On a burning hot day at the Kenyan Coast, Kennedy Mathuku showcases his patch of amaranth green vegetables. Locally known as “mchicha,” this is the only vegetable that has survived the drought and extreme temperatures suffocating the region. Kennedy alternates tending to his mchicha and to the customers who flock the compound. Most are smallholder farmers whose own crops have already withered in the heat. Hawking his vegetables, he encourages them to consider planting indigenous crops. It’s not a hard sell—after all, they see the difference.
Kennedy is the CEO of Oyeska Greens, which we co-founded in 2014 to help drive agricultural innovation in the region. The challenge of growing enough healthy food for Africa’s burgeoning population is enormous, compounded by the stresses of a changing climate, and declining availability of fresh water and arable land. Indigenous vegetables offer Africa’s smallholder farmers a solution to a dual dilemma: malnutrition and adaptation to climate change.
Crops such as Kenneth’s ‘mchicha’ can better endure drought and pests than those transplanted from outside Africa. Furthermore, many of these indigenous vegetables are affordable, rich in nutrients, and mature early, protecting farmers against the risk of failed rains.
Farmers across Africa are discovering the benefits of indigenous greens. In Nigeria, farmers are getting greater returns from local celery and fluted pumpkin than from non-native vegetables. In Ethiopia, smallholder farmers are increasingly turning to a cousin of the banana tree called enset to diversify their crops.
And in Benin, some farmers switching to indigenous vegetables are raising their incomes as a result. Bioversity International researchers are also investigating the nutritional value of local species such as wild African black plum and African eggplant, which have long been part of the Beninois diet but were gradually replaced by imported vegetable species.
Despite these changes, major imported staple such as maize and rice still dominate farmers’ fields. There is much work to be done before small-scale farmers can take full advantage of the opportunities presented by indigenous vegetables.
First, more research is needed. With more than 2 000 indigenous, edible plants in Africa, researchers and farmers need more information to guide their selection. They need to understand the specific traits of different plants, and breeding programs to further improve their viability, yields and nutritional benefits. We must also improve seed distribution to ensure the best plant varieties are available, while maintaining and conserving a large genetic pool of variants. It will also require improved horticulture practices and post-harvest technologies.
The United States’ Feed the Future Initiative has made a start in this direction by funding research that enhances the potential for production, utilization and marketing of indigenous crops in Eastern Africa. But funding to support such research remains sparse. The World Vegetable Centre, a premier institution conducting research on native vegetable species in Asia, Oceania and Africa allocates less than 10 percent of its US$20 million annual dollar budget to research focused on studying native vegetables.
Second, innovative marketing strategies are needed to promote Africa’s native green heritage. Campaigns to educate consumers can be channeled through local media and undertaken by NGOs, international organizations, and local governments. Such strategies could include repackaging the greens for sale in both high-end markets and in local supermarkets.
For millions of people farming on small parcels of land with scant resources, switching to growing indigenous vegetables can make a tremendous difference. But it also represents a risk and involves more than just sowing different seeds. It involves the investment of time to understand the agricultural practices needed to reap maximum returns, and money to buy high quality seed varieties and other necessary tools. For farmers whose income depends almost entirely on crop performance, it can take courage to move away from long established crops, even when they are faltering.
Thinking and growing local would, however, create opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop and promote high quality, nutritious indigenous vegetables that cater for local tastes. It would create a new line of industry and a production that can create jobs. It is also a potentially powerful way to tackle malnutrition, reshape economies, employ people, and develop a new market for indigenous African vegetables. Most importantly, however, it will make smallholder farming more profitable, dynamic, and resilient to climate change.
Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2016 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.