Kenyan traditional vegetables and species make it to Unesco's list of protected foods

Cooked Black night Shade (Osuga) and Kales.  [Jenipher Wachie, Standard].

Several Kenyan vegetables have made it to the list of Unesco's protected plant species.

Osuga (black nightshade), Managu (Amaranth), Mrenda (jute plant), Terere/Muchicha (pigweed) and Kunde (cowpeas) that you will rarely miss on dinner tables of most Kenyan families have joined the list of 210 vegetables protected under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

The UN agency has also documented traditional grains which include finger millet, pearl millet, and sorghum.

Fruits such as tallow nut, black plum, vangueria, tamarind, water berry, marula, cape gooseberry, giant yellow mulberry, rubber vine, doum palm, baobab, and wild castored apple have also been documented by the agency and listed for protection.

Documented traditional spices include mjafari, tamarind, gum Arabic and frankincense. Edible fungi, guinea oil palm, and sausage tree have also been documented.

Unesco confirmed the recognition on January 24 after the Intergovernmental Committee for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage selected the Kenyan vegetables for the listing.

This followed the country's proposal detailing its success in promoting traditional foods and safeguarding traditional foodways.

The success story, according to Unesco, reflected the principles and objectives of the convention.

“The Intergovernmental Committee for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, upon the proposal, has selected Kenya's success story of promoting traditional foods and safeguarding traditional foodways in Kenya as a programme, project, or activity best reflecting the principles and objectives of the Convention,” Unesco said.

Naomi Ruhara tending to her Sagaa in Kiambu County. [David Gichuru,Standard]

Dr Patrick Maundu, an ethnobotanist at the National Museums of Kenya, said efforts to promote Kenyan traditional vegetables started almost 20 years ago.

“Kenya’s success story has now received recognition for promoting traditional foods. It has taken a lot of research, campaigns, and promotion of Kenyan foods to finally be accepted as both healthy and nutritious meals and also for international recognition,” said Dr Maundu who has been a key researcher on traditional vegetables.

For more than 20 years, researchers, communities, farmers, and schools have been promoting the uptake of Kenyan traditional foods which has seen 850 indigenous plants with local names and uses recorded as edible.

The journey to promoting Kenyan foods started when researchers and communities realised they had started disappearing from the menus.

The traditional foods were associated with poverty and the diversity of leafy vegetables in diet had been narrowed considerably to three vegetables – the cabbage, the kale, locally known as sukuma wiki, and Swiss chard, which is locally called spinach.

"The main drive to bring back African leafy vegetables to the Kenyan menu started in 1995 and involved a consortium of about 11 institutions, led by the then IPGRI (now Bioversity International)," said Dr Maundu.

He added: "Key partners were the National Museums of Kenya and local universities. The first phase - 1995-1999 - saw the documentation of local production systems, associated indigenous knowledge.” 

By 1998, awareness of the nutritional and health benefits of the foods started with researchers improving the seed systems, developing cultivation protocols, and linking farmers to markets as well as documenting recipes and nutritional analysis.

Between 2001 and 2006, farmers could easily access improved seeds which were also available in seed companies. The promotion was also done through field days and cooking demonstrations, media programmes, and street campaigns.

“By 2003, a wind of change was noticeable. Traditional vegetables had started to flood both formal and informal markets,” Maundu said.

The listing is aimed at protecting the intangible cultural heritage which makes people and communities distinguishable in terms of their history, nationalities, languages, ideology, and values, according to UNESCO.

“It's taken 15 years of collaboration between scientists and communities, including school children, to earn the distinction,” UNESCO said.

Murenda crop. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

The creation of awareness saw the increase in consumption of the foods following the unprecedented demand by 2006. Traditional vegetables, including black nightshade, Amaranth, jute plant, pigweed, pumpkin leaves, cowpeas, and spider plant, are now more available in markets.

“Most supermarkets are now selling the vegetables. Attitudes had changed from that of stigma to pride and the once-neglected traditional vegetables were a centre of interest for development workers and researchers,” Dr Maundu said.

UNESCO would join a partnership with the Department of Culture and the International and National Museums of Kenya to promote traditional foods.

The partnership also involved consultations with community leaders who initiated projects to identify and document traditional foodways in partnership with primary school children. The aim was to further raise awareness about the threat to traditional foodways.

The success story of promoting traditional foods of Kenya has been implemented in many parts of Kenya but has focused more on Kakamega County among the Isukha people, Baringo County among the Pokot, Nairobi's urban and peri-urban areas, Kisii and Kitui counties, and the Kenyan coast among the Mijikenda communities. Documentation work is also being carried out in Narok County among the Maasai of Loita.

Documented traditional grains include finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum while fruits include tallow nut, black plum, vangueria, tamarind, water berry, marula, cape gooseberry, giant yellow mulberry, rubber vine, doum palm, baobab, and wild castored apple among others.