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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating food insecurity and acute food shortages for 7.1 million people in Nigeria, and 265 million globally. The African continent is worse hit, as this is in addition to increasing conflicts and weather extremes due to climate change.

The African yam bean (Sphenostylis stenocarpa) could help to reduce devastating food insecurity. Dr Curie Park, from the Centre for Industrial Sustainability, Institute for Manufacturing, and Dr Nadia Radzman, from the Sainsbury Laboratory, have secured funding for a project that will utilise their expertise in legume biology and entrepreneurial innovation to promote the African yam bean as a sustainable solution for food insecurity, malnutrition, and soil depletion in Africa. They are establishing an interdisciplinary research collaboration between UK and Nigerian partners on African yam bean rehabilitation. The African yam bean tuber has a protein content of 20% (22 - 25% in the edible beans), which makes it a  superior alternative to other sources such cassava (2%) or maize (5.4%). This is important because consumption of carbohydrate-intensive, low-protein diets causes malnutrition and stunting in 32% of children under 5 years old. Unfortunately, the African yam bean has been forgotten due to a westernised diet and global trends of crop homogeneity.

Dr Nadia Radzman’s major research interest is in legume root and nodule development, and she commented: “Tuberous legumes such as the African yam bean are understudied within the legume biology field. Yet, through my studies, I could see the enormous potential it had to solve food insecurity within Africa. This drought-tolerant crop produces high-protein beans and tubers for human consumption and can fix atmospheric nitrogen as fertilisers. Although we both work for the University of Cambridge, I met Dr Curie Park during the WE Lead Food Programme ‘Leadership for Impact’ module in Madrid, and her expertise combined with mine has made this project possible. A core part of the WE Lead Programme is the ability to network with, and share ideas with, like-minded women”.

Dr Curie Park said: “I am a Lead Researcher at the Centre for Industrial Sustainability, Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, with a keen interest in sustainable design, disruptive business model innovation, business value tool development and effective visualisation of research outcomes. My innovative skills, knowledge and connections combined with Nadia’s scientific knowledge enabled us to put together a strong proposal for project funding.” 

Climate change is having the greatest affect in Africa. The long-term impact of this project is:

  • Improved food security - less reliance on imported chemical fertilisers;
  • Improved resilience against weather extremes - through promoting native drought-tolerant crops;
  • Improved resilience against soil depletion - through promoting soil-replenishing crops;
  • Hunger alleviation - health improvement in Nigeria and across Africa;
  • Enhanced innovation - capacity for local farming communities; and
  • Local empowerment - through appreciation of indigenous crop and planting/cooking traditions.

Dr Nadia Radzman went on to say: “I had absolutely no idea how to go about promoting the enormous benefits of the African yam bean. Fortunately, my attention was drawn to the world-class EIT Food WE Lead Food Programme, which provided me with the inspiration and confidence to believe that my knowledge and expertise could make a difference.”  

The EIT Food WE Lead Food Programme’s aim is primarily to engage, educate and equip current and future women leaders in the food industry, and enable them to lead entrepreneurially to deliver a sustainable, diverse, and equitable food sector. In addition, contributing to increasing the representation of women assists with realising the benefits of diversity on creativity, innovation, and sustainability as well as the performance of the sector.

Adapted from a press release provided by Sue Higgins, WE Lead Food Community Manager.

African yam bean image: courtesy of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).