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Harlan, J.R. 1993. Genetic resources in Africa. p. 65-65. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

Genetic Resources in Africa

Jack R. Harlan


Indigenous African crops that have made an impact on the world scene include: coffee (Coffea arabica), sorghum (Sorghum spp.), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), finger millet (Eleucine corocana), watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), cowpea (Vigna sinensis), and at least some date germplasm (Pheonix dactylifera). These crops are established in suitable regions around the world and have their own special interest groups. They cannot be considered new crops in any sense of the term. But, Africa has other genetic resources, not new in a temporal sense, but new to the American experience.


First, let me call attention to some of the other cereals, both wild and tame. Fonio or acha, Digitaria exilis (Kipp.) Stapf, has been given the misnomer "hungry rice" by English colonials. It is not grown to relieve hunger but because of its quality. It is a chief's food, a gourmet item, and couscous made of fonio is better than couscous made from wheat. Tef, Eragrostis tef Trott, is the noble grain of Ethiopia, and enjera, the bread made from it, is the food of the upper classes. There are now Ethiopian restaurants in the United States that are flourishing because of the demand and interest in ethnic foods, enjera and watt (a spicy stew). These are first class foods. It should not be difficult to develop considerable markets for them, not just because they are ethnic and exotic, but because both fonio and tef are genuinely superior cereals. As whole grains, they are nourishing, and enjera is vitamin enriched by yeast from a short fermentation of the dough.

Less well known are the grains of wild cereals that were harvested on a huge scale in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Again, the colonials, both French and English, spoke of them in contemptuous terms ("scarcity foods," "céréales de disette") without ever giving them a fair trial. Anyone reduced to eating wild grass seeds must be on the verge of starvation. The fact is that these, too, were luxury items. They were harvested, not for food for the harvesters, but for sale and export. The harvesters probably reserved some seed for special occasions and ceremonies, but wild grass seeds brought higher prices in the market than the staples, sorghum, pearl millet, and rice, and in the Sahara, even more than wheat. The prejudice of European colonizers closed their mind to the potential. Wild grass seeds are still harvested, but not on the scale of a century ago (Harlan 1989a,b). It has been suggested that a return to wild grass harvests on a substantial scale could stop the trend toward desertification brought on by the destructive method of livestock rearing now practiced (Vietmeyer in press).

In the desert proper, Aristida pungens Desf. and Panicum turgidum Forsek., are the most important, the former in the north and the latter in central and south. But, we do not expect much production from a desert. In the Sahel and southern desert fringes, Cenchrus biflorus Roxb. is the main grass, but it is a sandbur with spines that can torment. In the broadleaved savanna, a group of grasses collectively called kreb(s) over a considerable region from Mali to Kordofan in Sudan is still harvested. The mixture varies in species composition from place to place and probably from year to year and includes species of Panicum, Eragrostis, Dactyloctenium, Brachiaria, and others. Panicum laetum Kunth is one of the most common, and E. pilosa Beauv., one of the components, is probably the progenitor of tef (Harlan 1989a,b).


Voandzeia subterranea (L.) Thouars is a legume that produces seed underground, like a peanut, except the seeds are much larger, usually one to the pod. A number of tests in Africa have indicated that this legume can yield as well or better than peanuts, and it is a common experience that a crop removed from its native territory without a normal suite of diseases and pests can perform much better than in its homeland. The crop, sometimes called Bambara groundnut, is actually widespread in Africa and not especially tied to the Bambara tribe. It is more of a garden crop than a field crop and important in subsistence agriculture, primarily in the broadleaved savannas from west Africa to east Africa and southward to southern Africa. Realistic figures on production are not available. A longer shot is Kerstingiella geocarpa Harms, another "groundnut," but not nearly so widespread and probably with less potential. It has not been especially important in Africa, and that suggests limited value elsewhere. Still, have either of these plants been adequately tested as a potential "new crop?" The wild forms of both species are found in eastern Nigeria and in Cameroon.

Noog, Guizotia abyssinica Cass., Asteraceae, an oilseed crop, is the most important edible oil in Ethiopia. It is much kinder to the grower than safflower, lacking spines and the crop would be easy to mechanize. Extensive trials on noog have not been conducted.

Telfairia occidentalis Hook. f., Cucurbitaceae, produces a course vine with rather large gourd-like fruits. Oil is extracted from the seeds. It is a garden plant of West Africa and is grown from the broadleaved savanna into the forest zone. While we have plenty of oil seed crops, there could well be a place for this plant in tropical subsistence agriculture outside of Africa. I have seen it, for example, in Jamaica.


There appears to be several forms of Solanum grown for their fruits and often lumped together as "garden eggs" by English speakers. A serious study might reveal some potentially useful vegetables. Africa has, of course, wild races of coffee, sorghum, the millets, rice, cotton, cowpea, cola, and watermelon. These might have some useful genes, and wild races of most crops are poorly collected. African rice is not likely to replace Asian rice, but some useful genes have been found, and for Africa, at least, it has what the French call "rusticité," or the ability to yield something no matter what calamities it may suffer. The most useful forage grasses for tropical pastures come from Africa, but this subject is treated elsewhere in the Proceedings of the symposium.

Finally, attention is called to plants with medicinal potential. Herbal medicine is well developed in Africa and intimately interlaced with witchcraft, voodoo, and various occult arts. I can find few serious studies of either the remedies or the witchcraft in which they are embedded. Both should be studied as R.E. Schultes has done in Amazonia (Schultes 1990). While lacking experience in these matters, I sense that such field studies should be done by Africans. Who knows what potential there might be for cures or the arrest of cancer, AIDs, or even the common cold? We have not yet investigated.


Last update April 2, 1997 aw