acids and vitamin C

MARULA (Sclerocarya birrea): This is a popular African wild tree. Its leaves, stem, root and barks are used as food as well as for traditional medicines. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and contains a hard brown seed which is rich in oil and protein.

MELON (Cucumis melo): This is among the popular African food that is popular all around the world. It is a climbing herbaceous specie. Its seeds carried out of Africa forms the majority of present-day produce of melons. It has been advanced upon by many societies especially Asia. However, the richness of its diversity remains largely untapped and is spread all across the African continent.

TAMARIND (Tamarindus indica): Many people are not aware that this plant originated from West Africa. It is native to the savannahs of East Africa and Madagascar. The capital of Senegal is actually named after the Tamarind which in Senegal’s local Wolof language is called Dakar. It grows slowly but when fully grown can attain a height of up to 30 meters and can live for more than two centuries. It can yield about 150kg of pods annually although it can be as high as 300kg. The grey-brown pods contain sweet, sour pulps.

WATERMELON (Citrullus lanatus): This fruit does not need any introduction. However, most people do not know that watermelon indeed came from Africa. Its ancestors are scattered abundantly across Africa’s semi-arid hinterlands. With diverse colours, shapes, sizes and flavours. The genes from these African wild types of watermelon holds the key to a watermelon rebirth. They possess the genetic means of creating new varieties.

CULTIVATED GRAINS

AFRICAN RICE: many people associate rice with Asia. Although that’s true, Africa also originated rice. Africa’s different specie of rice has been cultivated for at least 1,500 years in West Africa, and Africans have since ancient times been just as rice-oriented as their Asian counterparts, but somehow African rice has remained unpopular to the rest of the world.

FINGER MILLET: Its scientific name is Eleusine Coracana. It is one of the popular grains known the world over after, rice, wheat, sorghum and maize. Popularly known as Riga in Asia. Many people, particularly from India, might not know that finger millet originated from East Africa and found its way to India around 2000 BCE. It is widely grown across Eastern and southern African countries and some parts of southern Asia mainly India and Nepal.

FONIO (Acha): This might as well be the oldest known African cereal. It has been cultivated across the dry savannas of West Africa for thousands of years, and at one time it was their major food source. This food is not well known even within West Africa despite its ancient heritage. Compared to other similar foods like sorghum, maize or pearl millet it only receives a tiny fraction of the attention accorded these foods. Perhaps a reason for the neglect is that the food is not understood by scientists and other decision makers. Europeans, for instance, refer to it as hungry rice which is a misleading term.

PEARL MILLET (Pennisetum glaucum): Pearl millet is the world’s sixth most important cereal. It Descended from a wild grass of West Africa over 4,000 years ago. Its present-day global production stands at about 10 million tons or more.

Despite these numbers, its untapped potential is still very great. It is often ignored and lags behind its other grain counterparts in genetic development.

Pearl Millet

Pearl Millet Subsistence Types: In the harshest of the world’s farming areas, pearl millet is the staple food. These areas spanning the arid and semiarid regions from Senegal to Somalia produce about 40% of the worlds pearl millet grain. The pearl millets which are produced in Africa under these harsh conditions are oriented more toward survival purposes than for high yields and constitute the subsistence types.

Pearl Millet Commercial Types: Pearl millet does well and sustains life under the harshest of farming conditions. Because of these properties, some think that pearl millet is not a crop for rich farmlands pointing out its low yield, unresponsiveness to fertilizers and low harvest index. This may not be necessarily so; the crops ability has led to investigations and examinations leading to high breeds which counter these traits. Some mature extremely fast and can even produce 2 to 3 generations in a year. These high breeds mostly constitute the commercial type of pearl millet.

SORGHUM: most people might find it surprising but given the potential of this grain, it receives only a fraction of the attention it deserves and produces far less of what it is capable of producing. This crop is a physiological marvel as it possesses the ability to grow in both temperate and tropical zones. Also, it is one of the fastest maturing food plants.

Subsistence Types of Sorghum: Sorghum is Africa’s most important cereal grain alongside pearl millet and maize. Because of its ability to do very well in harsh conditions, it is also grown for subsistence. The sorghum grown by the subsistence farmers in these harsh conditions comprises the subsistence type. Farmers over the course of thousands of years have selected varieties that match their local environments and preferences. Altogether subsistence sorghum varies greatly and constitutes so many different types.

Commercial Types of Sorghum: In Africa, sorghum is grown mostly for subsistence. However outside of Africa, its production is rising, and most countries grow sorghum for commercialization. Scientists are researching and developing the African sorghum to create genetically advanced ones which make for better crops and higher yields.

Specialty Types of Sorghum: The genetic diversity of sorghum is vast. Some species until recently was not even considered as a specie of sorghum. That notwithstanding they can all be easily crossed with one another. This leads to many special species of the crop all with its amazing qualities. Some can yield fertilizer, fibre, fuel, sugar even raw materials for factories. Some examples of these specialty types of sorghum are Popping sorghum, Vegetable sorghum, vitamin A sorghum, tannin-free sorghum, bird-resistant sorghum, quick-cooking sorghum, aromatic sorghum, quality protein sorghum, sorghos, ricelike sorghums, transplant sorghums, free-threshing sorghum, Chinese sorghums, cold-tolerant sorghum, heat-shock sorghum, tropical sorghum, wild sorghum and wide crosses.

Fuel and Utility Types of Sorghum: Yes there are some species of sorghum grown for fuel. Not just fuel but these species are grown for utilitarian purposes as well. Fuel is just as essential as food in modern society, and sorghum is grown to provide different alternative sources of energy. Some species of sorghum make for a good source of wood. Liquid fuels like ethanol are obtained from certain sorghum species. Its utilitarian tasks involve being grown for soil reclamation; certain species are grown to help neutralize salty soil. Even on areas prone to wind erosion sorghum is grown to prevent such. It can be used for weed control, and it has been proven to be a weed killer. It can be used as crop support, especially for climbing vines. The crop is also a rich source of many industrial raw materials for products such as roof thatches, sleeping mats, baskets, strings of musical instruments, brooms, dyes, resins.

Sorghum

You can read more about Sorghum here.

TEF: There is no other country in the world that demonstrates the significance of tef than Ethiopia. Tef makes a quarter of its yearly combined cereal production. A slightly sour bread called injera is what a majority of the tef is used to produce. This grain is so popular in Ethiopia that it is a mystery how it is rarely found in other areas. The grain comes in different colours ranging from a milky white to almost black. Read the story of Tef, a tiny grain with massive health benefits.

GUINEA MILLET (brachiaria deflexa): This might as well be the world’s most obscure cereal crop. Grown only by farmers in the remote northwestern Fouta Djallon plateau of Guinea, rarely anything has been done to advance or improve the crop. Its seed is soft and can be ground into flour used for baking. It is worthy of mentioning that although this plant is domesticated and grown in Guinea only., Its wild form can be found spread throughout the Sahel and coastal savannahs of Africa; from Senegal to the horns of Africa and from Ivory Coast to Cameroon respectively.

EMMER (Triticum dicoccum): This is one of the first cereals to be ever domesticated. It was a major cereal for thousands of years in North Africa and the Middle East until people switched to durum wheat. As far back as 5,000 years ago, this cereal had already been domesticated in Ethiopia, and up till this day constitutes about 7% of the country’s total wheat production known locally as Aja.

IRREGULAR BARLEY (Hordeum irregulare): In the USA barley is the fourth most important grain crop and also one of the most ancient cultivated grains. The Hordeum irregulare is a specie of Barley. It is irregular barley as the name suggests, but it has tough rachis. Its fertile flower and seeds are contained in the central spikelets. The flowers are lateral and are sometimes reduced to a stem piece.

ETHIOPIAN OATS (Avena abyssinica): This oat is widely believed to be indigenous to Ethiopia. The plant itself is an annual growing grass; it can grow up to 1.5 meters in length. The plant is grown majorly because of its edible seeds. The seed can be cooked or roasted to make for a tasty snack. But it is popularly ground into flour and serve purposes similar to cereals.

WILD GRAINS

DESERT PANIC (Panicum laetum): This is one of a group of grasses occurring in the Sahel. It is believed to have been distributed from Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia and continues eastwards to Eritrea through the southern Sahel and Savannah. It is often collected from the wild for consumption, particularly during famines. In the places where it is found, it is a delicacy. Its grain is crushed and used to make porridge or cakes. It grows to about 75 cm in height.

ECHINOCHLOA: The echinochloa is a well-known grass specie it comprises of different species such as the Echinochloa stagnina, Echinochloa pyramidalis and the echinochloa colona.

Echinochloa Colona(Jungle Rice)

(Echinochloa colona)Shama millet: This is also known as jungle rice, jungle rice grass or awnless barnyard grass and is widely cultivated in the damp habitats of many tropical and subtropical regions of the world mostly as a forage crop and fodder. It is an annual grass with fibrous and shallow roots. It is about 20 to 60 cm tall. In the Americas and Australia, it is considered an invasive weed.

Echinochloa Pyramidalis: This is commonly known as the antelope grass. It is native to southern tropical African countries and used primarily as fodder although it can be processed to flour and consumed by humans.

Echinochloa stagnina: This is more popularly known as bourgou. This was once the most prevalent of all the grasses of the central delta of the Niger. Much of the lands over which it once held sway is now being used to cultivate rice. The Fulani people of Niger harvested large quantities of bourgou seeds which they consumed for food. The stems are also a good source of sugar. It can also be used to make both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

EGYPTIAN GRASS (Dactyloctenium aegyptium): It is also called the Egyptian crowfoot grass, coast button grass, comb fringe grass or duck grass. Egyptian grass was introduced by accident to the Americas and is said to have spread as a weed [1]. It can comfortably grow and spread throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is a perennial grass and can grow up to 75 cm in height. It’s seeds are ankular and might be white or brown coloured. It is a multi-purpose grass although mainly used s feed for livestock, it is suitable for silage, and its seed can be used to make alcoholic beverages. Its seed heads look like a crow’s foot hence the name.

WILD TEF (Eragrostis pilosa): This is the wild ancestor of teff, which is a staple cereal in some regions. It is an annual grass that can grow up to 75 cm in height. Although native to Africa, it can be found in a variety of habitats, perhaps the reason why it easily thrives in locations such as roadsides or crop fields. It is mostly used as forage and fodder, although it can also be consumed by humans.

WILD RICE (Oryza breviligulata): This is an annual crop commonly found in the seasonally flooded areas of Africa from Mauritania to Tanzania and from Sudan to Botswana. It is the wild ancestor of the African rice. Its grain in order to be effectively collected must be collected by hand because it so easily falls off. Sometimes it is regarded as weed where a particular specie of rice is cultivated.

KRAM-KRAM (Cenchrus biflorus): This is a primary wild cereal along the fringes of the Sahara. It is an annual grass and the dominant cereal of the Sahel and its borders between the Sahara. Presently it is no more accorded much attention and is only harvested in times of famine. Its grains are milled into flour and used to make porridge. It is a very nutritious cereal.

TRIBULUS TERRESTRIS: This is an annual crop that is widely distributed around the world. It is highly adaptable and can survive in the harshest and driest of regions were other plants cannot survive. It is regarded as an invasive species in North America. It is native to the warm and temperate climes throughout Africa and can thrive even in poor soil. Its fruit can easily fall apart into five nutlets that resemble bull or goat heads, its horns are very sharp and can cause injury when stepped on with bare feet. The nutlets also house the seeds which are arranged stacked on each other and separated by a hard membrane. The fruit is used for medicinal purposes as well as dietary supplements.

BRACHIARIA BRIZANTHA (bread grass, long-seed millet): The brachiaria or signal grass is native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa. It is of the grass family and comprises over 100 different species. It is one of the most important forage grass for pastures, arguably the single most important[2], and as such is cultivated mostly for forage. The brizantha specie is a perennial grass and is native to tropical Sub-Saharan Africa. It can grow up to 120cm in height.

PANICUM: Panicum is of many species like panicum turgidum, panicum laetum, panicum anabaptistum, and panicum stagninum. It is a perennial plant that originated from northern and central Africa.

The turgidum species was once abundant across the Sahara and desert lands of Africa spreading to as far east as Pakistan. It is widespread in places like Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Egypt and Somalia. The seeds have a striking resemblance with that of the proso millet. It is very highly drought tolerant and can survive in harsh conditions where only a few crops can.

The stagninum specie can be used to make sweet beverages.

Panicum

The subalbidum specie can be found in Senegal, Mali, Chad. It is a perennial herb that can grow up to 2 meters in height. During its growth it first spreads on the ground and then gets erect, reaching a height of about 2 meters.

ROTTBOELLIA: Rottboellia cochinchinensis is also known as itch grass, guinea fowl grass or kelly grass. It is an annual grass weed that can grow up to 3 m in height. It does very well in moist, permeable heavy-textured soils. It is actually an invasive species and spreads by its seeds. A single rottboellia plant can produce over 3,000 seeds.

UROCHLOA: This is very similar and often mistaken for the brachiaria family of grass. It comprises of many species.

Urochloa brachyura, Urochloa brizantha, Urochloa echinolaenoides, Urochloa fusca, Urochloa glumaris, Urochloa longifolia, Urochloa mosambicensis, Urochloa oligotricha, Urochloa olivacea, Urochloa panicoides, Urochloa pauciflora, Urochloa platyrrhachis, Urochloa rudis, Urochloa sclerochlaena, Urochloa setigera, Urochloa trichopodioides, Urochloa trichopus, Urochloa venosa.

SPOROBOLUS FIMBRIATUS (matolo-a-maholo): This plant is also known as dropseed grass. It is found in the open woodland or grasslands and sometimes on rocky hillsides. It is a fast-growing perennial plant. The seeds are eaten and can be ground to make porridge. African countries where it can be found include Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

STENOTAPHRUM DIMIDIATUM (dogtooth grass): This is a stoloniferous perennial. Native to West Africa it is often planted as turf. It can also perform the function of soil conservation ground cover under trees or near the sea where salt spray can damage other grasses. It is mostly consumed by livestock.

NUTS

KOLA NUT: The kola nut is obtained from the kola tree. It originated from the tropical rainforests of Africa. The tree can grow to as much as 20 meters high and its nuts contain caffeine. The kola nut is not only chewed in many West African cultures but is also of a high cultural significance, especially during social gatherings. They are popularly used as religious objects. Countries such as Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal and Liberia attach great importance to kola nuts. Outside of Africa, the taste of the Kola nut was exploited to create Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola. Please see the Kola nut article for the untold Africa story of Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola.

GROUNDNUT: Groundnut is actually a term used to describe seeds of the faboideae subfamily of some legumes which ripen underground. When most people say groundnut, they might be actually referring to peanuts. Groundnut and peanut are terms that are often used interchangeably. Peanut also known as goober or monkey nut is a legume crop that is grown for its seeds. It is a grain legume as well as an oil crop, the later due to its very high oil content. In West Africa, its popularity is so widespread that it has substantially replaced the Bambara groundnut. Peanut is a herbaceous annual plant that can grow up to 50 cm in height. They grow best in a light sandy loamy soil.

TUBER

YAM: yams are starchy tubers that are produced by annual and perennial vines. They originated from Africa and are now popularly grown all across the world in suitable environments. They consist of hundreds of species, but among them, the white Guinea yam (Dioscorea rotundata) is the dominant and most important specie. West Africa is the home of yams, and just like the kola nut, it is not only consumed but also of high cultural importance. Apart from the Guinea yam, other popular species are the yellow yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) and the water yam (Dioscorea alata).

It is a staple food and also a major source of income. And its cultivation dates to as far back as 7,000 years ago in West Africa. You can read more about yams here.

HIGH DIVERSITY CROPS

ARTICHOKES: It is also called green artichoke is a variety of thistle that is edible. It is indigenous to North Africa, Egypt is among the world’s largest producers of artichoke. The artichoke is consumed before its flowers bloom. The stem is also edible although a huge part of it is cut off to avoid the thorns. The plant is eaten cooked or roasted. The artichoke is among vegetables with the highest antioxidant properties.

CLOVER: Clover also commonly called trefoil are small annual, biennial or perennial herbaceous leguminous plants. They comprise well over 300 species. Many of the species are planted as fodder plants. White clover and red clover are the most widely cultivated clover. Clover is characterised by their trifoliolate leaves. The plant serves a range of functions like pasture for livestock, replenishing of soil nutrients especially nitrogen, hay, silage, control of erosions and can be even used as a nectar source for honeybees.

LEEKS: Leek is a vegetable. Although this plant has expanded and established itself to become of cultural significance to some European countries, it is indigenous to Africa. There are records of dried specimens obtained from archaeological sites in Egypt as well as ancient wall carvings and drawings of the plant; these indicate that leek was a popular Egyptian diet from at least the second millennium BCE. Its bundle of leaf sheaths is the edible part of the plant which often is mistaken for the stems.

LETTUCE (Lactuca sativa): Lettuce might be grown for its stem and seeds, but primarily it is cultivated for its succulent leaves. It is an annual plant popular for its use as a salad ingredient. Lettuce was first cultivated in ancient Egypt, and over the years it has been developed into many varieties mostly by Europeans. Its seed contains oils; its leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.

DATES (Phoenix dactylifera): Date palm or date is of the palm family. It is cultivated for its fruits which are edible and sweet. It originated in ancient Egypt[3]. It is widely cultivated across North Africa and the Horn of Africa, as well as other parts of the world like the Middle East, South Asia and many other tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Date consists of about 19 species and is a major source of commercial production.

CABBAGES: Cabbage is a leafy biennial plant grown for its dense leaf-heads. It can be of numerous colours like green, white, pale green, red or purple. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable and can grow quite large; the largest recorded cabbage weighed 62.71 kg. However, an average cabbage head weighs from between 0.5 to 4 kg. It is a popular plant consumed worldwide in a variety of ways.

CARROTS (Daucus carota): This needs no introduction; it is popular all across the globe. This biennial root vegetable although usually orange in colour, also can be of purple, black, red and white varieties too. The root which is the most popular part of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked, but the stem and leaves can also be eaten as well.

GRAPES: The grapefruit was cultivated between 6,000 to 8,000 years ago[4]Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics also records its cultivation. They grow in clusters usually between 15 to 300 and occur in a variety of colours such as yellow, dark blue, green, orange, crimson, pink and black.

They generally occur in clusters and is used to make a wide range of consumables like wine, jam, extracts, jelly, raisins, vinegar and even grapeseed oil. It is of cultural and religious significance to some European countries.

MUSTARD SEED: Its scientific name is Brassica napus is also commonly referred to as rape, rapeseed or oilseed rape is presently widely cultivated all over the world. After soya bean oil and palm oil, the mustard seed comes third as the leading source of vegetable oil in the world and the second leading source of protein meal after soya bean. It can be used as animal feed, biofuel and a rich source of vegetable oil.

SUGAR BEET: Sugar beet is mostly grown commercially. It has a white fleshy root that contains a high level of sucrose. Its root is about 75% water and 20% sugar, although the sugar content can vary. Unlike sugarcanes which grow in tropical and subtropical zones, sugar beets grow exclusively in temperate zones.

HYACINTH BEAN: Its scientific name is lablab purpureus. It is commonly called hyacinth bean, lablab bean, Egyptian kidney bean or Australian pea. Generally, they are short-lived perennial vines, but extensive breeding has led it to become variable. The hyacinth bean is a multi-purpose crop. It is grown for different purposes such as forage, medicinal plant, poisonous plant or even for ornamental purposes. The fruit and beans are edible, but they have to be severely boiled with several water changes; otherwise, they are poisonous. The leaves and flowers, however, can be consumed raw.

In this article, we didn’t cover exhaustively all the different kinds of foods Africans developed. The lowest count of the types of food developed by Africa is 2,000 edible crops and foods. Humanity doesn’t know yet the full variety of foods domesticated by Africa because it is among the least researched continents on earth. In some circles, there is a belief that food domesticated in Africa is either inferior, less nutritious or less useful to mankind. History says otherwise. Africa’s contributions add diversity to humanity’s food supply and provide resilience against pests, climate change and world shocks. Consider the contributions of Africa’s agricultural developments to the ingredients of Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Carolina Rice, Coffee and Sorghum.

SOURCES

  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine. Lost Crops Of Africa. The National Academies Press. 1996.

FOOTNOTES

      1. Bogdan, A. V., 1977. Tropical pasture and fodder plants. Longman, 475 pp.
      2. Singh, R. J. (ed.). “Forage Crops”. Genetic Resources, Chromosome Engineering, and Crop Improvement. Florida: CRC Press. p. 209.
      3. Krueger, Robert R. “Date Palm Genetic Resource Conservation, Breeding, Genetics, And Genomics In California” (PDF). The Conference Exchange. Retrieved 2018-03-26
      4. This, Patrice; Lacombe, Thierry; Thomash, Mark R. (2006). “Historical Origins and Genetic Diversity of Wine Grapes” (PDF). Trends in Genetics. 22 (9): 511–519. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2006.07.008. PMID 16872714. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-04. 

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