The Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea) originates in West Africa, and despite widespread cultivation across the continent, is relatively unknown in Europe and North America. Resilient in harsh conditions, nutrient-dense, and even known for improving soil fertility, it is a versatile yet underutilized part of the Fabaceae legume family.

Subterranean seeds

The Bambara groundnut is a herbaceous plant with slightly upright, creeping shoots. It is cultivated across Africa, South Asia, Central America, and the Pacific region. The pods contain smooth seeds of approximately two centimetres that differ in colour, from cream and speckled to red and black. Like the peanut, the Bambara groundnut grows underground. This adaptation helps to prevent the seeds from burning in the bushfires that can occur in the arid and semi-arid regions where it is often grown.

Superfood in the making

As a whole food, Bambara groundnut has very interesting nutritional values, containing around 60% complex carbohydrates, 20% protein and 6% fats. Studies have shown that the crop has great potential in improving food security – the legume is cheap, requires few resources to grow, and represents an excellent source of plant-based protein, fibre, minerals, and vitamins such as iron, calcium, and magnesium.

The Bambara groundnut also has many uses. The unripe seeds can be cooked and eaten, while the ripe seeds can be eaten fresh, dried, ground into flour, roasted, or turned into a Bambara "milk" alternative. In traditional medicine, the legume is used as an antimicrobial agent, with the extract of the groundnut effective against various infections. The groundnut is even used as nitrogen and phosphorus-rich animal feed.

Ability to thrive in tough environments

The Vigna subterranea plant is well-adapted to hot and dry conditions, with an optimal germination temperature of between 30–35°C. Its resistance to high temperatures and suitability for marginal soils means the Bambara groundnut tends to flourish in conditions than challenge other similar legumes. The plant is also known for its soil improvement qualities through nitrogen fixation, improving soil fertility through its roots.

A potential gamechanger

The Bambara groundnut has been noted in research as a potentially gamechanging crop in a time of limited resources, population growth, and climate change. The legume’s high quality nutritional profile and ability to grow in harsh environments, even amidst drought and soil degradation, could contribute one more solution to the global drive for food security.