The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea L. Verdc) - A case study to assess the potential of an under-utilised crop

S N Azam-Ali,
F J Massawe
Tropical Crops Research Unit,
University of Nottingham,
School of Biosciences,

Within the Plant Kingdom there is a vast repository of hundreds of under-utilised food crops that have been grown locally for centuries and which contribute to the food security of the world's poorest people. Many of these crops are cultivated in hostile, tropical environments by small-scale farmers without access to irrigation or fertilisers and with little guidance on improved practices. Any attempts to improve their germplasm or management rely on local knowledge and initiative as the production and improvement of most under-utilised crops have been ignored or actively discouraged by agricultural scientists, breeders and funding agencies. It is axiomatic that under-utilised crops are also under-researched crops. Those efforts that have been made to evaluate such species have usually been piecemeal and results have rarely been published in the international literature. In most developing countries, the time available for research is limited and funds are scarce. In these circumstances, it is appropriate to ask whether precious financial and human resources should be dedicated to research on any under-utilised species about which little evidence has been systematically gathered or published.

Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea L. Verdc) is an underutilised Africa legume grown mainly by subsistence women farmers. Despite its long history, bambara groundnut is still cultivated from landraces rather than varieties bred specifically for particular agroecological conditions or production systems. Until now, the breeding system of bambara groundnut is not well understood and no-one has yet successfully produced a true variety of the crop. Nevertheless, over many centuries, farmers have accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the crop and have cultivated an array of landraces that have become well adapted to the vagaries of local climates and soils.Using our experience with bambara groundnut as an example, this paper examines how a general methodology can be established to assess the potential of many underutilised species. The methodology includes the use of DNA marker technology, germplasm information, local knowledge, experimental research in fields and glasshouses and crop simulation modelling within a methodological framework to rapidly assess the potential of many under-utilised crops. Our experience may help to provide a mechanism through which growers, researchers and international agencies can integrate their knowledge and understanding of any under-utilised crop and apply similar principles to accelerate the acquisition of knowledge on other under-utilised species. The use of a methodological framework provides a basis to minimise duplication of effort on any single crop, identify priority areas for further research and dissemination and derive general principles that can be applied across some or all under-utilised crops. It also allows policy makers and planners to make comparative decisions on the nutritional, economic and research priorities for under-utilised and major species.

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