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
- 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).