Africans are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, a critical problem on a continent where obesity, diabetes and heart disease are becoming as concerning as under-nutrition, scientists said Monday.
In the majority of African countries, half the population could be classified as overweight, Jacky Ganry from French agricultural research centre CIRAD told a conference in Dakar.
"In Africa we are in a critical situation, the average per capita availability (of fruit and vegetables) is far below the recommended level," he said. The World Health Organisation puts the level at 400 grammes a day.
Massive urbanisation, lifestyle changes and dietary habits - particularly in urban areas - along with physical inactivity and inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables are leading to growing numbers of non-communicable diseases, he said.
This includes cancer, hypertension, diabetes and cardovascular disease.
"In urban areas the prevalence of obesity is above the prevalence in rural areas," Ganry said.
Obesity was the lowest on the continent in Ethiopia but 31 percent of all deaths in 2005 came from non-communicable diseases.
In Dakar in 1980 there were only 200 cases of diabetes a year but this has grown to 2,000.
"Increasing the availability and consumption of fruit and vegetables in Africa is a major challenge because of increasing urbanisation, nutrition transitions, increasing prices and food safety concerns," the researcher said.
The conference was organised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation to look into maintaining a supply of fresh food in the face of massive and rapid urbanisation.
Chris Ojiewo, a vegetable breeder with the World Vegetable Centre based in Tanzania, called under-nutrition and obesity Africa's "double burden".
He is pushing the use of African indigenous vegetables which grow easily and have much higher levels of micro-nutrients than others to combat these problems.
"They grow almost naturally" and are rich in vitamins, micro-nutrients and phytochemicals, he said.
But getting the beer-drinking and roasted-meat-eating African middle class and sceptical rural farmers to replace cabbage with jute mallow or African nightshade is no easy task.
"Many Africans don't consume them and we have a humungous task to convince them," said Ojiewo.
"Most of them are actually bitter, they don't look appetising at all."
But nutritionists are working hard at teaching women how to prepare these leaves and fruit, often described as "slimy", because of their astounding nutritional value.
While one would have to eat 16,300 grammes of cabbage for the daily requirement of Vitamin A, this can be achieved with only 130 grammes of jute mallow, said Ojiewo of the leafy plant.
"When the woman has got it on the table, then the child will eat it and so will the father and the rest of the family," he said.
The promotion of indigenous vegetables has been successful in eastern Africa, where supermarkets have moved away from strictly exotic vegetables which are being "slowly replaced" with locally grown alternatives, said Ojiewo.