Indigenous (or traditional) vegetables (e.g. Amaranth - Amaranthus spp.; African nightshade - Solanum scabrum; African eggplant - S. aetiopicum; jute mallow - Corchorus olitorius; bitter leaf - Venomia amygdalina, etc.) have had an important historical role to play in the farming and consumption systems across sub-Saharan Africa. They are particularly suitable crops for resource-poor farmers for they are easy to grow and require minimal external inputs, unlike exotic import vegetables. They are an integral component to many traditional dishes, and are a cheap and easily accessible source of nutrients for both the rural and urban population. On a unit cost basis they are nutritionally rich, contributing micronutrients and increasing the bioavailability and absorption of micronutrients from staple foods, provided that they are prepared and cooked properly to maintain their nutritional value and consumed regularly.

Despite their numerous benefits, research work on IV crops in sub-Saharan Africa has been quite scarce. Most studies have concentrated on species identification and nutrient analysis of IVs, and with few notable exceptions studies have tended to focus on rural areas.

In the recent years it has been noted that the cultivation of IVs is declining. Modernisation and the onset of the market economy in Africa have meant that scientific agronomic research and development has shifted over to exotic crops that are suitable for export. This is true especially in urban areas. Because of this, and because the indigenous knowledge on the production methods, preservation, use and nutritive value is not being systematically transmitted from one generation to the next, IV crops are tending to disappear, with the consequent loss in biodiversity. On the other side, examples from South East Asia (i.e. Thailand) show that IVs have a good potential to be exploited commercially. There, urban supermarkets increasingly stock a wide variety of IVs for affluent consumers. Similarly, in some East African countries, supermarkets such as 'Shoprite' are beginning to sell IVs, however limited to Amaranth and African Nightshade. It is essential that small and resource scarce farmers be enabled to participate in such a development.

Notwithstanding the various production and policy constraints that still need to be addressed, the production of IVs within urban areas offers many potential benefits, for example:

  • Vegetable crop diversification (improved biodiversity), introducing products of high nutritional quality;
  • Lower cost production systems (since IVs often require fewer inputs compared to exotic imports);
  • Sustainable production practices (since IVs are better suited to the climatic/environmental conditions and require fewer or no pesticides);
  • Marketing advantages resulting from the crop diversification and alternative production systems (e.g. a greater range of crops so there are less chances of gluts occurring because of overproduction of a few crops; middle-class consumers have a preference and demand for pesticide-free vegetables;
  • Income generation opportunities for women, since the production of IVs is often the domain of women farmers, whereas men tend to dominate the exotic crop sector;
  • Identifications of new domestic and export niche markets (i.e. for African expatriates in Europe).



last updated: 11/12/2006