Traditional indigenous greens are increasing in popularity in East Africa. They are gaining attention for a number of reasons, including their nutritional and environmental benefits. Consumers and researchers alike are welcoming their re-emergence. The research work on these plants has global implications, as “lost crops” may hold some of the keys to increasing global food security. Rachel Cernansky (@rachelcernansky) is an independent journalist who writes about environmental issues. She produced this piece for Nature.
Indigenous vegetables are taking East Africa by storm. These traditional vegetables can be found at large grocery stores in Nairobi, in restaurants…and in laboratories. Seed companies are breeding more of these “traditional” vegetable varieties, and Kenyan farmers have increased the area planted with these nutritional powerhouse greens by 25% in the last couple of years. Researchers say that many of the indigenous vegetables are “richer in protein, vitamins, iron and other nutrients than popular non-native crops such as kale.” They have other desirable traits, as well: they are drought and pest-resistant.
Could these “lost crops” play a role in addressing one of the region’s major issues, malnutrition? Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a researcher, says “yes.” And she’s emerging as an international leader in researching and advocating for their use.
“In Africa, malnutrition is such a problem. We want to see indigenous vegetables play a role,” says Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural researcher at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Juja, Kenya, who is a major proponent of the crops.
Abukutsa-Onyango’s relationship with what she is researching is both personal and professional. As a child, animal protein made her ill, so the women in her family prepared foods for her that contained indigenous plants. Abukutsa-Onyango studied agriculture because she wanted to “unravel the potential hidden in African indigenous vegetables.” Abukutsa-Onyango’s research assesses the nutritional benefits of various vegetables. Recently, she has focused on “how to maximize nutritional benefits using different cooking methods.” She’s learned that when compared with raw vegetables, “boiled and fried greens contain much more usable iron.” She thinks this could help in the fight against anemia.These vegetables remain a part of her personal diet.
The research has global implications.
Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sees these efforts as crucial. And with advances in genomics, he says, researchers should seek ways to improve indigenous crops — by lengthening their shelf life, for example — and to use them in breeding other plants. “They may have traits that may be useful for other crops.”
Juma, who served on the NRC’s lost-crops panel, urges more agricultural research centres in Africa to study these vegetables. The work that Abukutsa and her colleagues are doing, he says, “should be done at every university”.
This is a substantial, fascinating, must-read story.