Scientific research

FoodLAND is explicitly driven by multidisciplinary and holistic principles in order to tackle nutrition, farming, and food processing issues in a coordinated way. Specific advancements will be produced in different branches of knowledge including behavioural economics, plant breeding, water-saving, aquaculture, precision farming, drying systems, etc. The main ambition of FoodLAND is to adopt the concept of diversity across the following five general dimensions:

Addressing different forms of malnutrition from anaemia, to stunting, to wasting, to overweight

FoodLAND seeks to increase the number of people – especially women and children –  consuming nutrient-dense diets, in order to ensure balanced healthy diets and fight against non-communicable diseases (see background).

Addressing the food value chain as a whole from production to storage, to processing, to nutritional and healthy consumption

This innovative approach will cover organizational, methodological, and technological issues encompassing the food system as a whole, and thus will favour synergies across different stages and boost market-oriented shared strategies. This will lead to the strengthening of agro-biodiversity and food diversity and the valorisation of novel and conventional food raw products for the supply of novel foods, while improving social conditions and gender equality, and safeguarding the eco-systems.

The linkages between the Food Hubs and the local urban markets will ensure supply chains (conventional and organic) for both local urban markets and high-value global markets shall be targeted. Mutual advantage will be gained for consumers (balanced, healthy diets), the small-scale farmers and rural communities at large (reinforcing local food identities and increasing global market opportunities for conventional and organic food supply chains).

FOODLAND will foster the coordination and management of the local food supply chains as a whole by developing and implementing organizational and technological innovations and by empowering smallholder farmers and food processors, especially women. The implementation, test and validation of the precision farming systems will be tailored to local contexts and specific conditions and will favour low-cost and low-tech solutions (based on standard components with no challenging technical maintenance). This way, Local food operators will increase their knowledge of environmental challenges and technological advancements, their awareness of consumers’ nutritional needs, and their propensity of formulating common strategies of taking joint operative decisions. These open and scalable solutions will improve the quality and quantity of production while reducing food losses.

The water-saving and micro-irrigation systems will permit to improve the water use efficiency of the system, reduce the overall costs, and overtake environmental stresses commonly found in arid environments. The overall strategy will be to set up and implement community on-soil gardens equipped with micro-irrigation systems, to follow several dissemination and training activities on micro-irrigation system and good agricultural practices, and to promote cooperation among farmers, thus expanding market opportunities.

As for precision farming systems, they will be based on the implementation of local participatory platforms for advising farmers through the data collected by interconnected sensors (Internet of things, IoT). The use of precision farming techniques to improve the efficiency of agricultural production systems through the implementation of precision irrigation/fertigation systems based on locally interconnected soil moisture sensors; monitoring the phytosanitary status of plants through the use of multi-spectral cameras on drones and the implementation of an alert system through the use of mobile applications intended for farmers; the implementation of a precision harvesting systems that aims to optimize the choice of harvesting period by monitoring the plantations in the field using drones. Our actions are to install soil moisture and other sensors like flow meters and set up digital platforms (monitoring centre and mobile applications) allowing smallholder farmers to directly and effectively monitor irrigation/fertigation according to vegetation development stages, control plant diseases, and optimize the harvest period based on information provided to their smartphones.

Regarding the intensified small-scale drying systems, an improved Integral Starting Accessibility Drying (ISAD) system will be implemented, which is based on a short time drying process enabling highly effective surface drying (few seconds) followed by an adequate tempering period (few minutes) to even out the internal moisture content field. The new system will enhance the technical performances when compared to the current drying solutions, as it reduces the operating costs and safeguards the final product quality.

Integrating behavioural economics approaches into the agro-food research field

FoodLAND is making use of behavioural economic and bio-metric experiments to account for individual food-related preferences and decisions, and include them into the map of factors influencing innovation adoption and food consumption, to enhance coordination among actors, and to abate the risk of providing one-size-fits-all solutions.

Behavioural economics applied to the theory of individual choices enables the understanding of individuals’ responses to certain stimuli. While making choices about a food product, consumers aim not only to answer basic food needs but also to satisfy a set of values and beliefs. Consumers make their often-repeated food choices also driven by non-conscious reasons, influenced by a complex set of emotions and feelings.

Incentivised experiments are being used in FoodLAND to study consumers’ as well as producers’ (smallholder farmers’) behaviour since individuals’ behaviours in the laboratory have proven to be a good indicator of their real-world behaviours. Incentivised experiments ensure that participants are motivated and fully committed to the tasks they are asked to perform.

These experimental approaches, combined with questionnaires, will be used in FoodLAND to scrutinize both the supply of and demand for novel, local food products, for population groups (farmers, consumers) in African countries at different levels of nutrition transition.

Consumer research, additionally, takes advantage of a new technology named neuroscientific methods, and especially of the bio-metric methods that allow for less intrusive investigation of daily food shopping. Local shoppers’ food choices will be observed.

Addressing different food chains

FoodLAND is developing technological innovations for agricultural and horticulture production, as well as integrating different aquaculture and agriculture systems, giving priority to novel local varieties and species. This approach will valorise the local specificities and vocations, to enlarge the spectrum of innovation adoption, and to meet the consumers’ nutritional needs.

The plant breeding work in this research will involve the development and evaluation of different breeding lines and varieties of legume crops with different traits including enhanced nutritional traits, thus creating diverse populations of legume which is beneficial to agrobiodiversity and environment systems. The bean lines will be obtained from the SUA Bean Breeding programme, improved, and selected for augmented nutrient contents (Fe and Zn), increased yield, resistance/tolerance to major bean diseases, earliness in maturity, and acceptable seed traits (seed colour and size).

The aquaculture research and validation activities of the project will ensure a solid knowledge base of overcoming the main problems in the development of aquaculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and will provide new methods and technologies for other countries in Africa. By developing aquaculture technologies for urban and peri-urban areas, the production is brought closer to the markets resulting in a shorter distribution chain that can be more competitive with imported products. New fish species will also be valorised and new fish processing methods tested to increase the shelf life and value of the products and ensure a competitive advantage for the aquaculture sector. Fish from wild populations will not be used directly in any experiments and the fingerlings of local species produced in the project but not used in the experiments will be restocked in natural waters. The planned work in  FoodLAND will, directly and indirectly, contribute to preserving the wild populations of Labeo victorianus, which has recently gained the critically endangered IUCN status.

Building open technological platforms and labs

FoodLAND is aimed at sharing the scientific and technological findings by designing and establishing an ICT based platform. It is crucial for the project to encourage exchanges across the network of Food Hubs, boosting synergies between partners, and fostering the replicability of the validated innovations. This goal will be achieved by continuously feeding the platform with the methodological advancements reached by the previous tasks, and supplementing it with the validated results.

The platform will be also open to the scientific community, to non-consortium research units, together with a network of laboratories for behavioural economics experiments that the project will implement in collaboration with RUFORUM (SCAB). Established in 2004, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) is a consortium of 46 African universities operating within 22 countries spanning the African continent. Universities play an important and largely unfulfilled role in the well-being of small-scale farmers and the economic development of countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Sum up of the open technological innovations and food products to be developed, implemented and validated for the whole food value chain

AGRICULTURE

Farming management systems

Digital tools for precision agriculture
Precision irrigation/fertigation systems
Gardening and hydroponics systems
Biodegradable mulching
Precision crop protection systems
Precision harvesting systems

Novel varieties

2 improved legume lines: Phaseolus vulgaris

AQUACULTURE

Farming management systems

Efficient aquaculture technologies

Novel varieties

New aquaculture species: Barbus altianalis, Labeo victorianus

AGRICULTURE

Primary processing systems

Air-drying tool enabling food raw material processing

Secondary processing systems

Bio-based packaging enabling the stability, safety and commercialization of products: for fruits & vegetables and for composite flours

AQUACULTURE

Primary processing systems

Air-drying tool enabling food raw material processing

Secondary processing systems

Bio-based packaging enabling the stability, safety and commercialization of products for fish

AGRICULTURE

Dried food products

Dried vegetables

Nutrient and nutraceutical rich composite flours with local varieties

Bambara beans, cowpeas and sorghum
Orange fleshed sweet potato, grain amaranth and pumpkin
Moringa and teff
Therapeutic powder for moderate and severe wasting in children

Oils from local varieties

(Extra) virgin olive oil
Moringa oil

Snacks from local varieties

Orange fleshed sweet potato and grain amaranth
Bambara beans, cowpeas and sorghum

Other products from local varieties

Fruit based baby food

AQUACULTURE

Dried food products

Dried fish products (salted, smoked fermented)

Nutrient and nutraceutical rich composite flours with local varieties

Fish nutripeutic powders

Oils from local varieties

Fish oils

Snacks from local varieties

Fish cakes and crackers

Other products from local varieties

Fish fillets, balls, noodles, nuggets, sausages, burgers