Out of Africa: A Database of 7,000 Useful Plants

Photo: Courtesy of G.J.H. Grubben GENETIC DIVERSITY: Fruits of the Scarlett eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum), of which the immature fruits and leaves are used as vegetables. European and African scientists have launched an ambitious project to review the current literature about useful plants of tropical Africa. From 2003 to 2013, researchers will examine and update all written documentation about approximately 7,000 commodity plants in 47 African countries and islands from the Tropic of C

By | November 25, 2002

Photo: Courtesy of G.J.H. Grubben
 GENETIC DIVERSITY: Fruits of the Scarlett eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum), of which the immature fruits and leaves are used as vegetables.

European and African scientists have launched an ambitious project to review the current literature about useful plants of tropical Africa. From 2003 to 2013, researchers will examine and update all written documentation about approximately 7,000 commodity plants in 47 African countries and islands from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, and then compile the information into an easily accessible database and some handbooks. The goal of the Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA) project is to help countries make better use of their rich biodiversity. It also should put valuable knowledge about the plant resources in this largely neglected region at the fingertips of scientists worldwide.

 

"Africa holds more than 25% of the world's biodiversity. ... The diversity of crops today is at the basis of food security of tomorrow," said Shafqat Kakakhel, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, at a late September meeting that reviewed the initiative. "This diversity is in severe danger as a study published in Science at the beginning of this month makes abundantly clear."1 According to that paper's authors, at least 22% and possibly as much as 47% of the world's plants are threatened with extinction; previously scientists estimated that only 13% of these plants were threatened. The erroneous estimates did not include a reliable tally of species at risk in the tropical latitudes. The new numbers underline the urgency of documentation projects like PROTA.

The ¤6 million project was initiated by Jan Siemonsma, a tropical agronomist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Other European participants include the French Agropolis, a conglomerate of agricultural research institutions focusing on Third World development, and the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens of Britain, well known for its conservation efforts. In Africa, the researchers have established six regional offices in Uganda, Ghana, Malawi, Madagascar, Gabon, and Burkina Faso. The Network Office Africa, located at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, will coordinate the work on the continent.

"An enormous amount of research has been done on commodity plants in Africa," explains Elizabeth Omino, a plant taxonomist who heads the Kenya Network Office. "But often it has never been published. It may be written in a local language and gather dust in the libraries of small institutes or even personal collections." Regional officials will find this little known "grey literature" in the institutions of the countries assigned to their region, and review it for use in the project.

For several years, scientists have worked on a precursor to the database, which now showcases 39 plants from 16 different commodity groups on the PROTA Web site (www.prota.org) in much the same format in which all 7,000 species are eventually to be featured. Species include West-African okra (vegetable), African rice (cereal), Ethiopian cardamom (spice), sausage tree (medicinal plant), and natal indigo (dye). Many African plants are often adept at multitasking. Indigo (Indigofera arrecta), for example, serves as a cover crop and green manure, as well as a dye. An extract from its leaves is said to mitigate symptoms of peptic ulcers; the treatment method has been patented for medicinal use. The sausage tree (Kigelia africana) controls erosion when planted on riverbanks; in addition, its nutritious seeds are edible, and the wood often has an afterlife as dugout canoes. A commercial product containing powdered bark is used to treat Candida albicans infections, and the fruit has shown anticancer activity in vitro.

For each species, the PROTA prototype lists scientific names and multiple vernacular names. It explains a plant's uses, describes its biochemical properties, names diseases and pests, and defines its ecological preferences. It supplies information about local production and international trade as well as suggestions for further research and commercial uses. An extensive list of references, distribution maps, drawings of plant parts for identification, and photographs complete the species' profile.

Photo: Courtesy of H.C.D. De Wit, Biosystematics Group, Wageningen UR
 AFRICAN ALLURE: The Inflorescence and leaves of the African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata), a well known and widespread ornamental tree.

PROTA is the successor of a previous Wageningen project that compiles information on the Plant Resources of Southeast Asia (PROSEA). The project is set for completion in Spring 2003 and has received wide acclaim from the international science community. John Wiersema, a botanist at the US Department of Agriculture, praises the project. "PROSEA maintains very high scientific standard. I expect the same from PROTA," he says. "We are incorporating PROSEA information into our GRIN-database that is used by scientists around the world. We already have about 1000 different PROSEA citations."

Even more rewarding than scientists' approval, says Siemonsma, is the fact that the flow of information reaches the people who directly depend on these plants. PROSEA derivatives are already being widely used by the local population. Spin-offs include brochures and leaflets in the native languages, training manuals for fieldwork in agriculture and forestry, partnerships with local industries, and community websites in Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Filipino (www.proseanet.org/indonesia).

Photo: Courtesy of H.C.D. De Wit, Biosystematics Group, Wageningen UR
 FRUITS OF FAIDHERBIA ALBIDA: The Apple-ring acacia is widely planted in West and East Africa and typically used for intercropping, fodder, fuelwood, and local medicines among other things.

Eric Krampah, who runs the PROTA regional office for Western Africa, looks forward to similarly packaging PROTA-information in nonscientific ways to make it useful for Africa's impoverished population. About 70% of tropical Africa's labor force works in agriculture, explains Krampah, a natural resources manager at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana. Yet agriculture accounts for only about 38% of Ghana's GDP. He expects information compiled by PROTA to be an essential resource at both the grassroots and management levels for improving rural living conditions. Beyond that, Krampah predicts, the region's medicinal plants could be "pure gold" for pharmaceutical research.

Silvia Sanides (sanides@cs.com) is a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Va.

1. N.C.A. Pitman et al., "Estimating the size of the world's threatened flora," Science, 298:989, Nov. 1, 2002.

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