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African leafy vegetables come out of the shade

Edible, broad-leaved African Nightshades are growing in popularity in East Africa (Bioversity International)
Edible, broad-leaved African Nightshades are growing in popularity in East Africa
Bioversity International

Native to North Africa, Europe and West Asia, the deadly nightshades (Atropa belladonna and Solanum nigrum) are renowned for their poisonous berries and leaves. These nightshades are often confused with the African nightshades (e.g. Solanum scabrum, S. americanum, S. villosum ), which are non poisonous and cultivated widely in many regions in Africa. Nightshade is the common name for a diverse group of plants in the family Solanaceae. This family also includes a number of important food crops, including tomato, eggplant and potato.

Broad leaved African nightshade (Solanum scabrum) can be found in many regions in Africa. In East Africa, nightshades are just one of a wide range of indigenous plants eaten as leafy vegetables. Despite being rich in vitamins, minerals and trace elements, African leafy vegetables have, however, been increasingly overlooked in preference to cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, amongst other more exotic vegetables. And yet, with increasing food prices at local markets, it seems that these leafy vegetables may yet find their place on the plates of rural and urban households.

Shedding light on leafy vegetables

In East Africa, the renewed interest in nightshade and other indigenous vegetables including amaranth, African eggplant, Ethiopian mustard, cowpea, jute mallow and spiderplant, has been partially stimulated by a successful campaign in Kenya and Tanzania led by Bioversity International, Farm Concern International and The World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), who have worked to promote the nutritional benefits of the crops as well as encouraging improved production techniques.

Broad leaved African nightshade, destined for a market in Nairobi (Mel Oluoch, the World Vegetable Center)
Broad leaved African nightshade, destined for a market in Nairobi
Mel Oluoch, the World Vegetable Center

According to Patrick Maundu of Bioversity International, nightshade provides good levels of protein, iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and selenium at seven times the amounts derived from cabbage. The high levels of vitamins and micronutrients, he says, are especially important to people at risk of malnutrition and disease, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Maundu reports demand has increased significantly since Kenyan supermarkets started stocking nightshade. "When the crop first hit the Uchumi supermarket shelves in Kenya and Uganda, it was just a matter of time before Nakumatt supermarkets and other major chains took it up. In Tanzania, the crop is widely sold in the vegetable retail markets. As a result, farmers in peri-urban areas have also increased production to keep up with local demand," he enthuses.

The campaign has focused on the taste preferences of different consumer groups. In Kenya, for example, coastal and western communities opt for the bitter types while those living in the central highlands and urban areas prefer the non-bitter varieties. In Tanzania, most communities have a preference for the bitter leaves but the broad leaved sweeter types newly introduced by AVRDC are increasingly being adopted.

A Malawian farmer with her plot of Solanum (Bioversity International)
A Malawian farmer with her plot of Solanum
Bioversity International

Whilst the market gears up for increased demand of nightshade, crop breeders are developing higher-yielding and tastier varieties. Dr. Christopher Ojiewo, crop breeder at Okayama University in Japan says he is currently breeding new cultivars that produce fewer fruits and more leaves. "I have already produced two mutants which I have sent to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT) for trials before eventual release to farmers," says Ojiewo.

Seeds of success

Although seed developers were initially sceptical of taking up nightshade, evidence of its increased presence in supermarkets and at informal vegetable markets has stimulated a market for seed of indigenous leafy vegetables. Through collaboration with the Africa Regional Center of AVRDC in Tanzania, several seed companies are now commercialising indigenous vegetable seed across the region. Simlaw Seeds, for example, produces S. villosum (medium-leaved bitter nightshade), and the high yielding Giant Nightshade (the broad-leaved non-bitter variety), for markets in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

African nightshade growing on the outskirts of Nairobi (Bioversity International)
African nightshade growing on the outskirts of Nairobi
Bioversity International

Although promotion and marketing of nightshade has been limited to East Africa, Bioversity International and AVRDC have extended projects to Malawi, Mozambique and Rwanda. "We have talked to supermarkets such as Shoprite and they have agreed to stock these leafy vegetables. We also believe that, just like the success story in East Africa with nightshade, other neglected crops in other regions can be promoted using similar strategies," says Maundu. In Tanzania and Malawi, other neglected crops like African eggplant are already being stocked in supermarkets.

Considering the growing global interest in indigenous vegetables, Maundu suggests that East African countries may also consider marketing nightshade as a dried vegetable, particularly to southern African countries where they are more popular in dried form. "There are good prospects in Malawi and South Africa," Maundu says, "and one day maybe even the diaspora in the US, UK and elsewhere will also enjoy the benefits of eating vegetables that are gaining popularity once more in their home countries."

Written by: Zablon Odhimabo with contributions from Mel Oluoch, World Vegetable Center

Date published: May 2008


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