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Drought-tolerant indigenous crops urgently needed in South Africa 

The South African farming community will soon have access to information about which indigenous crops are underutilised and can tolerate droughts. The Water Research Commission (WRC) has commissioned a short-term study that reviews underutilised, indigenous and traditional crops, their status and potential, and the challenges and opportunities associated with their value chain in South Africa. This short-term project will run from April to September 2016.

“The findings are essential since South Africa is a water-scarce country, whereby the majority of subsistence farmers require assistance to transition to small-scale or large-scale commercial farming.  These farmers reside in areas characterised by non-irrigable terrains and low rainfall and very few of them have access to irrigation water,” said Dr Sylvester Mpandeli, the WRC research manager responsible for the study.

Mpandeli further said, “The agricultural landscape of South Africa in many ways reflects the dominance of modern crops that originated from outside of Africa. Their rise has led to a decline in cultivation and knowledge about indigenous crops. Recent interest in new crops globally and in South Africa has increased.  The complexity of the problem posed by water scarcity, climate variability and change, population growth, and changing lifestyles requires unique solutions. Indigenous crops have the potential to fill this gap.”

Dr Gerhard Backeberg, WRC Executive Manager commented, “South Africa needs to propel these indigenous crops from the peripheries of subsistence agriculture to the promise of commercial agriculture, through scientific research that produces databases for use by farmers.  South Africa also needs to have reliable information about water utilisation by indigenous crops with potential for commercialisation."

The progress made in understanding water relations for modern crops should be used to develop a research agenda for promoting water use models for indigenous crops.

Despite emerging interest in underutilised indigenous crops due to reports of their potential, research on them remains very scanty. This is despite the fact that several of them are reported to be drought tolerant, adapted to low levels of water use and thus suitable for cultivation in most of South Africa's rural areas.

“Some of these crops would be most suitable for promotion during periods of drought as the nation is currently undergoing," said Mpandeli.

Work on the drought tolerance of these crops and water use has mostly been funded by the WRC in South Africa.  Past studies have indicated reasons for the neglect of indigenous crops as being the lack of information, lack of clear research goals, limited funding, journal apathy towards publishing work on underutilised, indigenous and traditional crops, and a lack of interest from both established and emerging researchers.

“We acknowledge and thank efforts made by organisations such as the WRC and the National Department of Science and Technology for funding this piece of research; a lot still needs to be done to change underutilised, indigenous and traditional crops to being notably utilised crops," stated Mpandeli.

For more information contact: Dr Sylvester Mpandeli, email: sylvesterm@wrc.org.za


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