Protein transition in developing countries

In search of the real value of crops

Photography: Shutterstock

Some Wageningen University & Research (WUR) projects continue to build on previous research. Others are just beginning and entail the development of an idea into a first test. The project by senior sientist Ariette Matser and her team belongs to this latter category, offering philanthropic partners the chance to be at the forefront of the global protein transition.


To feed the growing world population, we need to shift from meat consumption to vegetable proteins, not only in the wealthy parts of te world, but also in developing countries.


A fuller use of crops, both for their nutritional value as building blocks for food products and the secondary effect on the local economy as local processing leads to new jobs and opportunities.

“Our project focuses on sustainable protein transition,” Matser says. “Less food from animal sources and more from vegetables. This is an issue that many people in the rich parts of the world are focusing on, and it should also be highlighted in developing countries to avoid people going through the same cycle as us. History shows that, as prosperity increases, meat consumption also grows. If this also happens in Africa, it will become increasingly difficult for humanity to survive on this planet. We will run out of space for cattle, there will be extreme water shortages and we will see an enormous rise in the emissions of CO₂ and ammonia. The world cannot afford these effects so it is important to make the transition, locally, from food rich in animal protein to food rich in vegetable protein. Not just here, but everywhere in the world.”

‘We want to process crops in a way that provides ingredients which the local inhabitants can use in new products’

How is Matser planning to do that? “We are studying functional fractioning,” she explains. “This is a clever use of crops that allows the population to eat them right after the harvest or use them as a source of protein until the next harvest. That starts with the choice of a target region where we want to begin. I would like to spend the first six months studying the circumstances there. What diet do the people have? What crops do they grow? What are the customs and needs with regard to nutrition? And how is the infrastructure? All of these factors are important, as is the possibility to create a solid project organisation on location together with the local inhabitants. Where possible, this organisation should continue to build on existing networks and platforms. Social acceptance will be just as important as technological contributions in this project.”


4 years


Local organisations in the project region



Funds needed


Foods with vegetable proteins. Photo: Shutterstock

After choosing the country or region in Africa where the research will be done, Matser and her colleagues will spend three years working on creating a prototype processing chain. “In this chain, we are going to maximise the yields of the most suitable local crops by working with raw materials in an innovative way. We will do this by carrying out a extensive analysis of traditional crops, looking not just at the beans that are normally eaten but also at the nutrients in the flowers, stems and leaves. We will process all the crop elements to extract ingredients which inhabitants can use in new products. We plan to do this in small-scale factories, creating extra sources of nourishment and stimulating the local economy.”

We need to shift from meat consumption to vegetable proteins. Work is being done in Africa on creating a processing chain prototype. Photo: Shutterstock

“We will also make it more attractive for local inhabitants to use crops for their own consumption rather than for export. Crops are still often exported because the financial profit is higher, even though the local population is suffering from hunger. My ambition is to give people in poor regions more opportunities to take charge themselves, even if that requires high-tech concepts like this one. If we succeed in making the transition to vegetable proteins an attractive business for the local population, then we will really have made a sustainable change.”

If the experiment succeeds, Matser and her colleagues wants to see how they can expand it into a business case that could be imitated elsewhere and bring the knowledge to new regions and communities where it can flower into new local initiatives. “This is the dream I eventually want to realise,” she concludes.




Senior researcher Sustainable Process Technology, Wageningen University & Research


Food technology, Food and bioprocess engineering, New foodstuffs, Preservation, Food processing, Food quality, Vegetable proteins, Sustainability, Valorisation of by-products of food

Photo: Gea Hogeveen





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