The Lost Crops of Africa

Five African crops have been selected to be harvested, studied and given to small farms across the state once the program is complete. Afterward, preliminary marketing will be conducted in the Washington, D.C., area, and consumers will be made familiar with these forgotten crops. 

The African potato grown at VSU may look like a typical Russet potato, but it’s actually not a potato at all; instead it’s a member of the mint family. One whiff confirms it. A single serving offers almost the entire recommended daily protein intake.

Small and round, the egusi melon lacks the typically succulent, sweet flesh of a watermelon; instead it has extremely bitter, dry flesh. So what’s the shining attribute of the egusi? Its seeds. Large, flat and white, they are packed with amino acids. Due to their rich fat and protein content, the seeds can replace milk in human diets and even be used as a laxative, a diuretic and a treatment for insect bites. Surviving in temperatures of more than 100 degrees and on a mere 2 inches of rain a year makes the egusi a future star for Southern climates.

The marama bean is packed with enough nutrients and protein that people have been known to survive by eating them alone. Called the “green gold of Africa,” these beans are exceptionally tasty, nutritious and smart — the bean plant buries its fruits in soil as a safe haven from insects.

One of the most colorful crops in VSU’s study is the African eggplant, with fruit in a rainbow of hues as well as white and black, solids and stripes. The eggplant can resemble an egg or a pumpkin, growing either smooth or with ridges. The fruits have a long shelf life and can also be preserved by drying.

VSU’s final “lost” crop is African rice, which grows — and even thrives — on less than 30 inches of rain a year. It can survive extremely dry, hot temperatures, and for those reasons, it’s not prone to harvest failure. The African rice receives little attention compared to other members of the grain family, but it may deserve the most.

“It’s a very wonderful crop and can grow without water,” Bhardwaj says. “It’s one of those things [that] may have been talked about, but there have never been any seeds before in the U.S.”

The seeds VSU is studying traveled more than 8,000 miles around the world to get to the university. Originating from West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, they were transported to the National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) — a clearinghouse for a wide range of native plant seeds — in Fort Collins, Colorado, and then to Petersburg. Before VSU’s program began, the NSSL was the only place in the United States that had the marama seeds.

“If something happens and we have no crops, we have [the seeds],” Bhardwaj explains. “This is the first time these crops have been grown here, and we’re doing everything we can to study the process.”

The crops are not only being evaluated for uses in the U.S., but also to assist West African countries under the “Feed the Future” program, which aims to address food shortages. Although the rice is grown in Africa, the study helps answer common questions and assess the best crop growing methods.

These forgotten crops also can connect people to their ancestry, establishing a link between those who were enslaved and present-day African-American communities.

“It is some of the greatest food [nutrition-wise], and some of these plants have hidden medicinal properties,” Bhardwaj says. “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from.”

Although the funding for the yearlong program studying African crops expires on Sept. 30, Bhardwaj applied for an additional $60,000 in funding from the Virginia Department of Agriculture to continue VSU’s studies through 2020 and focus specifically on the eggplant, potato and egusi melon.

The end goal is to introduce these crops to small farmers and master gardeners — and eventually consumers.

“No doubt that this could change consumers and farmers,” Bhardwaj says. “It could bear great potential. Not only for us as we develop, but for African people. It’s just not a state or national matter, but international.”


This program, launched 25 years ago, has evolved to occupy 416 acres on campus. VSU provides education to small farmers looking to diversify farm operations to incorporate catfish, tilapia, trout and freshwater shrimp in ponds, cages or greenhouses.


Helping a wide range of growers, from military veterans to minority farmers, this program offers educational courses in more than 60 Virginia counties. Class topics include farm business management, risk management training, and loan and grant availability.


In 2014, VSU initiated a research and extension program dedicated to the budding flower that brings forth the distinct flavor and aroma in beers. VSU agronomists are studying medicinal and culinary uses and working to establish an outreach program to support growers interested in supplying hops to craft and home brewers.


VSU is one of the country’s only universities authorized to conduct research on industrial hemp and its purposes. In 2016, VSU began identifying the uses of hemp as a crop, its role in the farming system and the possibilities for its use with clothing, paper, oil-based products such as paint, nontoxic diesel fuel, food and even beer. 




Farming Diary


07.15.2020 - 07.17.2020


08.11.2020 - 08.14.2020


10:00 am 09.09.2020 - 11:00 am 09.11.2020

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