Impacts of US/African collaborative research

When groups in wealthier nations try to help out citizens in countries not as wealthy, there is always the danger of a helper’s arrogance by failing to take the time to understand the culture of the host country. Last week, I mentioned such a situation with respect to Nelson Rockefeller trying to bring the wonders of the modern American supermarket to Venezuela as described in Supermarket USA. In my first position as a professional food scientist I observed a group of four scientists in my department who were determined to assist citizens of Nigeria, particularly women and children, to improve nutritional quality of the food they ate. The project was headed by Kay McWatters and included Dick Phillips, Manjeet Chinnan and Larry Beuchat. It was an example of true collaboration between scientists and people who stood to benefit from the application of appropriate technology to a practical problem. Dick Phillips agreed  to tell their story.  

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) established the Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program (BCCRSP) funded by the Freedom from Hunger (Title XII Act) in September, 1980.  This program was administered by Michigan State University and consisted originally of 18 projects in 12 developing (host) countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.  The focus of the BCCRSP program was to conduct research that would enable improved production and utilization methods for the staple legume crops:  common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculate).  These commodities were chosen because they were (and remain) sources of high-quality dietary protein and other nutrients in areas where animal-derived foods are expensive and sometimes scarce.

A key aspect of the CRSPs was inculcated in the name itself – Collaborative.  These projects were inherently collaborative because efforts and funding were shared equally by scientists at U.S., and host country institutions.  Joint planning, predominantly during travel between U.S and host countries, frequent communication, and rigorous reporting fused the efforts into as single program.

Beginning in 1980, faculty members of The University of Georgia (UGA) Department of Food Science and Technology in Griffin collaborated with colleagues at the Department of Food and Home Sciences, University of Nigeria, Nsukka in a project titled: “Appropriate Technology for Cowpea Preservation and Processing and a Study of its Socioeconomic Impact on Rural Populations in Nigeria.”  As the title suggests, major emphases were on technologies for processing cowpea into food and nutritional quality of the seeds and foods derived from them.  A large-scale anthropometric survey found extensive malnutrition among pre-school children. While cowpea seeds are consumed as cooked, whole seeds in a variety of dishes in Nigeria, they are also decorticated (seed coat and ‘eye’ removed) and milled into pastes to form the major ingredient in two popular foods, akara (fried cowpea-based ‘hushpuppies’), and moin-moin (a custard-like food).

Cowpea akara

Demonstration of akara making from dry-milled meal

A considerable body of research at both institutions examined improved ways of doing this task to reduce the labor of women making these foods, especially akara which is made and sold by women vendors on street corners and markets.  This activity is a major source of income by women in Nigeria.  Studies showed an improved dry-milling process resulted a saving of nearly half the energy required by processors.  This technology was eventually extended to partners in Niger and other neighboring countries.  These findings led to agreements between the Nsukka team and several local villages to install mechanical mills for producing cowpea meal and flour.

Cowpea mill

   Mechanical milling of cowpea at a village/market mill

Another emphasis was development of weaning foods for the most vulnerable period for childhood malnutrition.  It was emphasized that these were not a replacement for mothers’ milk, but foods to be given to children upon weaning to avoid the devastating effects of kwashiorkor (from the Ga word for the disease a child gets when his/her baby brother or sister is born – ie, when the mother produces insufficient milk to continue feeding the first child) or marasmus.  Studies both in Nigeria and the US elucidated the nutritional quality (digestibility of starch and protein, protein quality) of cowpea in response to a range of processing technologies.  Other research determined a method of reducing indigestible sugars (oligosaccharides) in cowpea by controlled germination.

The Nigeria project concluded in 1990 and was replaced in 1991 by a series of collaborative projects with scientists in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Ghana-Legon.  Emphasis on the nutritional contribution of cowpea in the diet of weanlings continued with development of additional products and implementation of improved technology for processing such as low-cost extrusion cooking.  The excellent quality of cowpea protein compared to that in starchy paps traditionally provided during this phase of life markedly improved overall nutriture.  This approach included cooked, flaked cowpea which proved efficacious in combating malnutrition in studies at the Princess Marie Louise hospital in Accra where kwashiorkor was first described.

Wards of malnourished children were emptied due to rapid recoveries facilitated by this supplement.  Further, combinations of high-lysine cowpea protein with low-lysine, higher methionine/cystine cereal proteins provides a natural complementary mixture.  Several weaning mixtures were designed from combinations of cowpea flour, cereals and other ingredients and had PER (protein efficiency ratio — the standard method for determining protein quality for infants) values comparable to milk protein.  Acceptability of the weaning foods was assessed among mothers of weanling children in Ghana with valuable feedback received.  The concept of nutritious cowpea-based foods was extended to convenience foods based on complementary protein mixtures that included cereals and oilseeds.

Cowpea measure

Measuring nutritional status by upper arm circumference

Research on a major storage defect of cowpea, Hard-to-Cook (HTC) defect, elucidated molecular level mechanisms, investigated utilization and nutritional quality of HTC seeds, and developed storage conditions to prevent development of the defect.  In both the Nigeria and Ghana projects, research into the microbiological safety of cowpea foods was conducted providing information for improved practices in the host countries.  Cowpea was shown to be a poor host for Aspergillus flavus, the mold that produces aflatoxin, but other food pathogens thrived in high-moisture cowpea foods because of poor sanitation.

In addition to direct nutritional and food processing benefits in developing countries, the BCCRSP program created collegial teams of research and outreach faculty from UGA and host country institutions with ongoing relationships that supersede specific projects and built understanding among individuals and cultures.  It enabled the training of numerous host country students who received MS and PhD degrees at both HC universities and the University of Georgia.  These young scientists form a cohort of R&D capability in their countries that will continue to solve the intractable problems of development into the future.  Additionally, the program provided funds for updating and maintaining research and food processing capabilities in the host country institutions.

The challenges of development comprise a Gordian knot of sociological, political, and economic hurdles that resists easy solutions.  However, solving a few problems, training a few scholars, and inspiring a few women in villages and marketplaces may form the butterfly effect that will transform these countries and the world.

Next week: How the middleman became the supply chain.

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