A traditional leafy vegetable is cropping up in more and more fields and markets across East Africa. On Caleb Bangirana’s family plantation in the Isingiro District of western Kenya, it can be found intercropped among the banana trees. With broad green leaves that are packed with nutrients, traditional African nightshade is emerging from the shadow of exotic vegetables.
Mr. Bangirana explains that farmers in his area used to have a negative view towards vegetable farming. And traditional vegetables such as nightshade, spiderplant, and bitter berries were often overlooked in favour of cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, and other more exotic vegetables.
But attitudes are changing. Now, more than 30 households in Mr. Bangirana’s parish grow vegetables for sale in their district. The ease of growing indigenous vegetables has helped change their minds. African nightshade and amaranthus, for example, are well adapted to the local climate and resist the diseases and pests that can destroy exotic vegetables.
As farmer interest in traditional vegetables grows, consumers are re-discovering their taste for the local foods. In Kenya and Tanzania, the trend is being promoted by a group of NGOs.
Patrick Maundu is a member of the NGO Biodiversity International who is working to promote the production and sale of traditional African vegetables. According to Mr. Maundu, the first supermarket to stock African nightshade saw it quickly move off the shelves. Nightshade, along with African eggplant, is now a regular find in grocery stores and local markets in East Africa.
Mr. Maundu says that these traditional vegetable varieties are more nutritious than their exotic alternatives. African nightshade is a good source of protein, iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and selenium – providing much higher levels of these nutrients than cabbage. These vitamins and micronutrients are especially important for people at risk of malnutrition and disease, particularly people living with HIV and AIDS.
While consumers reap the nutritional benefits of this traditional vegetable revival, farmers enjoy the financial return. Mr. Bangirana’s family has been intercropping vegetables on their banana plantation for three years. His family earns an additional 30,000 to 50,000 Ugandan shillings (up to about 30 American dollars or 20 Euros) per month by selling easy-to-grow indigenous vegetables.