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Tackling Africa’s Hunger Crisis With Orphan Crops and Genomics

March 25, 2022 Views:

What if the humble baobab tree, cocoa plant and cassava could help solve the world’s growing hunger problems? 

Globally, about 690 million people – or 8.9% of the world’s population – go to bed hungry. The majority of the world’s undernourished – 381 million – are found in Asia, and more than 250 million live in Africa.

If these trends continue, the number of people impacted by hunger will surpass 840 million by 2030, representing an estimated 9.8% of the global population.

Recognizing the urgency of resolving the problem of world hunger, BGI Group is participating in an alliance led by the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), which aims to improve the nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s orphan crops. This will help address the challenges of food security and nutrition among the population of this continent.

Orphan crops – also known as neglected and underutilized crops – have been dogged by underfunding for research and development, weak and underdeveloped value chains, as well as a perception that they are a “poor farmer’s crop”.


Diversifying Food Sources

This perception, however, is changing, thanks to growing recognition of the role of orphan crops in maintaining biodiversity, as well as contributing to food security, improved nutrition and local livelihoods in rural communities. 

In fact, diversifying the world’s food sources with orphan crops is increasingly seen as a vital tool in combating food and nutrition insecurity, which has been worsened by climate change. 

In this respect, BGI Group’s collaboration with the AOCC alliance network has an added significance.

Together with other institutions, including the African Union-New Partnership for Africa's Development (AU-NEPAD), Mars Inc., and the World Agroforestry Center, BGI has used advanced technologies to complete the genome sequencing, assembly and annotation of over 100 traditional African crops, as well as provided guidance for the production of more crop varieties with high nutritional value. 

“Considering tremendous growth in the human population, there’s an urgent requirement to feed the world. It is estimated that by 2050, Africa will be the third-largest contributor to the global population,” said Dr. Sunil Kumar Sahu, Research Scientist in BGI-Research and Project Manager of the AOCC Project.

“Given this scenario, generating more highly nutritious food and crops to feed the world is a major challenge. And Africa has very unique varieties of orphan crops, which are only utilized in some population clusters or local areas. Such crops have very high potential to become major staples like rice, maize, and wheat.”

The first orphan crop studied by the AOCC consortium was the baobab tree, which is rich in minerals. Known as Africa’s "miracle tree", its fruit contains 10 times more antioxidants than oranges and double the calcium in spinach. Other crops include the African eggplant, amaranth, spider weed, taro, rape mustard, potato, cassava, cocoa, millet, and sorghum.

Boosting Food Security

Assisted breeding with genomics and molecular markers helps create high-nutrition, high-yielding and robust crop varieties, which improves the incomes of small farmers, boosts food supplies, as well as reduces hunger and malnutrition across the continent.

“By sequencing the genomes of these orphan crops, particularly the leguminous plant, we’ve identified several nitrogen fixation-related genes in these crops, which could boost production yields,” Dr. Sahu added. 

“As we know, African crops are also very tolerant to heat and drought. So, we’ve found several genes related to this drought tolerance, which have a very high potential to be used to improve crop varieties.”

The genomic information produced by the AOCC alliance network is publicly available for use by plant breeders and other crop scientists. The ultimate objective is to ensure that such improved varieties and cultivars of orphan crops are released to farmers for cultivation.

As of March 2022, BGI has completed the genome analysis of 10 African orphan crops, while more than another 10 are in progress. 

The greater integration of orphan crops into the African food and nutritional system could not come at a more critical time for the continent.

In 2020, 281.6 million Africans were undernourished, an increase of 89.1 million over 2014. An estimated 346.4 million Africans suffer from severe food insecurity, driven by factors including conflict, poverty, as well as recurring and extreme drought.

This is where orphan crops, with their huge importance to both present and future agriculture systems, are making a contribution – one that is gaining credence in the broader global community.


1. Goal 2: Zero Hunger:

2. Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: Undernourishment And Food Insecurity:

3. Nature Genetics: Enhancing African orphan crops with genomics: 

4. The draft genomes of five agriculturally important African orphan crops: 

5. Draft Genomes of Two Artocarpus Plants, Jackfruit (A. heterophyllus) and Breadfruit (A. altilis): 


April 5,2022 is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the paper A draft sequence of the rice genome (Oryza sativa L. ssp. indica) in Science by scientists from BGI Group. To mark the anniversary of the world’s first whole genome sequencing of a crop, we are launching a feature series that demonstrate BGI’s commitment to promoting global agricultural development and safeguarding crops and food security.

With the joint efforts of BGI and many countries and organizations around the world, more and more advancements have been made, with more on the way as everyone enjoys the fruits of "Omics for All".