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From the mother of all chillies

Cultivated and wild chilli species are being documented and conserved (© Bioversity International/MV Zonneveld)
Cultivated and wild chilli species are being documented and conserved
© Bioversity International/MV Zonneveld

While the global appetite for exotic and spicy foods has never been greater, discerning chilli lovers can soon look forward to a much more diverse range of tastes, aromas and flavours on their supermarket and delicatessen shelves. Currently, just five species of chilli are cultivated commercially around the world. Peru is a center of diversification and probably the country with the highest diversity of cultivated chili peppers in the world; it is one of the few countries where varieties of all five cultivated species are grown and used in local diets. To ensure that this diversity finds its way into niche markets around the world, a large number of individuals and organisations have joined forces to set up value chains that increase farmer incomes and link them to high-value, high-quality markets.

As a first step, the Capsicum project, part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM), set out to document and conserve the diversity of cultivated and wild chilli species in Bolivia and Peru. In Peru, over 700 chilli accessions from the five species of cultivated chillies have been collected and stored in a newly established genebank at the Instituto Nacional de Innovacion Agraria. In Bolivia, the Centro de Investigaciones Fitoecogenéticas Pairumani - an NGO - has assembled a unique collection of 492 accessions of the five cultivated species and seven wild species.

Analysing the chillies for commercially valuable attributes has been a vital step in developing the value chain. Key to this has been the setting up of a sensory evaluation panel including the development of 18 flavour descriptors and the biochemical characterisation. This has included determining levels of capsaicinoids specific flavonoids and antioxidants, as well as levels of vitamin C, fat content and extractable color. The findings have helped generate new interest in the chillies for differentiated high value uses among pharmaceutical and natural cosmetics companies, as well as spice manufacturers and food processors.

Stronger links

Studies on value chain, markets and consumer preferences have been conducted (© Bioversity International/X Scheldeman)
Studies on value chain, markets and consumer preferences have been conducted
© Bioversity International/X Scheldeman

Partnerships have been at the heart of the project. Fifteen studies on value chain, markets and consumer preferences have been conducted to identify bottlenecks and market opportunities, both nationally (Bolivia and Peru) and internationally (European Union and USA). Multi-stakeholder platforms have been created including farmers' organisations, universities, development agencies, national and international research institutes, regional government officials, small and medium processing and exporting enterprises and restaurant owners. Through participatory assessments, constraints in each chain segment have been identified and links between value chain actors are being strengthened, with smallholder farmers, for example, signing contracts with buyers to supply national and international markets.

Esau Hidalgo del Aguila is one such smallholder. He is president of APE-Pimental, an association of Peruvian ecological producers in the Amazon region, which grows organic chilli as part of an agroforestry system. Working with Bioversity International for over two years, he now has 20 hectares of environmentally sound chilli production, which he grows under contract with an export company. He is now encouraging other farmers to follow suit. "We are working with our children's generation in mind," he says, proud of the agroforestry system that has led to the reforestation of his formerly degraded land. "Not many people around here think like this, so we have travelled to get ideas from elsewhere. Slowly we hope to spread these ideas about sustainable farming to others."

Cultural exports

Positive changes are also occurring further along the value chain. Agro Export Topará is a Peruvian company that produces, processes and exports organic certified chilli products to the EU and USA. Chief executive officer, Stefan Bederski recalls how 20 years ago he was stumped when asked by clients about the attributes of the chilli varieties he offered. Research is now providing the answers, and having always sold commercial varieties, the company has started offering various native chillies. Two major international spice companies, Bart Spices in the UK and Wholesome Foods, USA, have recently introduced processed premium organic Peruvian chilli into their product ranges.

Links between value chain actors are being strengthened, with smallholder farmers signing contracts to supply national and international markets (© Bioversity International/X Scheldeman)
Links between value chain actors are being strengthened, with smallholder farmers signing contracts to supply national and international markets
© Bioversity International/X Scheldeman

Over the border in Bolivia, farmers are working with the Fundación Instituto de Tecnología de Alimentos, which is developing new chilli products using native wild and cultivated species. So far, chillies have been bottled, canned, dried, and used in a range of specialty and gourmet products, from jams, pastes and cheeses to sausages, salsa and chocolate, many of them based on traditional recipes. By stimulating a demand for the unique pungencies, aromas and flavours of these little known chillies, farmers have accessed niche markets and discovered an economic incentive to conserve their rich heritage of native species, which staff from Bioversity had warned was under threat of extinction.

As well as protecting biodiversity and raising income, the promotion of native chillies also promises to make farming livelihoods more resilient, with farmers better able to respond to future challenges, including climate change. And whilst the project has focused on a specific region and crop, the work on chilli in Peru demonstrates approaches and technologies that can be used by farmers growing mangoes in India or sweet potatoes in Uganda who are also struggling with declining commodity prices. By effectively harnessing agricultural diversity, they too could access high-value niche markets.

Date published: November 2013

 

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