Over the next three decades, the remarkable yet humble yam, sweetpotato, cassava and other roots are forecast to create $140 billion in additional market value. The yam, sweetpotato, cassava and other roots are expected to create an additional $140 billion in market value over the next three decades. This is compared to $41 billion from rice, maize and millet, and $70 for meat. Banana and plantain will add an additional $50 billion to the balance sheet.
More than 40% of the total food produced on the continent is made up of these hardy, cost-effective and locally adapted crops. As farmers, especially females, are faced with more extreme weather and challenging conditions, their importance will only grow.
The future of climate-smart African food systems is not assured, even though roots, tubers, and bananas are affordable and resilient. It depends on the united, but agile, approach that was demonstrated at the recent Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya.
Root crops are better able to adapt to climate change than other food crops, such as cereals, beans and vegetables. Cassava is an example of a crop that could benefit from climate change. Research suggests an increase in climate suitability up to 17.5%.
Credit: CIP 2023101010However for Africa to reap the benefits of these superfoods and environmental crops, it needs to coordinate efforts to optimize, scale-up and mainstream these robust, valuable crops.
One place to begin would be with more and novel de-risking models of investment into genetic improvement programmes and inclusive governance system. Recent scientific breakthroughs made it possible to create root crops that are more resistant to heat, drought, and salinity.
This progress has been accelerated by genomic-assisted breeders, who are essential for the development of next-generation varieties that are climate-smart as well as more nutritious. Root crops that are more nutritious and hardier would be beneficial to populations both in rural areas, where they can be grown, and in urban areas, which may have a harder time supplying fresh, healthy, perishable produce.
A greater level of scientific cooperation is also needed to develop Africa’s ability to apply agricultural science and research in order to improve the quality of root crops according regional and local differences. The regional partnership for roots, tubers, and bananas is leading the charge, and includes national research programs, CGIAR research centers, and international science partners.
Climate variability in Africa will have a different impact on root crops and other related crops. Some evidence suggests that future climates could impact potato production in Malawi and Tanzania, but favour the potato system in Burundi, Rwanda, and Burundi.
In order to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness, the continent could benefit from more integrated and trans-border breeding programs that combine resources and brainpower while creating the capacity to meet the needs of different contexts.
In addition, it is important that the most recent and best varieties reach the farmers in need through an efficient and accessible system of seed delivery.
In Africa, the adoption of improved varieties is limited to about 40%. This means that most farmers use seeds and planting materials which are not optimised for current conditions. Farmers’ fields are often older than 10 years, preventing them from benefiting from agricultural advances.
It is crucial to find and develop the most effective way to reach farmers through informal channels, government initiatives, non-profits or cooperatives.
The recent Africa Climate Summit showed the power of speaking with one voice when addressing the challenges that face the entire continent. It also acknowledged the nuances at the level of the individual countries when dealing with an urgent situation like the climate emergency.
Roots and tubers, which are local staple crops, can be used to meet Africa’s food needs. With more investment and collaboration they could become multi-purpose solutions. Roots, tubers and bananas are yet to experience the Green Revolution, which transformed global cereal production. The time is now for Africa to secure its food supply by leveraging scientific advances, environmental lessons and regional political leadership.