Nelly Bassily | July 26, 2010
Mavis Svinurai found packets of dried vegetables on the shelves of the supermarkets in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. “I remembered this as something our parents used to prepare for us and decided that if it can be found on supermarket shelves, then I can as well do this from my own backyard,” she said. She now sells dried vegetables in Bulawayo’s high-density townships.
The vegetables are known locally as umfushwa. Urban consumers previously shunned umfushwa, thinking it was suitable only for unsophisticated rural people. But now, consumers in the city view dried vegetables as an affordable, nutritious convenience food. For some people, it evokes nostalgia. This resurgence of interest has opened up a market opportunity for women entrepreneurs.
Thelma Dube has been selling fresh vegetables for years, but made umfushwa only for her household. Now she finds that selling dried vegetables is more profitable. They have a longer shelf life than fresh vegetables. Mrs. Dube sells dried pumpkin leaves, bean leaves and okra. These are indigenous foods with high nutritional value.
But producing large quantities of sun-dried vegetables is a time consuming affair. “It is a cumbersome process as I have to cut the vegetables, boil them, then lay them out in the sun to dry,” Mrs. Dube said. “Some customers have complained that the dried vegetables are gritty. But this is to be expected as we dry them in the open.”
Local communities have used this method for generations, but Mrs. Dube and Mrs. Svinurai are anxious to find a more hygienic system, so they can expand production.
Solar dryers have been available on the Zimbabwean market for many years. But small-scale producers complain they lack the technical know-how and need financial assistance to sell more hygienic food on a larger scale.
Bulawayo businesswoman Naomi Mthupha tells a different story. She processes traditional vegetables and makes dried fruit and raisins. She sells her produce to local supermarkets and bakeries.
Mrs. Mthupha dries her products with electric driers or kilns that she bought ten years ago. Much of her produce is grown on a farm she received through the government’s land redistribution programme. “This kind of business has its advantages in that you are certain that you have no major losses to speak of during the post-harvest stage as drying gives these otherwise perishable products a longer shelf life,” Mrs. Mthupha said.
Growing awareness of the importance of a healthy diet has contributed to a rising demand for umfushwa. According to the Zimbabwe chapter of the Association for Health Education and Development, health professionals are increasingly recommending dried vegetables for HIV and AIDS patients.
Mrs. Dube believes that the renewed interest in dried vegetables has had another effect. Both urban and rural women farmers have increased their production of vegetables like pumpkin leaf, bean leaf and okra. Farmers, consumers and entrepreneurs all stand to benefit from this rediscovery of a traditional food.