Gathoni Mwangi, a 78-year-old widow from Ngamba village in central Kenya, will never forget 2010. That was the year both the long and short rains failed as drought hit the Horn of Africa.
The maize Mwangi had planted on her one-acre plot withered away, leaving her barely able to feed her five orphaned grandchildren. What fodder she could give her two cows was scarcely sufficient for them to produce enough milk for the children, and there was none left over to sell to buy food.
But it was a so-called "orphan crop" - plants that receive little scientific research or funding despite their significance for food security in the world's poorest regions - that saved the family. A few yams had survived on the farm for years, so completely disregarded as a crop that no one had bothered to harvest the tubers.
"I would dig up two (yams) each day and boil or roast them before serving the meal to the children, and not once did we (go to) sleep hungry," Mwangi recalled.
Now a new research institution - the African Plant Breeding Academy - aims to boost the profile and production of similarly neglected but nutritious crops in order to help Africans manage better in harsh weather conditions.
The academy, which opens this month in Nairobi, will train scientists and technicians to breed plants and trees that have previously received scant research attention because they are considered of low economic value on the global market.
The goal is to help reduce hunger and boost food security in Africa by developing high-yielding varieties of crops that communities on the continent once relied on, but have long shunned in favour of staples such as maize, rice and wheat.
"The academy provides scientists and technicians with a dedicated place to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes to help develop food crops with higher nutritional value and which can better withstand climate change, pests and disease," Tony Simons, ICRAF's director-general, told the launch in Nairobi.
"The 100 targeted crops are the 'back garden' crops of rural Africa, home to 600 million people, and improving them will greatly improve the diets of Africa's children, helping to eliminate hunger and malnutrition," Simons added.
The $40 million institute, the first of its kind on the continent, is an initiative of the African Orphan Crops Consortium, a group of international agencies, research institutions and companies launched in 2011.
Over a five-year period, the academy - hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) - will train some 250 scientists and technicians in genomics and marker-assisted selection for crop improvement.
It will create strengthened planting materials for over 100 abandoned or neglected crops, many of them drought-tolerant and affected by few known diseases or pests, which will then be offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa.
Top among them will be baobab, known as the "wonder tree" of Africa because its fruit far outstrips oranges, bananas and even vegetables like spinach in levels of antioxidants, vitamin C, potassium and calcium. It can be used as a dried fruit powder for consumer products.
Other crops to be investigated include the marula fruit tree, Ethiopian mustard, African eggplant, amaranth, bananas and moringa (an edible plant).
ATTITUDE SHIFT NEEDED
Daniel M'reli, an agriculture expert who works as a private consultant, said Africa's orphan crops are known to contain minerals and nutrients that are scarce in more conventional crops. In addition, they can generally withstand adverse weather, while rarely suffering disease and pests attacks.
According to M'reli, crops such as cow pea, millet, sorghum, yam, cassava, and plants like amaranth, black nightshade and nettles once met the nutritional needs of Africans, cushioning them against hunger even in times of low rainfall, but they have been widely abandoned in Kenya.
"The idea of intensifying research and creating a critical mass of people capable of developing and multiplying reliable planting material is highly welcome. However, there would be a need to educate farmers and people in Africa to change attitudes toward the crops, (which are) often seen as poor man's food," M'reli said.
Most farmers today know very little about how to cultivate these crops and would need to be trained, he added.
Gathoni Mwangi in Ngamba welcomed the initiative heartily, saying she would be the first to embrace whatever improved plants are on offer.
She hopes the academy will provide traditional sweet potato vines to plant in the short rainy season from September to December.
"The tubers will feed the children in times of food shortages, while the vines can comfortably feed my animals to avoid the kind of problems I saw in the year 2010," she said.
Maina Waruru is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.