Grown in the Andes for over 6,000 years and highly adapted to the harsh conditions of the mountains and altiplano, quinoa boasts more than 3,000 ecotypes (genetically adapted to a particular climate). In recent years, Bolivia - the world's biggest quinoa exporter - has found well-paying international markets for ecotypes characterised by large white seeds, which are in high demand from health food shops and restaurants across Brazil, Canada, Europe, Israel and the US. However, strong international demand for quinoa during the last few years has led to a diversification of consumption patterns and to emerging unique and profitable market opportunities for previously neglected quinoa ecotypes. Black, red and yellow quinoa are increasingly exported to international markets and receive much better prices than white quinoa.
In order to harness the full potential of quinoa to improve income generation, food security and nutrition, a holistic and innovative value chain framework has been developed and tested involving input from local businesses, policymakers, exporters, farmers and researchers. One key activity has been a national campaign, supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Bioversity International in collaboration with Bolivian NGO PROINPA, to promote quinoa to restaurants, bakeries and other commercial outlets in Bolivia. While the colourful grain has traditionally been a key protein source for Andean families, it's also had a reputation as 'poor person's food'. However, that situation appears to be changing.
"In the beginning it was hard to change the mentality but more people are opening up to the idea and we're doing well with quinoa," says Pamy Quezada Velez, CEO of Alexander Coffee, a chain of Bolivian coffee houses, which now serve quinoa in salads, wraps and desserts to the middle classes of La Paz. The company bakery produces more than 1,000 quinoa chocolate chip cookies a day and sources its grain from small farmers such as Elias Vargas and Viviana Herrera, whose fields line the edges of Lake Titicaca at 3,800 metres above sea level. "Now people everywhere are buying quinoa. In La Paz they sell it in the markets. For that reason we are also able to sell small quantities and with that money we sustain our families," states Vargas.
International demand for quinoa has led to emerging market opportunities for previously neglected quinoa ecotypes
© Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho
With more and better protein and less carbohydrate than maize, rice or wheat, Andean farmers have also been made more aware of the nutritional benefits of quinoa, as well as different methods of preparation. "Now we know quinoa is so good, we appreciate and use it in different food preparations. We clean quinoa and make soup, juice, cakes, everything out of quinoa," enthuses Vargas.
In future, adding value to different varieties of quinoa by producing flour, cakes, quinoa pasta and other products for pharmaceutical and cosmetic ingredients (such as natural colorants or quinoa fatty oil as a carrier oil used in aromatherapy) for international high-value niche markets will also help to stimulate the market and therefore conserve a wider variety of quinoa varieties. "Companies that deal with quinoa in Bolivia are beginning to transform it into different products and export them," says Wilfredo Rojas of the PROINPA Foundation. "We're also starting to better understand and study the potential of this food and identify which varieties are good for what."
But in promoting greater use of quinoa, a key challenge is how to expand quinoa production reliably and sustainably. New research to select varieties resistant to changing climate conditions, to pests and diseases and with higher grain yields is now seen as a priority. Addressing inefficient and unsustainable cultivation practices is another. Due to the lack of sustainable cultivation practices for additional alternative cultivation areas, many farmers no longer allow time between seasons for the soil to recover but plant the crop continuously on slopes and in valley areas. Over time, the soil becomes eroded, pest and diseases spread and yields decrease.
A national campaign has promoted quinoa to restaurants, bakeries and other commercial outlets in Bolivia
"While Peru and Bolivia are working on solutions for sustainable intensification, opportunities for other Andean countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile to engage or increase their production are also promising," says Matthias Jager of Bioversity International. "Our task should be facilitating mechanisms, such as multi-stakeholder collaboration and innovation platforms, to help Andean countries establish pro-poor, national quinoa promotion programmes for sustainably promoting quinoa expansion." By sharing best practices, innovations and lessons learned from past experiences and projects, Bioversity International is currently assisting Colombia in establishing its National Quinoa Promotion Plan and a proposal for an Andean Quinoa Platform is under development.
"To raise further awareness of the wide-ranging benefits of quinoa, 2013 has been designated as the UN International Year of Quinoa. A travelling exhibition about the crop, from its origins to current status has been developed by Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and Bioversity International".