GCRF Underutilised Plants of Tropical Africa Hub

Turning plant diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa into an economic resource for community livelihoods.

Mountain area in Mozambique - a tropical important plant area
Project summary Plus


The GCRF Underutilised Plants of Tropical Africa Hub will develop sustainable markets for plant-based products delivering economic benefits, improving food security, and incentivising habitat protection by local communities through a collaborative interdisciplinary research and capacity building programme.


Africa lost around 15.6 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2015 (iied.org), and biodiversity loss is accelerating in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly due to agricultural expansion), fuelled by food demand, which is predicted to increase fourfold by 2050 (Hilderink et al. 2012)

Throughout history, Africa’s plant diversity has provided natural capital assets for millions of people through provisioning of material and non-material benefits (crops, food, timber, fuel) and regulating services (carbon sequestration and water-flow regulation). The regional assessment report on Africa for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES 2018) noted that this unique plant diversity, richness in ecosystem services, and wealth of indigenous and local knowledge is a strategic asset for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, offers opportunities to mitigate threats of climate change, and can sustainably and equitably be used to reduce inequality and poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most poverty-stricken regions in the world, areas that will be most heavily impacted by climate change, and poverty and food security represent key challenges. The incredible natural plant resources that Sub-Saharan Africa contains may well provide solutions to these problems, but only if the plants are properly documented, their uses understood and a clear pathway to commercialisation determined.

An example: the need to protect natural habitats to maintain natural capital assets in Sub-Saharan Africa is shown in the dated slide sequence of four Google Earth Images 2010–2016 of one of the last remaining locations for Cola mossambicensis, showing forest loss of 97% in 5 years. It is likely this rare tree species is now extinct at this location.

Image showing Comparison of four Google Earth Images 2010-2016 of one of the last remaining locations for Cola mossambicensis, showing forest loss of 97% in 5 years.

Moreover, many plant species remain unknown not just for their uses, but to science. In the Guinean Highlands, a team of Kew and local botanists recently discovered a new species and genus to science of the coffee family with no known local name or uses (Cheek et al. 2018), from which 40 different plant-derived triterpenoids were characterised, a class of chemicals associated with among others medical uses. This is example emphases the urgent need for capacity building, and for participatory plant diversity and uses surveys in biodiverse natural habitats.

Project description

The programme addresses the following UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

  • SDG 15 (Use terrestrial ecosystems sustainably & halt biodiversity loss),
  • SDG2 (End hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, promote sustainable & diverse agriculture)

and will contribute to:

  • SDG1 (End poverty, including by provision of secure rights, assets and economic opportunities),
  • SDG12 (Sustainable consumption & production),
  • SDG13 (Combat climate change)
  • SDG17 (Global partnerships for sustainable development),

This will be done by by pursuing three objectives:

  1. Survey plant diversity in natural habitats and identify economically valuable plants.
  2. Develop tools to assess plants for value as foods, plant-derived compounds or fibres.
  3. Develop a commercialisation framework to create community value from plant diversity.

The hub focuses on five countries in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mozambique and Uganda. Mali will be a knowledge exchange partner. Research capacity varies from low (Guinea) to more advanced (Cameroon, Ethiopia), enabling a collaborative research and training programme through both North-South and South-South learning. The Hub is based on partnerships with stakeholders in Sub-Saharan Africa, built over decades of collaboration.

Map showing research needs identified by African partners

Our African partners identified the challenge, indicated research needs (see map) and co-developed the proposal during meetings, workshops and activities in the UK and in all five partner countries between October 2016 and May 2018 (see Timeline below). The size, complexity and persistence of the challenge requires investment to create a transformative research and capacity building programme and a South-South learning network with long-term impact. The Hub will deliver economic benefits for communities in five partner countries. The methodologies will constitute a framework that can be replicated globally, benefiting other biodiversity-rich least developed countries. The Hub will be participatory involving stakeholders including resource stewards (men and women), local communities, NGOs, local and national government/policy makers, academics and the private sector. Results will be disseminated through community meetings, interactive workshops, online networks, as scientific papers, via media channels and as policy reports.


We aim to empower our Sub-Saharan African partner countries to:

  • Survey plant diversity in biodiverse natural habitats and identify indigenous economically and traditionally valuable plants through local knowledge, documented uses and knowledge about plant diversity, chemistry and fibre
  • Use exemplars of underutilised crops, plant-derived compounds and fibres to develop generic frameworks enabling identification of plants that are important for food security and dietary range and have the potential to improve prosperity of communities and drive economic development
  • Identify the economic potential of underutilised crops, promoting species and varieties that are higher yielding, more productive, have a better nutrient composition and/or higher quality fibre, are resilient to climate change and can be cultivated sustainably
  • Identify plant-derived compounds (nutrients in foods, high value products and plant-derived pesticides) through development of a methodological framework, to aid in improving nutritional diversity and availability, increasing crop yields, optimising use of co-products and driving economic innovation
  • Identify plant fibres that can be extracted to drive economic growth and innovation
  • Realise sustainable and economically meaningful outcomes for communities dependent on subsistence agriculture

Meetings and workshops

The GCRF Hub aims to improve the ability of our African partners to undertake research to promote economic development in their countries. Our partners identified the challenge and co-developed the proposal during a range of meetings, workshops and activities in the UK and in all five partner countries between October 2016 and May 2018 (see Timeline below). Partnerships with stakeholders in Sub-Saharan Africa were built over decades of collaboration and the development phase of the GCRF proposal opened opportunities to build new partnerships. The joint research programme is highly valued by our Sub-Saharan African partners and meets key development needs. The capacity building is especially welcome because it creates opportunities for partnerships beyond the lifetime of the GCRF Hub.


Project team Plus
Partners and collaborators Plus

UK partners







Funded by Plus

Net yet funded, invited for full proposal submission to the UK Research and Innovation call for Interdisciplinary Research Hubs to address intractable challenges faced by developing countries.

Selected publications Plus

Cheek, M., Alvarez-Aguirre, M.G., Grall, A., Sonké, B., Howes, M.-J.R. & Larridon, I. (2018)

Kupeantha (Coffeeae, Rubiaceae), a new genus from Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea

PLoS ONE 13(6): e0199324. DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0199324

Cheek, M., Magassouba, S., Howes, M.J.R., Doré, T., Doumbouya, S., Molmou, D., Grall, A., Couch, C. & Larridon, I. (2018)

Kindia (Pavetteae, Rubiaceae), a new cliff-dwelling genus from Mt Gangan, Republic of Guinea

PeerJ 22247. DOI 10.7717/peerj.4666

Darbyshire, I., Anderson, S., Asatryan, A. et al. (2017)

Important Plant Areas: revised selection criteria for a global approach to plant conservation

Biodiversity and Conservation 26 (8) 1767-1800. DOI 10.1007/s10531-017-1336-6

Couch, C, Magassouba, S, Rokni, S & Cheek M. (2017)

Threatened plants species of Guinea-Conakry: A preliminary checklist

PeerJ Preprints 5: e3451v1

Related projects Plus
Further information Plus

Plants of the World Online

Useful Plants and Fungi Portal