Flora mapping flora: Unlocking the nutrition in Benin’s sacred forests

In the tropical forests of Benin, far below the towering ebony, shea and mahogany trees, one can find an abundance of riches. Mongoose, warthogs and chameleons scamper through lush foliage, made up of a dazzling array of nutrition-rich plant species. Benin is home to around 3,000 varieties of flora, including baobab trees, whose fruit boasts six times the vitamin C of an orange, as well as leafy green vegetables rich in iron.

Some traditional Beninese, descendants of the originators of voodoo, believe there to be even more to the forests – sacred spirits and precious medicines that can cure a sundry of illnesses. Folk pick the leaves of the kinkeliba bush to cure liver trouble, vivid yellow cochlospermum planchonii flowers to boost female fertility and seek out the sacred garlic pear for use as an antiseptic.

But the flora of the forest is yet to be studiously mapped in a way that will allow Benin’s population to benefit fully from the nutritional goldmine. Malnourishment is an issue in Benin, with 12% of households suffering from food insecurity, making it imperative to find a way of unlocking the nutrition from the wild plant life adorning the forest.

And who better to undertake this task than the aptly named Beninese university lecturer Flora Chadare?

Flora Chadare

“Reports show these plants are high in micronutrients,” Chadare tells the Guardian. “So why not improve the way they are consumed to help nutrition?”

Chadare is currently getting ready to map the edible plants in Benin’s rainforests, with the aim of proving that they can sustainably provide all the vitamins and minerals that people in the area need. Presently, the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for combatting malnutrition propose fortifying foodstuffs on an industrial scale, by adding vitamin A to flour or iodine to salt, for example.

“Food fortification is fine,” says Chadare. “But we have a problem in Africa and in most developing countries: a programme is financed and then it stops. It is not sustainable. These wild edible plants are here already. If the population can learn the right way of using them then it will have a positive impact on nutrition.”

Chadare was recently awarded $10,000 (£6,300) for coming second in a Japanese award for outstanding research for development at the annual Global Development Network conference. “With this money, I can implement the first part [of the study]” she says.

Chadare will first map five key indigenous plants hitherto known to be high in nutrition and found throughout Benin, examine their levels of micronutrients and discover the optimum mode of consumption by experimenting with different combinations.

“My project is all about how to wisely use edible plants to improve nutritional security in Benin,” Chadare says. “These plants are already eaten in traditional diets, but the combination usually isn’t right. They may be using them but don’t get nutritional benefit from them.”

If we eat a meal that combines vitamin C and iron, for example, we enhance the body’s absorption of a mineral essential for healthy blood. Iron is abundant and easily available in Benin’s array of leafy green vegetables but is not traditionally eaten with vitamin C rich baobab. “Why not add a little amount of baobab fruit into the sauce to enhance the iron?” asks Chadare.

Once the researcher has proven the best combinations, she will send a policy brief to the Benin government recommending the inclusion of the wild plants of the rainforest in the country’s nutrition strategy.

Image via lithopman

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