How forgotten foods can help address key African AgriFood sustainability challenges

Innovate UK AgriFood Africa Connect encouraged UK-Africa collaborations that put a spotlight on underutilised and undervalued African crops, like amaranth and fonio, which have untapped nutritional benefits and commercial opportunities. Discover the pioneering and innovative projects that have explored, developed and re-evaluated these ‘forgotten foods’ to help address key AgriFood sustainability challenges.

Posted on: 20/02/2024

The need

There are more than 50,000 edible plant species, yet just 15 crops provide 90% of the world’s food. The top three – rice, maize and wheat – are dietary staples for over 4,000 million people (FAO).

Modern agriculture’s reliance on a handful of monoculture crops poses a potential risk to our ability to respond to the increasing environmental challenges linked to climate change. There is an urgent need for food systems that are low input, highly nutritious and climate resilient. This significant challenge may require a move away from commodity grains to focus on the reintroduction of traditional alternatives, commonly described as ‘forgotten foods’ that aren’t usually traded internationally and have received far less research and development attention.

The solutions

Within the Innovate UK AgriFood Africa Connect programme, eight Innovation Awards have focused on delivering commercial opportunities for orphan cereals to support the empowerment of rural communities through the development of products that positively impact social, environmental and economic value.

  • Semi-commercial smallholder evaluation of farmer-selected amaranth lines for yield, processing quality and nutritional content   

    An underutilised gluten-free grain, amaranth has the potential to boost food security in rural African communities as a traditional crop with many beneficial nutritional properties (high in protein, minerals and vitamins).

    Through participatory trials using three amaranth varieties selected by local smallholder farmers, project leads, Katherine Denby from the University of York, and Michael Bairu, explored the crop’s commercial opportunities based on yield, processing properties and nutritional quality.

    The project had an immediate impact, providing a nutritious fresh crop to sell. By also drying and milling some of the harvest at the Siyazisiza Trust processing centre, the shelf life was extended, facilitating new routes to market.

    During the project, local farmers developed a better understanding of growing and processing methods, which has enabled them to determine production costs for future harvests and processing. This Innovation Award has been a major step towards increasing the availability of a multifunctional, sustainable forgotten food and has opened opportunities to access new markets for dried amaranth powder.

    Future opportunities:  

    • Establishing a robust supply chain from smallholder farmers.
    • Scaling up production capacity with a focus on the labour required for cutting and harvesting as a key criterion.
  • Fonio: developing new grower and consumer opportunities for a forgotten African heritage grain   

    Tackling the limited availability of affordable, nutritious and climate resilient cereals in Ghana, was a key objective for Louise Manning from the University of Lincoln and Francis Kweku Amagloh from the University for Development Studies.

    Despite its rich cultural heritage and nutrient-rich profile, fonio is considered a neglected and underutilised species. However, being naturally gluten-free, the project leads identified a market opportunity in Ghana that could contribute to increased access to nutrition, income generation, and improved overall health and wellbeing.

    Their Innovation Award adopted a student-centred approach to the development of bread made with fonio (Digitaria exilis), enabling students to co-create solutions with businesses, scientists and bakers. Three student groups with winning bread formulations received start-up funding and opportunities to work with the Business Incubation and Innovation Centre to develop and commercialise their products.

    The project has not only brought innovation and value to the supply chain, enabling students to earn and learn while re-establishing fonio as key food security crop, but also enhanced supply chain and consumer awareness of the health benefits of consuming fonio as a wheat replacement.

    Read more from Ghana News Agency on the project here.

    Future opportunities: 

    • Exploring other new products or crops in this way to support student development and fast-track the development of new innovations.
  • peArL miLlet nUtRient Enhanced fermented porridge (ALLURE)  

    Pearl millet is one of the oldest cultivated crops and ranks as the sixth most important grain in the world. A fast-growing cereal, it is perfectly adapted for growing in the arid, drought-prone regions which make up 89% of Kenya’s land area.

    In common with many other ancient grains, pearl millet is nutrient-rich and gluten free. It makes an excellent food source for babies as it is easily digestible. These attributes were of particular interest to Maria Jose Oruna-Concha from the University of Reading and Kenneth Mbae from Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Kenya.

    Through their research they explored a series of controlled fermentation processes to produce a novel drink that directly addresses the high malnutrition rates among infants in Kenya.

    The project identified the best cultures for fermentation to commercially produce a safe, tasty drink of consistent quality and an extended shelf-life. The final formulation can be kept refrigerated for up to 14 days which greatly improves access to nutrition and efficiency in the supply chain, while reducing wastage.

    By optimising the beneficial gut microbes present in the starter culture, this exciting collaboration has created a unique product that supports human health.

    As fermentation is an inexpensive energy efficient process, the project has also trained local entrepreneurs to produce the drink, creating new jobs and enhancing livelihoods in the region.

    Future opportunities:  

    • Commercialising the new product.
    • Exploring alternative grains to produce similar fermented drinks.

Discover more about our impact

With 86 Innovate UK AgriFood Africa Connect Innovation Awards completed, each project has helped to improve the sustainable management of African AgriFood systems. The commitment from project leads is to create positive change, guided by GCRF AgriFood Africa’s key goals which aim to reduce poverty, increase economic prosperity, and improve wellbeing.

Dive deeper into our ‘Focus on’ series to explore more project impacts on key sectors:

Related programme

AgriFood Africa Connect

AgriFood Africa Connect

Innovate UK AgriFood Africa Connect brought innovative people and organisations across the UK and Africa together to develop solutions for the sustainable management of AgriFood systems in Africa.


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