Ahipa legume root: A strong new ally in the struggle against hunger

The Peru-based International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym, CIP) has launched a project to enhance the nutrient-rich yam bean in an effort to improve health, food security and the sustainability of farming systems in Central and West Africa, CIP reported in August 2010. Ahipa is the name the Inca gave to the highly nutritious legume root produced by the American yam bean (Pachyrhizus spp.) The Ahipa Project is a four-year CIP initiative, funded by Belgian Development Cooperation, designed to capture the full food potential of the crop.
Ahipa fixes nitrogen in the soil and can therefore be grown without nitrogen fertiliser. This makes it highly suited to the needs of small farmers as an integral part of a sustainable landuse system.
Native to Central and South America, and related to soybean, yam beans are also grown in Asia and parts of Africa. Among all the storage root forming legumes, they exhibit by far the widest adaptation and highest yield potential. The plant produces large storage roots, like cassava or sweetpotato, which are consumed raw, cooked or processed. However despite their high oil and protein content, the seeds are inedible due to the presence of toxic rotenone, and this may provide the clue as to why ahipa never became a major food crop.
In many West African countries, gari, a food product made from cassava, is eaten by millions of people every day. A young African scientist working with the University of Göttingen in Germany first put the spotlight on ahipa, proving that ahipa roots can also be processed into gari. Compared to cassava gari, ahipa root gari has a much greater protein and micronutrient density and therefore the crop holds great potential for the marginal, drought-prone farming systems of sub- Saharan Africa where malnutrition is a major concern.
The Center's project, in collaboration with agricultural research institutes in Benin, Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium, integrates work on three continents to improve the availability of yam bean collections and breeding lines, with scientists identifying high yielding varieties that are adapted to agro-forestry based and maize mixed farming systems. At the same time research is directed at detecting rotenone free genotypes of the crop in order to make yam seed usable for human consumption. Improved commercial ahipa root products are being developed, along with the marketing strategies needed to exploit the crop's full potential, and crucial impact assessment studies undertaken to identify where resources can most effectively be deployed.