Underutilised African crops could be key to better food security, nutrition and livelihoods

Diversifying the crops we grow and use globally could help improve food security, nutrition and livelihoods for many around the world and reduce our reliance on a small number of plant species.

Posted on: 02/09/2021

Neglected or underutilised crops often play an important role in providing nutrition to rural or indigenous communities but they have historically received low investment in terms of research, and they aren’t used to their full potential.

At Innovate UK KTN, we have created four case studies that showcase innovative ways businesses are accessing the untapped opportunities these crops offer.

These case studies – on companies producing sorghum, teff, and melon oil – help identify ways to increase the reach and impact of these crops and accelerate responsible innovation.

This case study series is part of AgriFood Africa Connect, which is delivered by Innovate UK KTN. 

Wild watermelons


About AgriFood Africa Connect

AgriFood Africa Connect aims to develop sustainable management of the food production systems in Africa, in a way that reduces poverty, increases economic prosperity and improves well-being in Africa.

AgriFood Africa Connect is part of GCRF AgriFood Africa. GCRF AgriFood Africa is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and delivered by Innovate UK.

If you are working on an innovation around neglected or underutilised crops, or would like to explore doing so, we’d like to hear from you so we can support you and connect you with others. Please take 2 minutes to complete this form.

What are neglected or underutilised crops?

Of 30,000 identified edible plant species, only around 6,000 have been cultivated for human consumption. Globally, many crops play a valuable role in supporting nutrition and livelihoods, but they aren’t grown widely. These crops are often described as “neglected” or “underutilised”, referring to the low investment into research on these crops and their untapped potential.

These crops are often used by indigenous people in subsistence farming, and frequently seeds are passed from hand to hand. Research is needed to optimise agronomy practices, inputs and processing, and to build breeding programmes to develop resilient, nutritious varieties.

Why do neglected or underutilised crops matter?

Tapping into the full potential of neglected or underutilised crops could offer environmental, social, economic and nutritional benefits globally.

Of the 6,000 species cultivated for human consumption, just 30 supply 95% of the world population’s energy. Maize, rice and wheat alone account for almost 60% of global food supply. Our dependence on such a small number of crops to feed an ever growing population is a challenge when considering food security, biodiversity and nutrition.

Most of the UN Sustainable Development Goals rely to some degree on developing healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. Increasing crop diversity and looking beyond our current cropping systems could help meet these goals.

The opportunities and challenges of commercialising neglected or underutilised crops

Commercialising neglected or underutilised crops could open up new global markets and unlock value for communities, as well as introducing novel products to deliver nutritional or other benefits globally. Commercialisation has the potential to impact rural or indigenous livelihoods both positively and negatively. Thoughtful routes to commercialisation for these crops are required and this is discussed in detail in the recent IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) operational framework and “How to Do Notes”.

The complexity of operating within neglected or underutilised value chains often means a range of innovations or approaches are required to solve challenges in the production, harvesting, processing and marketing of these crops.

Gaining a better understanding of opportunities for innovation

AgriFood Africa Connect has developed a series of case studies to explore how different companies approach innovation in the context of neglected and underutilised crops.

These case studies generate evidence and insights for people looking to engage with neglected and underutilised crops in several ways:

  • Identifying opportunities for producers and researchers to collaborate to address challenges in supply chains
  • Demonstrating ways for producers in different geographies to diversify their cropping systems
  • Supporting food companies looking for nutritious novel foods
  • Enabling companies to identify new technologies and connections to support their supply chain challenges
  • Identifying routes to new markets for novel products

Because expanding the diversity of crops we use could have wide-ranging benefits, in addition to producers and those working directly in supply chains, these case studies are of interest for wider stakeholders including research, government, funders and NGOs.

Do you want to explore neglected or underutilised crops? Please complete this form so we can help you fast track your idea.

Related programmes

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.

AgriFood Africa Connect Map

AgriFood Africa Connect Map

The AgriFood Africa Connect Map makes it easier for UK and African organisations to collaborate on projects, provides information on the AgriFood sector across Africa, and helps connect innovators to enable collaboration and address key global challenges.


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