Why 'kienyeji' vegetables are now Kenya's new goldmine

OPINION |

The spider plant, locally known as Saget or Saga.

African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs) have become an integral part of the Kenyan diet in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and killer diet-related diseases.

Driven by the need to change their consumption patterns and to stem emerging health risks, Kenyans no longer see indigenous vegetables as weeds but as high-profile commodities. 

Research has shown that diet-related diseases are a global cause for alarm. They result from not eating ‘healthy foods’ such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains and or overconsumption of ‘unhealthy’ processed foods. 

With nutritional and unrivalled health benefits, AIVs play a key role in food security, nutrition and income generation. Besides improving community nutrition, their production can support sustainable enterprises for farmers and retailers.

AIVs were overlooked for long. In colonial days, they were associated with poverty and viewed as unhealthy and unhygienic. Those days, eateries in Nairobi only catered for settlers who detested AIVs and outlawed the sale of traditional foods.

Africans who were ‘civilised’ and wished to be viewed as such adopted the colonial dining culture, patronising restaurants that served only European dishes. At the turn of the millennium, a survey was carried out by the World Vegetable Centre to determine consumer knowledge of AIVs. The results indicated that high-income earners associated these vegetables with poverty.

The middle and average income earners, especially in urban centres, minimally consumed AIVs in fear of risking their health, fearing that most of the crops grown in urban dwellings were not safe. The low-income earners, on the other hand, consume these vegetables regularly.

The AIVs consumption pattern was not only limited to different income levels but varied within different age groups. Most young consumers in urban centres did not even know what they were or bothered to find out more about the vegetables. Those who had information had a negative attitude towards their consumption because they considered them as untrendy.

Most Kenyan consumers hardly ate AIVs due to lack of reliable information regarding their nutritive value and limited availability, which contributed to the misinformation. African indigenous vegetables stand out for health benefits. They have higher quantities of nutrients and numerous substances linked to the prevention of cancer and diabetes than exotic vegetables such as cabbage or lettuce.

Research shows that AIVs contain essential vitamins, particularly A, B and C, and minerals (such as calcium and iron) as well as supplementary protein and calories. The high protein and vitamin contents in these vegetables can eliminate deficiencies amongst vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women. People suffering from diseases such as high blood pressure, HIV and Aids, cancer and hypertension are advised to consume AIVs because of their medicinal value. 

The vegetables are well adapted to local climates and are resilient to pests and diseases. They grow very fast, especially the nightshade, cowpea, and spider plant that can each be harvested three to four weeks after planting. All AIVs can also be harvested repeatedly. They, therefore, give farmers a recurrent source of income over several harvests.  The AIVs also fetch relatively stable returns, as compared to the other vegetables like cabbage, kale and spinach, whose prices fluctuate with glut and scarcity.

The growing demand for AIVs in urban areas has seen most retailers, grocers and supermarkets increase their stock levels. Many urban dwellers increasingly prefer these vegetables due to the food safety benefit and recommendations by doctors and nutritionists.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the gaps in the global food chain, with millions of people trapped in hunger. Globally, economic and social surveys seem to read from one script. There is economic distress. And the biggest fear is hunger – the inability to afford food or access it. 

At the African Food Fellowship, we believe solutions to the continent’s most pressing food needs are within reach. As Horticulture Fellows, we are working fill the gaps in the value chain and to strengthen resilience for individuals, households and institutions across. We see huge potential AIVs and plan to raise public awareness around AIVs. This, we believe, will change the narratives around their consumption, leading to high consumer uptake and impactful outputs and earnings by Kenyan farmers and retailers.

We will share facts on the nutritional benefits and varieties, together with recipes that households can use in cooking the vegetables. We will work with consumers, schools and food processors to understand the key drivers influencing consumption patterns. The end game is to raise incomes, fight poverty, contribute to better health and ensure total food security.

Let's all cash in on our ‘green gold’ and be a healthy nation.

 The writers (Kweyu Suleiman, Leah Mwaura, Rashid Boru, Tele Boit and Waithera Ng’ang’a) are Horticulture Fellows at the African Food Fellowship

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