African indigenous vegetables, a neglected treasure for improved nutrition and income in Sub-Saharan Africa


This presentation was shared by James Simon of Rutgers, State University of New Jersey at the 2017 American Society for Horticulture Science conference in Hawaii. Simon leads the Horticulture Innovation Lab project focus on improving nutrition with African indigenous vegetables in Kenya and Zambia.

African indigenous vegetables, a neglected treasure for improved nutrition and income in eastern and southern Sub-Saharan Africa

Nutrition opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa

The population in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow by 2 billion people by 2050 and, as a result, meeting the region's nutritional goals has an added urgency. Malnutrition is decreasing in many developed regions, but parts of Sub-Saharan Africa have only begun the nutrition transition. Efforts to promote nutrition must focus on decreasing malnutrition without promoting excess weight gain. 

Maternal education and household wealth should be advanced without introducing processed foods or foods that are not traditionally consumed in the region. Interventions should promote the consumption of nutrient rich foods while showcasing the importance of improved diets for all — in particular, for school-aged children.

Why focus on African indigenous vegetables?

African indigenous vegetables address serious malnutrition problems in Sub-Saharan Africa and are a mainstay in traditional diets. They include over 400 species, have a rich history and are locally adapted. African indigenous vegetables are not considered a cash crop, but urban markets show promising potential for the crop to generate income for smallholder farmers. Many African indigenous vegetables contain essential nutrients, proteins, vitamins and minerals. They have potential medicinal uses as well. There is a natural bridge to link the agricultural production of African indigenous vegetables to improved community nutrition and health.

Challenges to increasing production and consumption of traditional African vegetables

Rural communities and peri-urban households need greater access to African indigenous vegetables. African indigenous vegetables are often unavailable -- particularly during the dry-season. As a result, the African indigenous vegetable value chain needs to be strengthened. As well, researchers need greater background information about the best intervention practices that will lead to increased consumption of African indigenous vegetables.

How often are African Indigenous vegetables consumed in Zambia and Kenya?

The research team conducted a pilot survey to determine and report the nutritional status, dietary intake, dietary diversity and African indigenous vegetable consumption for adults in Kenya and Zambia using published data and existing datasets. 

The pilot survey revealed that the indigenous vegetables are popular, but rarely consumed. Both Kenyans and Zambians claim that they would like to consume more indigenous vegetables, but that the vegetables are often either too expensive or unavailable to them. Many Kenyans and Zambians also lack knowledge about the nutritional advantages of African indigenous vegetables. As well, women in Kenya and Zambia all possessed a WDD (Women's Dietary Diversity) score below 5, which indicates low dietary diversity 

Frequency of AIV consumption in Kenya
How frequently African indigenous vegetables are consumed in Zambia


How will the increased production of African indigenous vegetables and nutrition education activities impact consumption?

The team is providing 125 households with either: 

  • nutrition education intervention activities;
  • production intervention activities;
  • both types of intervention activities or
  • a control group treatment. 

Follow-up consumption surveys following intervention activities will be analyzed to determine the impact of each intervention approach.

Increasing production of African indigenous vegetables 

The study's intervention for producers consists of a series of discrete activities to promote African indigenous vegetable cultivation and marketing. Its aim is to increase the availability of African indigenous vegetables in target communities all year long, To gain the knowledge to achieve this goal, researchers surveyed 300 African indigenous vegetable producers and 75 intermediaries to identify the most significant hurdles to their African indigenous vegetable production.


Obj. 2: Hypothesis: Appropriate Promotion & Expansion of Availability of AIVs at the Local Level will Strengthen Market Access and Sales for Producers of AIVs:
The research team hypothesizes that access to African indigenous vegetables will strengthen market access and sales for producers. 

Hurdles to indigenous vegetable production

The chief obstacles that farmers reported to producing African indigenous vegetables was a lack of access to seeds. They said that they often opted not to produce spider plant because it was not profitable to sell at markets and reported that nightshade was difficult to produce because of pest problems. The high price of fertilizer, lack of access to improved germplasm and their lack of access to credit (75% reported that they could not access credit) also prohibited them from producing more African indigenous vegetables. 

How farmers currently source their seeds

According to the survey, 45% of farmers source their amaranth seeds from their own farm and 30% of farmers source nightshade seeds from their own farm. Fifty-five percent of farmers source spider plant seeds from their own farm and 65% of farmers source cowpea seeds from their own farm. Organic sweet potato seeds were the only seeds that farmers were more likely to source from a friend's farm than their own farm. 

How do farmers sell indigenous vegetables?

Farmers reported selling 73% of their African indigenous vegetable crops directly to consumers, 18% of the crops to wholesalers, 4% of the crops to retailers, 3% of the crops to roadside stands, 1% of the crops to supermarkets and 1% of the crops to brokers. 

Lessons learned from research findings

Smallholder farmer crop yields of African indigenous vegetables are limited by poor soil quality, low inputs and lack of knowledge surrounding by African indigenous vegetables. Crop yields are also limited by the perception that the vegetables are not commercial crops.There is a need for improved postharvest handling and collection centers for bulk produce in Kenya and Zambia.

Educational programs about the nutritional benefits of African Indigenous Vegetables are effective tools for increasing popular interest in the vegetables.

Newly introduced lines are being accepted by growers. A line of amaranth and a line of African nightshade were approved for sale in Kenya.

Key takeaways from African indigenous vegetables research project

The project's systems approach has enhanced access and adoption (production and consumption) and paved the way for significant income opportunities for smallholder farmers who previously were not involved in commercial horticulture production. It has also fostered greater community awareness about the nutritional value of African indigenous vegetables. 

Simon's presentation also highlights nutritional analysis findings endeavored by the project and its efforts to increase youth access to the production of African indigenous vegetables.



    Kenya Zambia