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Press Release 
Gerhard Backeberg  
Traditional African leafy vegetables have advantages over exotic vegetable species that currently dominate our supermarket shelves

Research by the WRC, in partnership with DAFF, indicates that traditional African leafy vegetables popularly known as morogo or imifino have advantages over exotic vegetable species. These are the findings from a research project that was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team of scientists in the crop, food and nutrition disciplines from the University of Pretoria, Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the Medical and Agricultural Research Councils.

The eight indigenous vegetables selected were shown to be more drought and heat tolerant than Swiss chard, a commonly grown exotic vegetable which was the reference crop in this study. This could prove significant in the context of climate change.  Cowpea was found to be the most drought-tolerant crop, followed by nightshade, pumpkin and tsamma melon. Amaranth was the most heat-tolerant crop. For optimum growth, water requirements for the African leafy vegetables studied for a full growing season range between 240 mm and 463 mm.

The study shows that some plants provided more than 50% of the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin A, and all eight vegetables studied provided at least 30% of the estimated average requirement. What’s more, the vegetables provided varying amounts of other important nutrients, such as protein and various mineral elements, and also contained significant amounts of fibre.

Traditional leafy food plants play an important role in the contemporary food systems of people in South Africa, particularly in poor, rural areas. In South Africa, they are mostly gathered, with only selected species being cultivated, usually as part of a mixed cropping system in home gardens or smallholder plots.

Traditional leafy vegetables are generally easier to produce and usually require less resources (such as water), while being rich sources of micronutrients, such as iron and Vitamin A. Some of the most important traditional vegetable species, such as amaranth and spider flower, are pioneer plants, which emerge naturally when soils are disturbed following cultivation. Commercial farming systems may regard them as weeds, but in African smallholder cropping systems they are often left to grow for later harvesting.

The popularity of specific species depends on a variety of factors, including availability, ease of preparation, taste, consistency and appearance. While still a niche market, traditional African vegetables are not only gathered for home use but also sold in fresh or dried form at both informal and formal markets.

According to project team member Prof Wim van Averbeke of the Department of Crop Sciences at TUT, the study shows potential value for food security and rural development, based on gathering of wild foods, growing locally-adapted varieties and eating from the local ecosystem, as is recognised internationally. Despite significant advances, one in five South African families still experience difficulty in accessing food, with research indicating that local households are becoming increasingly dependent on social grants – a situation which is not sustainable in the long-term.   

WRC Executive Manager : Water Utilisation in agriculture , Dr Gerhard Backeberg explains, “Through this research we not only aimed to fill in these knowledge gaps, but to raise the awareness of traditional food plants in South Africa by pointing out the valuable contribution these plants could make to the food security and, hence, nutrition security of South African households.”

Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO adds, “these encouraging results are expected to provide an impetus for investment into making many of these ‘’outlier’ food sources into mainstream commercial crops to meet the global food security challenge”.

Ultimately the project hoped to encourage and strengthen people’s abilities to cultivate food for themselves, as opposed to merely depending on government support systems, such as social grants. In this way communities are empowered to help themselves become food secure and maintain a healthy balanced diet.

According to Prof Van Averbeke, the project collected sufficient data to confirm that regular consumption of African leafy vegetables can assist in balancing diets by adding essential macronutrients, particularly beta-carotene and iron.

Referring to the long-term sustainability of cultivating traditional food plants, Prof Van Averbeke explains, “The first batch of seed can be obtained from existing growers or researchers. Seeds can also be collected from plants growing in the wild. Once you have the seed, the system is easy to reproduce.”

Contact: WRC Executive Manager, Water Utilisation in Agriculture: Dr Gerhard Backeberg , e-mail: gerhardb@wrc.org.za

To order the reports, Nutritional Value and Water Use of African Leafy Vegetables for Improved Livelihoods (Report No. TT 535/12); Production Guidelines for African Leafy Vegetables (Report No. TT 536/12); and/or Nutritional Status of South Africans: Links to Agriculture and Water (Report No. TT 362/P/08) contact Publications: orders@wrc.org.za; Tel: (012) 330-0340; Fax: (012) 331-2565; or visit www.wrc.org.za to download a free copy.


 Picking leafy vegetables
Chinese cabbage
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