Monday, 11 September 2017

New life for neglected African leafy vegetables

Members of the project team stand amid a crop of Leafy Greens at Mundika Boy's High

Nutritious but neglected African leafy vegetables are having a comeback, thanks to an ACIAR pilot project in Kenya – and other countries may soon follow suit.

Cowpea leaves, moringa, spider plant, jute mallow, Ethiopian kale, and amaranth were once used extensively in traditional medicine, but many Kenyans today consider these vegetables old-fashioned; they are little more than cattle fodder and weeds.

Now an ACIAR-funded project (HORT/2014/100) in Busia County, Kenya, has promoted these vegetables as a rich source of nutrition for children, and linked smallholder farmers – most of them women – to reliable government procurement contracts for feeding schools.

'The pilot project has had enormous success,' said ACIAR’s Annie Sanderson, who visited Kenya to inspect the trial project, and help plan to spread it to other regions and countries.

'The project team has done a really impressive job, together with the school community and farmer groups,' she said, 'to lift the profile of these vegetables, get them into school feeding programs, and promote their nutritional benefits to the wider community.'

William Buluma, Chairman of the NGO SINGI, and John Egesa, from the Namelenga Water and Irrigation group at Mundika Boy's High

Under the guidance of CABE, a local agribusiness NGO, Annie explains, the farmers approached local schools, and said:

'We’ve got these highly nutritious vegetables.  Would you be keen to buy them?  We know they’re not on your regular school feeding menu, but if we could guarantee you a supply, we think it would be really good nutrition for the kids.'

The Mundika Boys’ High School, Mundika Primary School, and the Mundika boarding school for deaf children agreed to buy the vegetables, and their headmasters believe they’ve seen a real change.

Dr Mark Obonyo, principal of Mundika Boys’ High, for instance, thinks the vegetables introduced under the program have helped the children to concentrate better, and their grades have improved.

'The three schools just loved the project,' Annie said, 'and they want more of it.  The teachers can see the benefits.  The children love it, and their performance is improving, because they’re getting nutrients that they’d otherwise miss out on.'

Many children in western Kenya are malnourished; 26% of children under 5 are stunted (short for their age), and micronutrient intake levels are low.  Children from poor families often come to school without any food at all, or only eat a starchy, basic diet.

Schools provide meals consisting of rice or maize, beans, oil, and iodized salt (which assists in brain development and prevents goitres) – but little or no fresh vegetables or meat.  Now schoolchildren can eat the vegetables their bodies need for healthy development.

A school cook at Mundkia Girl's Primary prepares Cowpeas from the school garden for the children's lunch

Schoolchildren also learn how to grow and maintain the vegetables, Annie explained.

'They take the information back home, and say to their mothers: "We want to eat these vegetables!   They’re really good, and we should grow them."'

Growing the vegetables also gives women smallholder farmers much needed income.

'This project turned their life around,' said Annie.  'It gave them their own business, and they started making a lot of money, more money than they’d ever had.'

Across Africa, women do much of the labour on farms, but it is often the men who control household assets and incomes.  The project showed the women they could earn money growing plants they’d thought of as little more than weeds.

'We’ve got a regular income that our husbands don’t take, because it’s women’s business and it’s our income,' the women farmers told Annie.

'We were growing small amounts of these plants and giving them away for free,' a farmer named Helen reported; 'now we sell them.  I have money in my pocket, and food on my table.'

Selling vegetables gave Joyce Singuala, a smallholder farmer in Busia, enough money to buy a television.  Before she grew maize, which takes three or four months to grow, and only brought in an income every few months.  Now she can harvest and sell African leafy vegetables every week.

Smallholder farmers who participated in the pilot study

Farmers can still grow maize and rice – but now they also sell African leafy vegetables in markets, at high prices.  (One woman, for instance, sends her crops by bus to be sold in Nairobi markets.) 

Schools, though, give the women a guaranteed and stable market.

'The trade-off between an institutional market and the more volatile, regular value markets,' Annie explained, 'is the regularity and the assurance that they’re locked in a contract and the school will pay an agreed price for an agreed amount of produce, at an agreed time, so they can confidently invest in growing it.'

Now the women have plans to sell the African leafy vegetables to prisons and hospitals, and to grow fruit trees and other sorts of crops.

'They felt very empowered,' Annie said, 'and they built up their confidence as businesswomen.'

The project has also inspired the next generation of farmers.  Africa could become one of the world’s greatest agricultural providers, but many young people are leaving farms and moving to the city.  The project has trained them to grow something more commercially valuable than maize, and taught them how to work in institutional markets.

'These kinds of crops,' Annie said, 'can modernize agriculture, both technologically and commercially, for young people.'

Not bad for plants long thought of as cattle fodder and weeds.
By Nick Fuller

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