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March 2006



Native African vegetable growers had the right idea

Dr K Liphadzi

Women harvesting pigweed to be sold at a taxi/bus rank in South Africa.

Native African vegetables show promise in fighting one of southern African's biggest challenges - malnutrition. Current statistics show that millions of pre-school and primary school going children suffer from this condition. Some of the symptoms of malnutrition are bulgy stomachs, reddening of hair and retarded growth.

The simple way to fight malnutrition is by taking nutrient supplements - generally in the form of pills. The problem is that most of the malnourished people are also poor. They can not afford to buy these supplements. African vegetables that are commonly eaten by rural people are highly nutritious, rich in proteins, vitamins, minerals and energy. Eating these vegetables can supply the needed vitamins, proteins and minerals in their diet.

In addition to their nutritional importance, African vegetables have the potential to improve human health through their medicinal properties. This is very important today where more than 5.3 million South Africans are living with HIV/AIDS. For example, watermelon is reported to contain tetracylin - the drug used by Western medicine as a broad spectrum antibiotic. Spiderplant or cat's whiskers has traditionally been eaten by women before and after child birth, and by boys after circumcision to restore blood supply as it contains high levels of iron. This may also explain why older people are healthier than the younger generation. They were practically taking their medication as they ate their food.

African vegetables are mostly broadleaf plants that grow in the wild, in crop fields, on wastelands, along the roads and many other places. Women are the ones responsible for collecting and cooking them. However, today's working women no longer have the time to go into the wild and collect these vegetables. Therefore, growing these vegetables in home gardens or buying them from the local market would save time and also ensure nutritious meals for the families.

Unlike most common vegetables such as spinach or lettuce, native vegetables require less input such as fertilizers and pesticides. This makes them healthier to eat and cheaper to produce. Poor farmers and women in rural areas can easily grow these vegetables. These vegetables could also be suited for the growing organic vegetable market - both national and international. The Europeans and Americans are very much into organic produce and African poor farmers can tap into this growing market.

A question that one may then ask is why are farmers not growing these vegetables in large quantities? In rural areas, there is a general perception that African vegetables are for the poor and you may be looked down upon if you eat them. People rather buy and eat cabbage, which is less nutritious than consume pigweed or black jack. Adoption of Western culture has a lot to do with this negative perception.

Although African vegetables are native and "very African", very little research has been done to develop and support their commercial production when compared to cabbage or spinach. In South Africa, this can partly be explained by the pre-1994 biased focus of the agricultural research sector which focused on satisfying the 'white dominated' commercial agricultural sector. At the moment, it is not always possible to give farmers instructions regarding planting, fertilization, irrigation, pest and disease control, and harvesting of African vegetables.

Research is underway at the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa to develop production practices for African vegetables. Though still in its early stages, research is being conducted the amadumbi and cowpeas, amongst others, certain to result in some strong motivation for consuming traditional African vegetables. 

More information:

Dr Konani Liphadzi, ARC-Roodeplaat, Private Bag x293, Pretoria, South Africa, 0001


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