Orphan Crops of the Developing World

Orphan CropsThe Orphan Crops project is a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.

Orphan crops are vital food crops for subsistence farmers in many African as well as Asian and South American countries. They often have a strong cultural importance, and are more nutritious and drought resistant than many of the large commodity crops. These crops are often called “orphan” or “neglected” because despite their potential to nourish the developing world, they’ve hisotrically been overlooked and under-funded by development agencies and researchers. 

On the Saint Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota, we grow a number of orphan crops to use in the research and development of new technologies. Access to some of the most important food crops of the global poor will enable us to produce more appropriate solutions faster and at a lower cost to our donors and our end-users.

About the Crops

Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus)

Amaranth is not a true cereal grain, it is a relative of the common pigweed. Amaranth is high in protein, particularly in the amino acid, Lysine, which is low in the cereal grains. Just 150 grams of the grain is all that’s required to supply an adult with 100% of the daily requirement of protein. 

Bambara groundnuts (Vigna subterranea)

Bambara groundnuts are, in fact, much more closely related to the cowpea than the peanut, although like the peanut, they grow in the ground. They are reclaiming much of their historical importance in Africa, as they can produce good crop yields even in harsh environments, such as the dry savannah. The bean gets its name from the Bambara people and culture in present-day Mali. 

Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata)

Cowpeas make up the most widely cultivated native legume in sub-Saharan Africa; it also holds some of the highest nutritional value in the region. Over 95% of the global crop yield comes from West Africa, with Nigeria the largest producer. In Africa, cowpeas are often intercropped with sorghum, pearl millet, and/or maize.

Fonio (Digitaria exilis)

Fonio is probably the oldest African cereal. It is actually a relative of crabgrass, known today as a pesky lawn weed, but once cultivated by European-Americans. For thousands of years West Africans have cultivated it across the dry savannas. This crop still remains important in areas scattered from Cape Verde to Lake Chad. Each year West African farmers devote approximately 300,000 hectares to cultivating fonio, feeding 3-4 million people.

Mung bean (Vigna radiata)

Mung bean is a legume native to India, often known as green or golden gram depending on a variety’s color. Mung bean is a short-season, heat and drought-resistant crop with few insect or disease problems.

Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

Pearl millet is the sixth most important of all the world’s cereals. Descended from a wild West African grass, it was domesticated more than 4,000 years ago, probably in what is now the heart of the Sahara Desert. Today, pearl millet is so important that it is planted on some 14 million hectares in Africa and 14 million hectares in Asia. CTI has developed a set of manually-operated devices for post-harvest processing of pearl millet and the other grain crops listed here.

Peanuts (also known as groundnuts) (Arachis hypogaea)

Groundnuts are a species in the legume or "bean" family.  The cultivated peanut was probably first domesticated in the valleys of Peru. Peanuts grow well throughout the semi-arid tropics from the Sahel of West Africa to Eastern-Southern Africa. Because of its high levels of protein and oil, peanuts are a nutritious food and commonly used in food formulations to combat malnutrition. Like other legumes, it fixes atmospheric nitrogen and thus improves soil fertility. Poor storage of peanuts can lead to an infection by Aspergillus flavus, a fungus which under certain environmental conditions releases a highly carcinogenic toxin (aflatoxin).

With a grant from the McKnight Foundation, CTI is working with partners in Malawi and Tanzania to improve the major post-harvest technology constraints identified by small farmers (digging-lifting, stripping, and shelling).

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)

Quinoa was a food so vital to the Incan people of South America that it was considered sacred. In the native language, Quechua, it is referred to as chisiya mama, “mother grain.” It was a powerful source of protein for the Incas, and even today, holds high nutritious value for people around the world. Historically it was cultivated in the South American regions, as far north as Colombia and as far south as Chile. Today though, the market is widely expanding to markets in the developed world. In the developing world, it has shown great promise in the tropical highland areas of Africa and Asia.

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor)

Sorghum is one of the world’s most important cereal grains. A dietary staple of more than 500 million people in more than 30 countries—sorghum is the fifth most widely consumed crop in the world. Sorghum is a physiological marvel. It can grow in both temperate and tropical zones and is among the most photosynthetically efficient plants. Yet, sorghum is under-supported and under researched. CTI will use the harvested sorghum to test it’s new grain processing tools.

Teff (Eragrostis tef)

Teff is a significant crop in only one country in the world—Ethiopia. There, however, its production exceeds that of most other cereals. Each year, Ethiopian farmers plant almost 1.4 million hectares of teff, and they produce 0.9 million tons of grain or about a quarter of the country's total cereals. Teff is not in decline. Indeed, farmers have steadily increased their plantings in recent years.