The little-known native foods about to change the world

  Last updated May 20, 2019 at 10:29 am

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In Africa and Australia quiet native food revolutions are underway, bringing equality, social justice, nutrient security – and awesome flavours.


native food Nteibe Village Mali farming

Nteibe Village in Mali, Africa, the centre of a welcome revival of traditional food crops, run by women. Credit: Alexei Berteig/Berteig Imaging


A native food revolution is building in West Africa. Hundreds of women in land-locked Mali are harvesting the diverse potential of ancient plants and working with visionary entrepreneur Oumar Barou Togola to create a market for them.


The venture is transforming their lives, and the resilient crops are offering a sustainable and nutritious food source to the world.


There are more than 50,000 known edible plants on Earth, but fewer than 300 species reach the market. The “big three” – corn, wheat and rice – make up a whopping two-thirds of plant-sourced food.


This is unsustainable in the face of pests, climate change, food insecurity and nutrient-poor diets, and Togola’s initiative is part of a global push to put lesser known foods on people’s plates to boost crop diversity, resilience and viability.


A “son of Mali”, Togola is the youngest child of parents who inspired him with their drive to support people more disadvantaged.


His hydrologist father worked with UNICEF, showing communities how to access clean water. His midwife mother dedicated herself to helping women and children, and he was moved by witnessing the challenges these women face, for little return.


A typical day involved getting up early to prepare breakfast for the family, walking 10 kilometres to the farm, working all day while looking after the children, returning home to cook dinner, then going to bed ready to start all over again. Every Wednesday they would walk seven kilometres to the local market with their produce and were lucky if they returned home with 25 or 50 cents.


Togola’s parents sent him to a Canadian boarding school when he was 16. He returned with university business qualifications and a yearning to help his people. After consulting with his parents, he decided to explore Africa’s natural resources while seeking ways to offer women opportunities to take charge of their lives.


“By putting women at the centre of our society, by building the infrastructure around women, this world would be a very different place,” he says. “It’s a must for us to advance as a society.”


He knew consultation was important, so he sat down with women farmers to identify their needs. “And they told me they love growing fonio, they love farming, but it is too hard to access the market.”


Local industries booming


Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is thought to be Africa’s oldest grain, with cultivation dating back to 5000 BCE. It thrives in tough conditions with poor, rocky soils, little water and no pesticides. It has a low glycemic index, and Togola sees it as an ideal alternative to rice, which dominates African meals while diabetes dominates African health.


But producing fonio used to be a labour of love. Before Togola partnered with the women farmers, they would manually cut and dehull the plant, taking an hour to produce just six kilograms of grain.


He invested in local equipment that enabled them to produce more than 250 kilograms an hour – increasing productivity more than 40-fold.


So the company Farafena was born (the word means “African” in Bambara, Mali’s national language), with the aim of creating a large market for fonio and other African food crops. Starting with just 15 farmers five years ago, it now partners with 850 women.


Business is good and the very African produce has been embraced by consumers in Canada and the US. But the company has vowed that it will only ever buy 80% of the available produce, to ensure it remains accessible and affordable to locals.


Building independence and education


The venture’s success has not escaped the attention of Mali’s men, who grow more popular yet less sustainable crops such rice and cotton. Having gifted the women small parcels of land to grow “peasant food”, they are starting to appreciate its value.


“We did an interview with some of the woman farmers,” says Togola, “and a few of the husbands wanted to speak up about what Farafena has done for their wives.


“One man told me that his wife was able to go purchase a baguette with a can of tuna and brought it to him for lunch. These are things we take for granted. But oh my god, tuna! Here it has high value in those small villages.”


The women have created an income that enables them to be independent and educate their children. And young people are in abundance; 60% of Africa’s population is under 25.


“By women having the tools to educate that generation, Africa will be an incredible continent,” Togola says.


More super-nutritious plants to come


When initially discussing food options, the company came up with a list of potential African crops. Currently they produce fonio, baobab and moringa but have around 30 more on the menu.


Baobab trees are among the oldest in the world, staunchly rooted in the ground for 1100 to 2500 years. The African species, Adansonia digitata, is a core element of local culture and stories. It produces fruit pods containing a flavourful powder. One of the most nutritious fruits in the world, baobab is high in potassium and fibre and has six times more vitamin C than oranges.


Moringa (Moringa oleifera) – also known as the drumstick tree, miracle tree and horseradish tree – grows rapidly in parts of Africa, India, Southeast Asia and South America. Also highly nutritious, it has traditionally been used for its health benefits and potent medicinal applications.


According to Togola, who has each batch of products shipped to Canada nutritionally tested, moringa is “the most nutritious leafy green in the world”. In Mali, the leaves are cooked much like spinach or used in salads. It is also sold as a powder which can be used for tea or added to smoothies and salad dressings.


The leaves are rich in ß-carotene, protein, vitamin C, calcium, potassium and antioxidants. The fruit, flowers and immature pods are also eaten, and the root, bark, gum, seed and seed oil are used medicinally.


Fruit on a Baobab tree in Western Australia. Credit: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images


Australian bush food has opportunity to replicate success


Moringa is well suited to Australian conditions and is currently grown in the state of Queensland. But Australia itself has hundreds of edible native plants that Aboriginal people have used as food and medicine for at least 60,000 years.


“Australia has much to teach the world about plant diversity and human enrichment on ancient landscapes,” says botanist Stephen Hopper.


Geoff Woodall, a native plant agronomist from Western Australia, has spent a chunk of his career researching the growth potential of native root vegetables, or tubers. It was something he heard at a conference years ago that hooked him.


“There was some fancy chef from Sydney who opened the conference and he said he was sick of serving up kangaroo with mashed potatoes and peas,” he recalls.


“So, while at that stage the bush food industry was big on condiments and spices, like a little bit of quandong jam on the side or a bit of lemon myrtle, no-one was really focusing on the staples.”


Of 200 tubers commonly unearthed in southern Western Australia, Woodall identified two or three with marketing potential, including youlk (Platysace deflexa), a bush carrot, and kulyu (Ipomoea calobra), similar to sweet potato.


Collaboration with Indigenous communities


Woodall collaborates with indigenous communities, encouraging them to grow the crops and reconnect with native foods. The tubers are particularly suited to their nomadic lifestyle and culture. Apart from a little care to establish the crops, they require very little water.


“These things are as tough as old boots,” he says. “You plant them and they need a bit of work to get going, but once they’re established, they’re ready to harvest whenever they ripen and whenever the land owners decide it’s a good time.”


And there’s a good potential market. “There’s easily a demand for about 300 tonnes per annum,” he notes, “but we’re mucking around with a couple of hundred kilos.”


There’s also a strong cultural component that captivates people, Woodall says. “[People are] not just fascinated that it’s now being cultivated; they’re fascinated a) that it tastes quite nice, and b) that it was an Aboriginal food.”


As well as tubers, a plethora of edible plants thrives in Australian conditions, including nuts, herbs, spices, warrigal greens, or native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides), bush onion (Haemodorum spicatum), phytonutrient-rich fruits, and even native rice (Oryza meridionalis).


From greens to grain bread


Grains have also received some attention, including native millet (Echinochloa turnerana) and kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra). Indeed, evidence hints that indigenous Australians could have been the first bakers, says Bruce Pascoe, an indigenous author and historian.


Pascoe has been working with leading chefs, experimenting with breads made from native grains. Paul Iskov is among them, and says one of the tastiest dampers, a form of simple bread, he ever made was derived from spinifex (Triodia).


Iskov uses Woodall’s tubers. Like other chefs, he is committed to showcasing wild Australian foods, intact with their stories. After working his way through fancy restaurants around the world, he returned home inspired to focus on native ingredients against a backdrop of the country’s unspoiled landscapes.


Based in Western Australia, he created the pop-up restaurant Fervor with a menu dominated by native ingredients served with a unique outdoor experience for diners.


Huge market here to stay


While bush food was trendy in the 1990s, he now believes it’s a huge market that is here to stay. But meeting demand from restaurants and health food markets remains challenging.


Building an industry around native foods is a slow process. Iskov estimates that native rice, for instance, currently costs a prohibitive $100 or more per kilogram.


One challenge is to develop cost-effective methods to harvest and process the crops on a larger scale. Others include indigenous intellectual property rights and environmental considerations. But research is growing, and the native food industry is rapidly gaining traction.


Like Togola and Woodall, Iskov is committed to keeping profits in the local communities, with a national network of wild harvesters who collect food when it’s in season. When they travel between locations, Fervor chefs try to work with traditional land owners to collect local ingredients.


Iskov says when he and his partner were foraging with locals along the coastline of South Africa, they discovered species similar to those found in Australia. This is not surprising, though, given the similar climates.


Cross-cultural learning for better nutrition and sustainability


Globally, growing diverse, resilient crops is an escalating imperative to address challenges for sustainability, Hopper argues. The benefits are manifold, including better health and nutrition, clean water, climate change adaptation, and cultural diversity.


To that end, he writes: “Targeted plant diversity science and cross-cultural learning with Aboriginal people … offer some solutions to global problems and an important message of hope.”


With their majestic, parched landscapes and rich cultural histories of nutritious, resilient food crops, indigenous Australia and Africa have much to contribute.


And we can all draw inspiration from Togola. Eventually, he plans to collaborate with women from across the African continent and showcase the diversity of native food. “Mali is one country out of 55, and each country is different – they have their own crops, their own fruit and their own legumes.”


But, he says, “it’s not just an African initiative; it’s a global issue. Sustainability is key – and working with women, putting women in a position for success.


We have to all join forces and find solutions. We are a global community; we work together.”


This article appears in Issue 82 of Cosmos magazine. To subscribe, and have the latest science delivered direct to your door or inbox, click here.


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About the Author

Natalie Parletta
Natalie Parletta is an Australian freelance science writer.

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