Experts tout health benefits of indigenous vegetables

Participants in research conference for African indigenous vegetables.

Some day in 2004, lecturers and agriculture students at Maseno University brought Bondo market in Siaya County to a standstill when they showed up at the market in a dance group as they tried to entice residents into buying indigenous vegetables.

They had created their own rendition of Adam Salim’s Malaika and replaced the word Malaika with names of all indigenous vegetables in the region. Adam Salim is believed to have composed the popular song in 1945 to praise his girlfriend.

Mary Abukutsa, a professor of horticulture at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat) recalls the rendition. “Osuga, nakupenda osuga, osuga, nakupenda osuga, kwa madini yako…,” they sang, mentioning all the nutritional values of each type of vegetable. Osuga is the Luo name of the African nightshade, also referred to as Managu.

Participants in research conference for African indigenous vegetables.

And as they sang and danced, mentioning terere, kanzira, mrenda, kunde, sageti, nderema, mitoo and other names of traditional vegetables, Siaya residents thronged stalls and bought the vegetables they had ignored for years.

Abukutsa was an associate professor at Maseno University then, and Prof Wangari Mwai, who taught Linguistics at the university those days, weaved the rendition and organised the dance group. Prof Abukutsa, who was at the peak of her research which involved collecting indigenous vegetables in various parts of the country, says the performance bore immense results.

“It was quite a show but our aim was achieved. At the end of the day, all indigenous vegetables at the market were sold and the day marked a new beginning for consumption of indigenous vegetables in Bondo,” says Abukutsa.

She was speaking last week at a conference that brought together scientists from around the globe who presented their research on African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs).

Research on AIVs

Also presenting their research at the conference was the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Rutgers University, the World Vegetable Center among other research agencies.

Prof Abukutsa said great strides had been made in the farming and consumption of AIVs, thanks to research, engagement with Saturday Standard’s Smart harvest magazine that creates content on farming and support from stakeholders.

The latest was a move by Vihiga County earlier this year to pick 2,000 farmers to grow AIVs with the support of Natural Products Industry and the National Museums of Kenya under the Natural Products Industrial Initiative.

JKuat has been roped in the project estimated at Sh30 million to provide research and technological support including provision of cold storage facilities and value addition technologies to help farmers make the most of the project that has also attracted interest of Carrefour, a French international store and other retail chains.

Already, 100 acres of land have been set aside in Vihiga for the project that Abukutsa says will later be rolled out in other counties.

“The project was first rolled out in Vihiga because the governor is very passionate about indigenous vegetables and farming. Again, the region has always had many types of AIVs that are slowly disappearing, creating a need for us to conserve them,” says Abukutsa.

Higher nutrients in indigenous veggies

In her 20-year research on AIVs, Prof Abukutsa has collected more than 50 types of indigenous vegetables. In her recent study, the professor collected different varieties of amaranths, spider plant and vegetable nightshade and analised their nutritional value compared to exotic vegetables such as cabbage, spinach and kales. AIVS were found to contain higher amounts of nutrients compared to exotic vegetables.

At 480 milligrams, amaranth was found to have the highest amount of calcium followed by jute mallow at 360mg, spider plant at 262mg and cowpea at 152 mg. And at 44, cabbage had the lowest amount of this mineral that ensures normal cell function and strengthening of bones. AIVs were also found to have the highest amount of irons, zinc, vitamin C and carotene. Carotene is important in strengthening the body’s immunity.

A joint research by the scientists found that AIVs are popular among African countries but are still not consumed regularly.

“AIVs are known to more than 90 per cent of populations in Kenya and are viewed as culturally acceptable and preferred food options but are still rarely-to-periodically only consumed in urban areas and often not consumed in rural areas particularly during dry seasons,” read the report.

The report indicates that there is an unmet AIVs market demand of more than Sh10 billion per year in Kenya and in Rwanda where the research was also conducted.

AIVs fight cancer and other diseases

The report found that despite the strides made in popularising AIVs, only 6 per cent of Kenyans eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables leading to widespread lifestyle complications known to result from poor eating habits.

Studies indicate that diabetes, heart diseases and certain types of cancer because of poor eating habits account for 40 per cent of deaths in Kenya. Some diseases could be avoided by eating AIVs which have high antioxidant content, provide essential micronutrients and fibre.

Challenges in consumption of AIVs

Prof Judith Kimiywe, a nutritionist and lecturer at Kenyatta University school of Public Health highlighted the need to link agriculture to nutrition in order to improve consumption of the highly nutritious vegetables.

She said few Kenyans know how to prepare indigenous dishes.

 “Consumption of indigenous vegetable is low partly because people don’t know how to prepare these vegetables. We need to encourage people to try recipes from other ethnic groups by providing them with necessary materials and recipes,” says Prof Kimiywe.

At KU, nutrition researchers have prepared recipes and handbooks to educate Kenyans on how to prepare indigenous vegetables. Even though 15,000 farmers have been trained on how to propagate and commercialise AIVs, vegetable farming is still faced with numerous setbacks.

Major constraints in farming and consumption of AIVs include negative mindset, inadequate seed and lack of technical information on the nutritional and commercial benefits of the vegetables, lack of appropriate recipes for AIVs and high post-harvest losses in AIVs which are highly perishable.

Unpredictable weather patterns for instance, account for 50 per cent of losses in vegetables. Poor infrastructure including roads on the other hand accounts for 40 per cent of these losses.

A team from JKuat interviewed farmers who reported harvesting up to 15 sacks of vegetables every season from which they make up to Sh4,000 a sack. Farmers reportedly make the highest from their vegetables between January and March when it is dry. But between June and August when it is rainy, vegetables fetch as low as Sh300 a sack on the market.

Dr James Simon, a professor at Rutgers University said AIVs are not given the required attention as compared to other crops. “African vegetables don’t receive as much scientific and stakeholder attention as tomatoes, lettuce and other crops that have been developed through research. That is why these important vegetables are still viewed as weeds and are not cultivated to meet their huge demand locally and internationally,” he said.  

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