Based on the 2021 global hunger index, Madagascar is one of the countries fighting undernourishment and malnutrition, with 38% of women at reproductive age affected by anemia and about 42% of the children under 5 are malnourished. The children in the highlands are the most affected (>60% stunting).
Yet, the country is home to unique varieties of many traditional African vegetables (TAVs), such as African eggplant, African nightshade, and cowpea. TAVs have the potential to diversify Malagasy farming systems and therefore secure benefits of biodiversity for the poor. TAVs are nutritious, easy to grow, are often hardy, and well adapted to changing climates.
In 2019, the World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg), in cooperation with the National Center for Applied Research on Rural Development (FOFIFA) and the University of Antananarivo, and with funding from the UK government, launched the Darwin Initiative project (reference #26-015), focusing on scaling traditional African vegetables to strengthen food and nutrition security in Madagascar.
“The 2018 scoping study found that Malagasy farmers in Madagascar still maintain a high diversity of traditional vegetables, but production and consumption of these TAVs are low,” explained Dr. Sognigbe N’Danikou, WorldVeg lead scientist for the Darwin Initiative project on traditional African vegetables. “Low usage makes traditional vegetables vulnerable to local or national extinction.”
Dr. N’Danikou furthered that the scoping study also showed that modest investment in seed systems and increased awareness of benefits for nutrition, income, and climate change adaptation can lead to greater utilization of traditional vegetables. Researchers used farmer-participatory approaches to gather income and nutrition data, while also utilizing school garden interventions for nutrition and biodiversity education.
At the closing workshop on 28 April 2022, the project team shared three key successes from the Darwin initiative: agrobiodiversity conservation, nutrition, and poverty reduction triple wins.
Preventing the decline of traditional vegetables
Dr. N’Danikou emphasized that agricultural biodiversity is declining and protecting vegetable biodiversity in Africa is essential for food and nutrition security.“Many African traditional vegetables and their wild relatives are in danger of being lost because of a lack of awareness about their benefits for agriculture and nutrition,” he said.
The Darwin Initiative project provides a successful case study with lessons learned on how to achieve triple wins by combining agrobiodiversity conservation with school and home garden interventions to raise awareness and improve household nutrition. The participatory action research with smallholder farmers was key to finding the right approaches to enhance vegetable production and increase business opportunities for income generation.
At the start of the project, partners expected to collect and conserve 400 landraces and crop wild relatives of African vegetables in Madagascar, which is one of six “hotspots” of vegetable biodiversity in Africa, according to a scientific study on the diversity and conservation of traditional African vegetables.
“To date, the Darwin project team has collected over 500 seed samples of local varieties of 53 species from Madagascar that will be conserved for generations to come, and be made available for use in direct cultivation and breeding to strengthen food and nutrition security,” said Dr. Sognigbe N’Danikou.
The project team also found Vigna keraudrenii, an endangered and endemic wild relative that is genetically close to cowpea. This species contains traits related to drought, heat, or disease tolerance that are relevant in breeding climate-resilient cowpea varieties.
Empowering women’s economic participation
WorldVeg Scientist-Impact Evaluation Dr. Rosina Wanyama highlighted specific interventions and the impacts achieved, specifically on women empowerment.
“The Darwin Initiative project has successfully empowered women and they were able to secure significant income from vegetable sales which contributes to livelihood improvement for their households”, said Dr. Wanyama. “Their households are also consuming more vegetables, from 30.4g/person/day to 46.1g/person/day, representing a 34% increase.”
The project reached over 21,000 people with traditional African vegetable seeds and trained 200 women farmers and tapped eight schools to grow and consume traditional vegetables. “Compared to the baseline situation we’re proud that vegetable consumption and women farmers’ income increased significantly”, said Dr. Wanyama.
Promoting nutrition and healthier diets
The Darwin project conducted home and school garden training for women farmers, school children and their teachers to bring in more nutritious diets to students and their families.
FOFIFA used the seed kits developed by WorldVeg and local varieties to establish biodiversity-rich school gardens in eight primary schools and teach children and their families about how to cultivate, and the relevance of African vegetables for diets, identity, and biodiversity.
“We distributed 750 kits representing 10,000 packets of quality vegetable seed from the WorldVeg genebank to eight schools, 200 women farmers, and communities, to complement the training in production and seed saving, and nutrition” said Dr. Bodo Rabary, Darwin project national coordinator at FOFIFA, Madagascar. “The trained women are now consuming these vegetables and have shared seeds to more than 2,000 new indirect beneficiary farmer households, and about 1,400 school children were reached with school garden activities where they grow and eat traditional African vegetables at school.”
School gardens were created to encourage children to eat more vegetables. Photo: Sognigbe N’Danikou
At the project closing workshop, panelists from the Ministry of Education, National Nutrition Office (SNN), FOFIFA, World Food Program (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), WorldVeg, and civil society groups Hina and Agrisud discussed potential mechanisms for scaling the production and consumption of traditional African vegetables in households and at schools. FOFIFA underscored the success of the seed kits developed by WorldVeg and local varieties in establishing biodiversity-rich school gardens in eight primary schools and teaching children and their families about the relevance of African vegetables for diets, identity, and biodiversity.
Based on the positive outcomes of the Darwin Initiative, WFP, FAO, and national stakeholders endorsed these approaches during the closing workshop. They also recommended the support of the Ministry of Agriculture of Madagascar to support research and development that strengthen the seed systems of traditional vegetables, and the ministry of education to integrate vegetables into public procurement for school gardens.
The Darwin Initiative project has given Madagascar the opportunity to better conserve, produce, and utilize traditional African vegetables. “The actions and interventions of the project are well aligned with the Malagasy government’s priorities and complement very well on-going national programs to ensure hunger and malnutrition are eradicated both at home and at school through access to quality seed of nutritious and healthy traditional vegetables, and support Madagascar in achieving nutrition and food security goals for 2030,” said Professor Aimé Lala Razafinjara, Director General of FOFIFA.