New Appetite for Nutritious Traditional Vegetables

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Throughout the history of farming, around 7,000 species of plants have been domesticated. Yet everyday diets only draw on 30 percent of these plants and even this number has been going down as more people consume mass-market foods (FAO).

One consequence has been poor nutrition resulting from the reduction in consumption of high-vitamin foods, leading to stunted mental and physical development across the global South.

Once-rich culinary traditions have wilted and left many people not knowing what to do with formerly common vegetables and fruits, even if they can actually find them in markets.

Between 94,000 and 144,000 plant species — a quarter to a half of the world’s total — could die out in the coming years, according to an estimate by Scientific American (2002). Among them are vital food crops, threatened by a world in which climate change is causing more weather turbulence and diseases and viruses can spread rapidly and destroy crops.

This scale of plant loss risks leaving the world’s food security dependent on fewer – and more vulnerable – domesticated species.

Despite being rich in vitamins, minerals and trace elements, African leafy vegetables have been overlooked in preference for cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, and other imported produce. But with rising food prices at local markets, people are looking again at these neglected African vegetables. In East Africa, this includes indigenous plants like amaranth (, African eggplant, Ethiopian mustard, cowpea, jute mallow and spider plant.

Like tomatoes and potatoes, some of these vegetables are members of the nightshade family — but unlike those imports, they are indigenous to Africa. According to Patrick Maundu of Bioversity International (, African nightshades provide good levels of protein, iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and selenium at seven times the amounts derived from cabbage. The high levels of vitamins and micronutrients, he says, are especially important to people at risk of malnutrition and disease, particularly HIV/AIDS.

As the cost for basic foodstuffs have shot up during the global economic crisis, growing food has become an increasingly lucrative source of income. Estimates of the number of people doing this across Africa range from hundreds of thousands to millions.

In the bid to reduce the over-dependence on imported foods, urban farming is coming to the rescue and becoming an effective survival tactic in Africa’s fast-growing cities. Thousands of urban workers in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, are supplementing their wages by investing in farms growing food.

Eunice Wangari, a nurse in Kenya, supplements her US $350/month salary with money earned from growing food. “For too long our country has been flooded with imported food and westernized foods,” Wangari told The Guardian newspaper. “This is our time to fight back – and grow our own.”

In Kenya, this type of agriculture usually involves an urbanite taking a stake in farmland outside the city. Relatives then do the farming. Mobile phones play a key role in this approach. The urban dweller can keep in touch with the farm by phone and receive updates on progress. They use their knowledge of urban food tastes to then adjust the crops and increase profits.

An accountant, James Memusi in Nairobi, is growing mushrooms in a spare bedroom in his home and then selling them to hotels and supermarkets, according to The Guardian. Miringo Kinyanjui is selling unrefined maize and wheat. Loved for its nutritional qualities, the flour is also flavoured with amarathan, a common green vegetable in Kenya.It is a clever way to make the most of the fact that many urban dwellers have some access to land in the countryside.

Pride is also returning to the topic of food, as people re-discover traditional foods and vegetables and fruits.

In Liberia, president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has launched a “Back to the Soil” campaign to get urban dwellers to farm and help the country lose its dependence on foreign food imports.

Liberia is trying to reduce the importing of rice and tomatoes.

In Zambia, the embracing of traditional foods has been fuelled by recipes used by a chain of popular restaurants. This appetite has driven demand for dried pumpkins, ‘black jack’ leaves and fresh okra.

The success of this revival of traditional foods has attracted big multinationals as well. Unilever Kenya ran a campaign in 2008 called ‘taste our culture,’ promoting African herbs and spices.


1) The Global Trees Campaign, a partnership between Fauna & Flora International, Botanic Gardens Conservation International and many other organisations around the world, aims to save threatened tree species through provision of information, conservation action and support for sustainable use. Website:

2) World Vegetable Center: The World Vegetable Center is the world’s leading international non-profit research and development institute committed to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in developing countries through vegetable research and development. Website:

3) Sylva Professional Catering and College: A well-known Zambian food entrepreneur who runs a range of businesses, including restaurants, a cooking school and a guest house. Website:

4) Marketing African Leafy Vegetables: Challenges and Opportunities in the Kenyan Context By Kennedy M. Shiundu and Ruth. K. Oniang. Website:

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