English. Agriculture. Nutrition. Culture. Food science and climate matters. Think on these things. At first glance, seemingly disparate. But meet Professor Eric Amonsou. See how they have mixed and mingled in his life. His career.
His academic journey has seen him traverse the African continent from the Republic of Benin via Nigeria and Ghana to the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in South Africa. With a fair sprinkling of international collaboration — Africa, Canada, Europe, the U.S. — thrown in for good measure.
His field is food science. His work is cutting edge. If you want to know what you should be eating for optimum health — to look good and feel great — you can ask him directly via the health education blog he oversees, Nutrifid, which “proposes nutrition solutions informed by science, which are based on balanced and sustainable nutrition.”
Traditional African crops are Amonsou’s specialty. One crop he has focused on is cowpeas. Indigenous to Africa, they are also a soul food favorite in the U.S. Better known, of course, as black-eyed peas (although they are in fact a bean).
So, meet Amonsou. Let him share the unlikely, adventurous, successful journey that has brought him to where he is right now—recently inaugurated as a full professor. Founder of the food sciences department at his Durban college campus. Winner of awards for innovation.
A creative academic and researcher who combines science, pragmatism and out-the-box thinking. Amonsou, as mentioned, is from the Republic of Benin, the French-speaking West African nation sandwiched between (smaller) Togo and (vast) Nigeria, on the Gulf of Guinea. A BBC article calls it is one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Also one of the world’s poorest countries.
He grew up in inland Savè, a small city in southeastern Benin with rolling hills, boulders popular with climbers and lush vegetation. While one reads online of the negative impact of deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity there, when he was growing up, the fertile soil and tropical climate meant “lots of leafy greens and seasonal fruit. “We never went hungry,” he shares.
Science and English
It was in Savè that his father, a self-made businessman, was advised by friends that science and a good command of English were abracadabra for opening career doors. So he steered his bright young son — one of 20 children from a polygamous family “who all lived in harmony” — in that direction.
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After Amonsou graduated high school with his O and A levels, his dad took him to Nigeria to apply for college. A hectic experience, the prof shares as he laughs at the memory. “So many people.” He shows me pictures of crowds. “At taxi ranks. On bridges. It was alarming at first.” But undeterred, he enrolled for a crash course in English and, with this, was accepted at Nigeria’s prestigious University of Ibadan to do his BSc Honours in agricultural engineering.
An internship, then a research position, followed back home at the National Institute of Agricultural Research of Benin. It was here his interest in food science was sparked.
An international collaboration working on cowpeas, one of the most ancient human food sources, earned him a scholarship to the University of Ghana, where he graduated with his Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) degree in food science.
Now well into his academic and research journey, he needed a further scholarship to do his doctorate. “This is a personal struggle in academia. You look online. You reach out. When an academic you contact is happy with your proposal, then you apply at that college for a scholarship.”
His Ph.D. is from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Post-doc work followed, first there and subsequently in the human nutrition department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. He joined DUT in 2013. Not too long after this, he set up the college’s Food Science and Technology research division.
Food science may not, at first glance, manifest as the “sexy” side of cuisine. But it is where trail-blazing and innovation are key. Just look at the figures and connect the dots. The current world population, 7.9 billion. Projected 2030 figure, 8.5 billion people. Projected 2050 figure, 9.9 billion. Climate change, pollution, devastation. Turn on the news any day. Last month’s conference for climate control, COP26 in Glasgow, shone a glaring spotlight.
There are multiple options to be explored, Amonsou says. “The way we produce our cattle, our livestock for food — full of antibodies, pesticides, not to mention the carbon footprint. It’s a time bomb.” He supports growing meat in labs. He favors insect farming. “Huge nutritional potential there.”
Then there is his personal passion. “I strongly believe we can leverage traditional crops. To combat malnutrition, hunger, poverty. To achieve sustainability goals. To protect the environment. To promote good health.”
In a sense, he is talking from a scientist’s matter-of-fact perspective, the same language as the Slow Food movement advocates (good, clean, fair food; “local” food and traditions; interest in the what and where from? of food; how our food choices affect the wider world). And he is also speaking the language of many of the world’s top chefs and foodies who are committed to fresh, local, foraging, seasonal, traditional, heirloom, flavour. Biodiversity. Good produce. Good health.
Currently, he points out, vast quantities of just five main crops are being produced globally. Rice, potatoes, maize (corn), wheat and soya beans.
Foods for Life
What should we rather be growing and eating?
“Legumes (including bambara grandos, a groundnut widely grown in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, sometimes called a “complete food” due to its balanced macronutrient composition), cereal, roots, tubers, leafy vegetables. Crops with climate resilience, which can grow well in both a wet environment and one that supports dry conditions.
“Crops that are a good source of micronutrients: vitamins, zinc, iron, minerals. Crops that go beyond basic nutrition; that contribute to anti-oxidant activity; that support gut microbes; that promote good health.” And that don’t lose all their benefits when processed. “Like refined wheat flour. There is no fiber, no goodness left after processing. It is a huge problem, especially in the developing world.”
A food might start out rich in micronutrients and vitamins. But then, through processing, which could be how we heat or handle it, we can remove all these components. “So at the end of the day, nothing is left that is beneficial.” This is why we need to pay attention to processing, he points out.
The amadumbe, as it is known in South Africa, taro in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a current key research focus for Amonsou. Read about the amadumbe on the Slow Food ark of taste.
It is an even more versatile veggie than one might imagine. A former master’s student who worked with Amonsou is creating “plastic” use-then-eat containers using amadumbes and something called nanocrystal, which is part of their makeup. He, under the umbrella of DUT, his college, has patents pending on two health drinks and a gel cereal using amadumbes. Food for thought — and good health.
Stemming from his research and that of several post-grad students, Amonsou suggested I eat amadumbe instead of potato for health reasons. Turns out the mucilage (the “slimy” stuff in layman’s terms, which okra also has) is good for the gut. This remains in the amadumbe after “processing,” as in baking or boiling, causing the starch to release slowly—no insulin spike.
Amonsou stresses the importance of the gastrointestinal system to human health. “All diseases begin in the gut and bad digestion is the root of evil,” he has written on his Nutrifid blog.
“There is huge research going on around the link between the gut and the brain,” he says when we chat, first in his office, where he pulls up graphs and charts and pictures on his laptop, showing the science behind the words. Then in his lab, the food scientist’s kitchen.
“Our society is faced with multiple challenges including climate change, obesity and the burden of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Food insecurity in rural households also remains a great challenge. Indigenous African crops represent a treasure of nutrients and health-promoting compounds.”
He is driven by passion. Commitment to creating good-health alchemy for people and the planet; Africa and the world.