A cheap and healthy source of protein, soy-based food products are booming, and the developing world is making the most of it. Nigeria's private sector is becoming a major player, and both Cadbury and Nestlé have set up large soy processing facilities there. Some 140 soy-based food products have been developed for use in Nigeria - Aaron Priel takes up the story.

In little more than two decades, Nigeria - Africa's most populous country - has become the continent's larger producer of soybeans and soy products. "While still a relatively minor player in a US$40bn market, Nigeria has been quick to profit from new technologies that have helped farmers overcome a series of complex production problems," as noted in a special report by Future Harvest.*

Last year, Nigerian soybean producers harvested an estimated 500,000 tonnes of soybeans, a 20-fold increase in over 20 years. The harvest, valued at US$85m, was used to produce a variety of traditional dishes, as well as processed foods such as soy milk, "and especially formulated foods to help malnourished infants and children." Tofu, made of soybean, turns out to be Nigeria's most popular and preferred food product for feeding children, the report said.

Lukas Brader, director-general of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), one of the 16 Future Harvest centres, commented: "soybeans are a near-perfect crop for a country like Nigeria." He explained that soybeans carry twice the protein of meat or poultry and contain all eight essential amino acids needed for childhood development. "Best of all, soybeans are affordable. In Nigerian markets, soybeans cost about one-fifth as much as other forms of protein, including dairy and fish and are easier to store and transport," Brader remarked. He explained that in order to get to that stage, IITA researchers produced an entirely new plant type that could cope with high disease pressure, compete with parasitic weeds, and grow in African soils.

The redesigned crop, IITA Soybeans, "are two-to three times more productive under Nigerian conditions than US and Asian varieties. Funding for the US$20m research was provided by members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), based on seed capital provided by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

"Soybean has been a godsend for Nigeria," according to Prof. Dele Fakorede, an agricultural expert based at Nigeria's Obafemi Awolowo University. "Our farmers are earning good money, our small industries are prospering, and our children and young mothers are benefiting from a locally-made, protein-rich food," he said.

While the new plant types have made it possible to expand soybean farming across large parts of the country, most observers agree that "what sparked production was the development of soy-based food products, including a West African version of tofu." Brader credits the Japanese researcher Osamu Nakayama "who got the idea to use tofu as a substitute for wara, a traditional but expensive kind of local cheese. Nakayama eventually succeeded, despite doubts expressed by sceptics, to develop a good wara substitute using soymilk and local plant extracts, Brader commented.

Future Harvest reports that today, the demand for tofu and other processed soy foods is growing at an annual rate of 20%, "fuelling a major cottage industry in rural Nigeria." A follow-up report by researchers at Nigeria's University of Ibadan points out that children who grow up in soybean-producing communities are generally healthier and suffer less malnutrition than the average Nigerian child, noting that "improved nutrition also helps to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS." So far, according to the report, 100,000 Nigerians have been trained in soybean production and in the preparation of soy products.

The private sector, says IITA general director Brader, is also becoming a major player in the market for soybean and soy products. Nigeria now has more than 65 soybean processing plants, ranging in size from small village-level mills to large plants established by food processing giants Nestlé and Cadbury. Brader notes that the big processors use soybean to boost the protein content of baked goods, breakfast cereals, weaning foods, and dairy products. Currently, about 140 soy-based food products have been developed for use in Nigeria.

Prof Fakorede, of Nigeria's Obafemi Awolowo University said the Nigerian people are grateful for the opportunity to grow a crop that originated in Asia, "and we look forward to the day when we can begin trading soybeans with Asia."

By Aaron Priel, just-food.com correspondent

*Future Harvest is a non-profit organisation that builds awareness and support for food and environmental research. Future Harvest supports research, promotes partnerships and sponsors projects that bring the results of research to rural communities, farmers and families in Africa, Latin America and Asia.