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November 2004



How healthy is traditional morogo in Africa

Retha van der Walt & Carlos Bezuidenhout

Multi-disciplinary research is currently underway investigating health risks and benefits associated with the consumption of traditional morogo, popular crops used in Southern African regions as vegetables in rural staple diets. Morogo is the collective term given to a group of edible plants in different regions of Southern Africa.

The Morogo Research Program (MRP), recently established by the Microbiology Group, School of Environmental Sciences and Development at the Potchefstroom Campus of the North-West University, has as its long-term goal the advancement of these indigenous leafy vegetables in
subsistence farming and the safe storage thereof in resource-limited rural communities. 

"Unlike maize, the majority of traditional morogo plants are indigenous to Africa. These valuable plants can therefore be cultivated with low input of water and fertilizers because they are well adapted to local growing conditions, while some grow in the field as part of the natural flora" said Retha van der Walt, a researcher closely involved in the MRP program.

Health-related aspects

According to Van der Walt, the program investigates health-related aspects as well as low-cost technologies to improve crop yield in subsistence farming. Like commercial crops, certain health risks are also associated with fungal infestation and mycotoxin contamination of traditional morogo.

"Since traditional morogo forms an important part of the staple diet in rural communities, its dietary safety is of great concern" said Van der Walt. Animal and laboratory studies have shown that mycotoxins produced by some food-associated fungi are carcinogenic and dietary exposure to these toxins has been epidemiodically linked to the occurrence of inflammatory conditions and certain types of cancer. She said chronic diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are ravaging Africa and it was important that traditional foods did not further add to their burden of disease. Rural farmers do not have access to fungicides for control of mycotoxin-producing fungi, the growth of which could be promoted by traditional storage methods. Homegrown foods are not subjected to quality control and households suffering from food insecurity would not be fastidious. Secondary infections caused by some of these fungi have been found to complicate treatment regimes of immunocompromised individuals. Safe cultivation and storage practices of homegrown foods should therefore be promoted in rural communities.

On the positive side, morogo plants are suspected of possessing phytochemicals with health-protective and immune-supportive qualities comparable to those in vegetables of Western and Eastern diets. Since data pertaining to these properties are severely limited, these aspects are also included in the MRP for investigation.

Cultivation of traditional morogo

Another important research aspect is the possible cultivation of traditional morogo crops in subsistence farming using low-cost biological systems known as mycorrhizas that are fungi growing in natural association with roots of many plant species. These associations render plant hosts more drought and pest resistant by improving water uptake while providing the host with essential nutrients and protection against root infections. According to Van der Walt, information will be gathered in a database on traditional morogo in Southern Africa.

Van der Walt also referred to research collaboration with other African countries on indigenous food-plants of Africa. A joint research proposal for collaboration between Egypt, Morocco, Cameroon and Nigeria is now being prepared for international funding. Research collaboration will be conducted under the recently established "Initiative for the Development of Indigenous Food-plants of Africa" (IDIFA), the aim of which is the use and cultivation of traditional vegetables indigenous to the respective countries. Africa should benefit from data generated through the IDIFA research, that could be employed in strategies to increase crop biodiversity and for capacity building among rural subsistence farming who are being marginalized by organized agriculture. Van der Walt stressed that with HIV cutting a swathe through the rural households of sub-Saharan Africa by killing those aged between 20 and 40, it was also vitally important to preserve indigenous knowledge of Africa's natural edible plants.

More information:

Retha van der Walt & Carlos Bezuidenhout are with the Microbiology Group, School of Environmental Sciences and Development, North-West University Potchefstroom, South Africa

Contact Retha van der Walt: 


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