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How science can help feed the future

13 September 2023

By Milly Sell

Prof Eugénie Kayitesi, PhD, in the lab at the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Personal experience with food insecurity led Prof Eugénie Kayitesi to pursue research into making indigenous foods more nutritious — and publish it open access

Eugénie Kayitesi spent the first seven years of her life moving from one refugee camp to another as she and her parents fled the civil war in Uganda. She experienced first-hand the devastating effects caused by not having enough food:

From one country to another, a lack of food was part and parcel of that experience. I saw people die from hunger or malnutrition-related issues.

The experience led her to the path she is on today. Through her research, Eugénie hopes to improve nutrition, diet and food security in Africa and beyond.

I think for most people, your career choices, your drive, is based on some of your experiences.

Eugénie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at the University of Pretoriaopens in new tab/window, South Africa. She has published more than 30 peer-reviewed international journal articles and book chapters, received multiple awards and is a World Academy of Science (TWAS) Young Affiliate. This year, she received an OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.

Prof Eugénie Kayitesi, PhD, in the lab at the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Prof Eugénie Kayitesi, PhD, in the lab at the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

“Education was a saving grace.”

It was in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo that Eugénie started primary school. This inspired another professional desire: the wish to be a teacher:

Our teachers were all volunteers that decided to bring the children together and start teaching. That teaching environment took us away from our everyday experiences and allowed us to just be children learning, playing and singing together. It felt like education was a saving grace.

After the war in Uganda came to an end, Eugénie and her family returned to the country. She started upper primary school education, walking kilometers each day to get there.

By this time, she had discovered an aptitude for science. Her father, who was a champion of her education, hoped for her to become a doctor while Eugénie maintained her dream of going into teaching:

My father has been a great anchor in my life. My mum died when I was young as we moved between camps. Since then, my father has been the person I could really depend on.

Despite being part of a community that considered marriage more useful for girls than education, her father remained adamant that she deserved her chance with schooling:

My father didn’t see any reason to stop me going to school. He believed that as long as I was good at something, I should be allowed to pursue it.

Another traumatic experience ignites “a passion for living a life where I am useful.”

A further shattering event would firmly cement Eugénie’s desire to do good through her education. Eugénie’s parents were from Rwanda, and following the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, Eugénie and her family moved there to seek out surviving family members and see how they could help. It had a profound impact:

I was 14 and arrived in a country that was completely dismantled. It was another traumatic event. But what it did to me is to ignite a passion and dream of living a life where I am useful.

As Eugénie considered how best to help, her thoughts turned again to the pressing issue of lack of food:

The agricultural system was a big mess. There was hunger all around. The whole country was dependent on support.

As Eugénie progressed through high school, the time came to choose a university course. During a careers show, the prospect of food science as a degree subject was brought to her attention. A woman from a visiting university gave a presentation on malnutrition. Curious, Eugénie asked if this wasn’t an issue for doctors to resolve via medicine? The response was an emphatic “no — malnutrition is cured through eating good, nutritious food.”

This connection and realization spurred Eugénie to include food science in her university options. She went on to get a degree in Food Science and Technology from the University of Rwandaopens in new tab/window, followed by a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Pretoria.

As her research and scientific career began, she realized she could combine looking into nutrition and food security with teaching, allowing her to continue her first love.

Re-thinking underused indigenous crops

The core of Eugénie’s research involves finding ways to improve the use of readily available,

indigenous African plant foods. These include beans, cereals, and green leafy vegetables. There is a strong reason to focus on traditional, locally grown crops:

You can bring the best ideas from around the world, but will it be a sustainable solution? These crops are well adapted to African soil. Food is also cultural, and these are culturally acceptable solutions. It makes more sense to look within people’s existing food basket and see how to improve its nutrition.

Through her research, Eugénie has found that combining indigenous crops can help create food products that have nutritional significance:

“Cereals like sorghum and maize are staple foods in sub-Saharan Africa,” she explained. “But they have deficiencies in some key micro and macro molecules, like proteins, iron, and zinc. So, we got legumes that are rich in protein, like soybeans and peanuts and combined with the cereals to try and create a food source with an increased level of nutrition.”

Her research looked in depth not only at the nutritional level of the product but also at how it was then metabolized in the human body when consumed. This eventually directed the work towards the use of the historic bioprocessing technology around fermentation:

“Fermentation is a very old technology,” she said. “Through it, microorganisms break down food and give access to good nutrients. All over the world, people are getting interested in what it does to both the quality of food and its effect on nutrition, health and wellbeing.”

From research to recipe

One of the next steps is to bring new, nutritionally improved products into the shops and homes of those who need them. Eugénie and her team have been collaborating with colleagues in the USA and Jamaica, looking to see if a product can be created that cuts across and could be readily grown by local farmers in each market:

“At the University of Pretoria, we made products relevant to South African consumers using a combination of flour types,” she explained. “And in the USA, they created a gluten-free pasta made from beans. That’s a product that’s convenient but also healthy.

“We’re looking at how to help our communities to eat the food they have, but in a nutritious manner.”

The role for open access

Collaboration with other research teams is one way to help drive development of more nutritional foods around the world. Ensuring wide access to the research findings is another vital route. Here, Eugénie believes open access publishing can play an important role.

“For years, you’d publish papers and they would stay locked up, with only those with money getting access. I think open access is an amazing tool.”

Prof Eugénie Kayitesi, PhD


Prof Eugénie Kayitesi, PhD

Associate Professor at Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, University of Pretoria

It is not only the opportunity for the work to be seen that is crucial. Eugénie notes how feedback on research can be encouraging, along with validation from citations. Widely available research work also opens opportunities to interact and create a network with like-minded researchers.

However, she does sound a note of caution around the need to preserve the high quality of research work that gets published:

It’s important that open access still maintains rigorous reviewing processes so all the work people do is credible and valid.

A further challenge is finding funds to publish, with costs often still prohibitively high:

“There’s still some work that could be done to make open access feasible for all, including those of us in the developing world,” she said. “The discussions we are having now are not unique to Africa. Food, as it always has been, will continue to be a commonality, and we are having less and less of it. So if one idea can help others through a published paper, then that is a plus.”

As throughout her formative years, the question of food security is the one that preoccupies Eugénie’s thoughts for the future:

The mark I really want to leave on the science of food is how do we help communities help themselves? How does science feed the future? Populations are growing. Any solutions we offer must be sustainable — for all of us.


Portrait photo of Milly Sell


Milly Sell

Freelance writer