Africa’s super vegetables are booming – but will success lead to downfall?

Everybody is getting very excited indeed about the rise and rise of Africa’s indigenous ‘super’ vegetables. Amaranth, nightshade and jute are just a few of the super-nutritious crops emerging from obscure specialised markets and rural populations to conquer metropolitan plates continent-wide. But with the bountiful success and rush to mass-produce comes the disastrous possibility of over-breeding. Will the fairytale continue?

Restaurants across Nairobi are picking up on the burgeoning fashion for indigenous vegetables. Steaming plates of cavernous-green African nightshade, vibrant amaranth stew and the sautéed leaves of cowpeas are a few of the delights increasingly being served.

Only a few years ago many menus in the Kenyan capital would be filled with non-indigenous staples, like collard greens and kale, introduced to the continent by colonial Europeans a century previous. These foreign vegetables have dominated African tastes for decades due to being commonly associated with high status.

But trends are volatile and markets like this one in Lomut are increasingly vending indigenous vegetables. Such plants contain higher levels of most of the nutrients found in exotic crops like kale. Now, local vegetables such as amaranth greens, cowpea leaves, jute mallow, spider plant, sweet potato leaves and African nightshade are growing in popularity among farmers and consumers as they clock on to the nutrition benefit of indigenous veg.

Areas in which indigenous greens are planted increased by 25% between 2011 and 2013, with farmers throughout East Africa scrambling to keep up with the booming consumer demand for nutritious local crops.

African nightshade, for example, is rich in protein, calcium and vitamins A and E. Cowpea greens boast large amounts of iron and protein. Jute mallow is brimming with vitamin E and protein, while spider plant offers a ton of folate and a healthy portion of amaranth can fill a miscellany of nutrient quotas.

Researchers in Africa and across the world are now stepping up studies of indigenous vegetables to maximise health benefits and continuously improve the booming greens through experimental breeding. They are hoping that such efforts will lead to traditional varieties becoming even more popular among both farmers and consumers. Several varieties of amaranth are grown at the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania, where scientists are attempting to select desired traits like fast growth, vibrant colours and high nutritional value.

Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural researcher at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Juja, Kenya, is a big evangelist of indigenous crops. While pursuing her PhD in the 1990’s, Abukutsa was taught that indigenous greens were not important enough to be the focus of her research. Today however, scientists around the world are intensively studying their benefits and Abukutsa mentors several students who are working on native plants.

But all the intensive studying and breeding is not without risk. Experiments could accidentally breed out the beneficial traits like disease resistance that made these vegetables desirable in the first place.

“It is important that when we promote a specific crop, that we try to come up with different varieties,” Andreas Ebert, gene-bank manager at the World Vegetable Center, tells Nature. If increasing popularity and breeding leads to a limitation of plant diversity “the major benefits we are currently seeing will be lost.”

Images via shankar s. / Stacy Spensley / Rick Mn / Gates Foundation / vijay_SRV / International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

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