Sawa Pius | February 20, 2012
Sixty-year-old Margaret Wanjiru has made a fortune from the weeds on her farm in Ngong, near Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. Instead of uprooting them, Ms. Wanjiru cultivates them and uses them to make juice.
Among the weeds she uses are blackjack, pigweed, Lantana camara, yellow sorrel, and wandering Jew. She makes a cocktail from a mixture of these and common indigenous leafy vegetables such as spider plant, black nightshade, and amaranth. She explains that weeds are those plants which most farmers uproot and throw away. They are not usually eaten. Indigenous vegetables are plants that farmers have been eating for many years, and are now becoming well known again as agriculturalists promote them.
Mrs. Wanjiru’s long experience as an organic farmer started back in 1962, when she used to accompany her grandmother to the farm. She learned that different varieties of weeds were eaten many years ago, though people do not know about them now.
When she got married in 1974, she tried the weeds and found that they were delicious. She cooked a mixture of weeds, and her husband and children liked them. In 2002, she introduced them to a nearby market, both fresh and cooked.
She says, “When people saw the uncooked weeds, they would sneer and say they were not for human beings, as the weeds were commonly eaten by goats and rabbits. But when I gave them the cooked assorted weeds, they were surprised.”
With drought in recent years, Mrs. Wanjiru had fewer weeds to sell to the increasing number of clients. So she tried making juice from the weeds. The profit from selling the juice is almost triple that of selling the weeds.
She explains, “One paper bag of the weeds could produce about eight litres of juice. One litre of juice goes for 250 Kenyan shillings, which is slightly above $3. But a bunch of vegetables is 100 shillings, which is just about $1.”
Making the juice is simple, says Mrs. Wanjiru. “I boil water in a big pan. After boiling, I remove the water from [the] fire, wash the weeds and immerse the weeds in it, including the stalks, and keep stirring, then cover it.” After the juice has cooled, she sieves and pours it into containers, adding lemon as a preservative. The juice is then ready to drink.
She says the juice and the leafy vegetables have high levels of nutrients that can help cure illnesses like diabetes and arthritis and fight common ailments. There may be some scientific truth in her claims according to nutritionist, Florence Habwe. Mrs. Habwe, from Maseno University, Kenya, has carried out nutritional analyses of indigenous African vegetables such as nightshade, amaranth, slenderleaf and cowpea.
She explains, “There is [a] need for scientific tests to be carried out to see whether there are any poisonous substances like aflatoxin. But it could be found that the content has even more nutritive value than they know. It is true several indigenous vegetables have medicinal value.”
Mrs. Wanjiru’s clients consume a five litre container of juice in about three weeks. She says, “I tell my fellow Africans: let’s go back to our traditional foods and vegetables. These days people are lazy; they don’t want to go to the garden and collect the vegetables. But if you are a farmer and continue eating these vegetables, you will remain healthy.”
Now Mrs. Wanjiru travels round the continent encouraging people to eat and drink weeds and indigenous vegetables. But the juices made from weeds and indigenous vegetables remain Mrs. Wanjiru’s main source of income.