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Traditional African vegetables in Kenya: production, marketing and utilization

P. Nekesa and B. Meso
Organic Matter Management Network, Nairobi, Kenya

Background

The Organic Matter Management Network (OMMN) is an NGO working with government ministries, research institutions, church agencies and other NGOs and committed farmers to develop better land husbandry methods for sustainability in food security and income generation for rural families. Kakamega district is one of the three core target areas in Kenya where the network is actively involved. This paper highlights the findings of a survey carried out by OMMN on the production, marketing and utilization of traditional African vegetables around Kakamega town.

A survey was carried out on the markets and nearby farms to determine consumption and utilization patterns of African traditional vegetables (Table 1). Sukuma wiki (Brassica oeleracea var. acephala), though a relatively recently introduced species, was deliberately included because of its wide utilization in the area. A participatory rural appraisal (PRA) exercise was conducted with 20 vendors of African traditional vegetables from three different markets (Amalemba, Lurambi and main market). A similar exercise was conducted with 20 producers of traditional African vegetables around Kakamega town.

Introduction

Maize intercropped with beans covers the largest proportion of most farms, but maize yields are generally poor (less than 1 t/ha) and farm sizes are decreasing as the population increases. These trends increase food insecurity, and to meet food needs people adopt risk-avoidance strategies, including moving to cities. Urban work may provide cash to meet food production shortfalls on the farm, but in general in many rural areas between February and April, during the hungry season, there is little food around on the farms and people do not have enough money to assure a well-balanced and interesting diet. Sukuma wiki (B. oleracea var. acephala), cabbages and traditional African green vegetables are in demand as the conventional accompaniment to ugali (maize meal), but at this time sukuma wiki and cabbages are in short supply and most consumers cannot buy either because the prices are too high. The diet is very basic and relies upon traditional greens.

Home garden production of vegetables can improve food supply and family nutrition (Cheatle and Nekesa 1993). However, production is limited by a number of factors, including competition for land area with other crops, lack of skills in preparation for consumption and storage, unavailability of seed and lack of appropriate husbandry practices. Farm families also point to the difficulty of securing a market when they have a surplus, especially in the rainy season. These problems can be overcome, but lack of awareness of their nutritive value and the general notion that African traditional vegetables are 'backward' has led to research into the improvement of African vegetables being a low priority.

Table 1. Types of traditional African vegetables identified on the market during the survey.

Local name (Luhya)

English

Botanical name

Lidodo

amaranth

Amaranthus sp.

Likhubi

cowpeas

Vigna sp.

Lisebebe

pumpkin leaves

Cucurbita sp.

Lisutsa

black nightshade

Solanum nigrum

Miro

sunnhemp

Crotalaria brevidens

Murere

jute plant

Corchorus olitorius

Tsimboka

pig weed

Amaranthus sp.

Tsisaka

spider plant

Gynandropsis gynandra

Traditional African vegetable production system

Production of traditional African vegetables is mainly on a subsistence basis. These vegetables are often intercropped and rarely occupy a significant proportion of the farm. Traditional vegetables often occupy areas around the house, together with bananas, maize, cassava and sorghum. Supply of the vegetables is highest 2 months after the onset of the long rains, when tender plants are uprooted for use. Supply then drops until the next short rainy season, when the vegetable is either planted as a pure stand in small plots or interplanted with maize. This results in an increase in supply within a month (Table 2).

Most vegetable production is rain-fed. In the dry season, people adopt risk-avoidance strategies to meet vegetable needs. This includes production along riverbanks and supplementary watering. Cucurbits are drought tolerant and once established they are harvested all the year round. They therefore provide the main accompaniment to ugali for families whose farms do not border rivers.

Management practices are basically traditional. Seeds are broadcast, no precise spacing being applied. Weeding is done alongside the main crop. As for soil fertility improvement, most farms visited had vegetable plots in areas with high nutrient concentrations, such as kitchen waste dumping sites, former cattle sheds and demolished mud huts.

Most seed of traditional vegetable is obtained from the previous season's crop. A specialization trend has developed to ensure a steady seed supply. The elderly women have specialized in seed production, processing and storage. These women sell seed on the markets. The younger women often specialize in purchasing seeds, raising and selling the vegetables. Apart from the actual eating, involvement of male family members with traditional vegetables has been observed to be very low.

There are no institutions involved in production of improved traditional vegetable seeds on a commercial basis. Farmer groups working with OMMN have established small seed stores in the village, stocking certified exotic vegetables seeds from the Kenya Seed Company. These farmer-owned seed stores assure availability of seed throughout the year to all farmers in the locality. With the initiation of such seed stores, production of exotic vegetables for marketing has increased. A similar case could apply for traditional vegetables. Farmers are being encouraged to harvest seeds of traditional vegetables and stock them in the village seed stores. Commercialization of products based on traditional production systems is likely to be more sustainable since few external inputs are needed to make the system function.

Another opportunity exists for selecting and improving traditional vegetables. There are two forms of Corchorus olitorius, one with broad leaves and the other with narrow leaves. Farmers show a preference for the broad-leaved type as it gives more edible leaves. Farmers recognize three distinct varieties of black nightshade (Solarium nigrum). The most preferred variety gives more leaves but smaller seeds, green in colour. The second-best type is the one with big yellow seeds and big leaves. The third variety has many big dark green seeds, and gives few dark green leaves.

Table 2. Vegetable availability calendar.


Availability

Month

High

Medium

Low

January


A, H

C, F, G, D, B, I

February


A, H

C, F, G, D, B, I

March

A

B, F, G, H

C, D, E, I

April

A, B, E, F, G, H

C, D, I


May

A, B, E, F, G, H

C, D, I


June

B, C, D, F, G, H, I

A, E


July

C, D, F, G, H, I

A, B, E


August

C, D, F, G, I

A, B, E, H


September

B

A, C, D, F, G, H, I

E

October

C, H

A

C, D, E, F, G, I

November


A, B, C, D, E, H

F, G, I

December


A

F, G, H, B, C, D, E, I

A = Pumpkin leaves; B = Sunnhemp; C = Spider flower; D = Black nightshade; E = Jute plant; F = Pig weed; G = Amaranth; H = Cowpeas; I = Sukuma wiki.
Adaptability of different traditional vegetable varieties to different ecological conditions is yet another unexploited opportunity. One farmer reported that he planted two varieties of cowpeas. He has noticed that one of these varieties is drought tolerant but yields poorly when planted in the rainy season. The other variety is susceptible to water stress and performs poorly in the dry season. This farmer is able to harvest cowpea leaves most of the year on his farm.

Marketing of traditional African vegetables

For anyone interested in rural women's welfare, African traditional vegetables offer an important entry point. These vegetables provide an important economic pillar upon which women's rural livelihood is supported (Table 3). Production, handling and marketing are mostly done by women. Out of the 20 vendors and 20 farmers contacted during the survey, only one was a man.

The farm women harvest, pack and transfer the vegetables to the buying point nearest to their farms, usually by a roadside. Women vendors from urban centres buy and transport vegetables to strategic wholesale urban markets. Their counterparts in the retail sector purchase and transfer the vegetables to strategic retail points. At each vegetable exchange point, a profit of well over 75% is made. A wholesaler purchases a bundle of vegetables for Ksh 2 (US $0.04), she splits the bundle into two and each is typically again sold at Ksh 2 to the retailer. The retailer repeats the same procedure before selling to consumers. One woman producing traditional African vegetables provides employment to two others, a wholesaler and a retailer. Yet local production of traditional vegetables for marketing is relatively low, especially in the dry season. Traders move long distances and spend some money to buy goods for sale in Kakamega. One retailer has to move 15 km from Kakamega for fresh traditional vegetables daily.

Table 3. Retail price per kilogram for different traditional vegetables and sukuma wiki in Kakamega town (August 1995).

Local name (Luhyia)

English

Botanical name

Price (Ksh/kg)

Lidodo

amaranth

Amaranthus sp.

15

Likhubi

cowpeas

Vigna unguiculata

15

Lisebebe

pumpkin leaves

Cucurbita sp.

10

Lisutsa

black nightshade

Solanum nigrum

24

Miro

sunnhemp

Crotalaria brevidens

13

Murere

jute plant

Cochorus olitorius

20

Sukuma wiki

kale

Brassica sp.

18

Trisaka

spider flower

Gynandropsis gynandra

18

Tsimboka

pig weed

Amaranthus sp.

16

Sukuma wiki is the most commonly grown and eaten vegetable. It has been included in this list for comparison purpose, although it is a relatively recently introduced species.
It is instructive to observe negotiations in a public market. Women are very keen to make every shilling count. Yet price is not the only important factor. Buyers exhibit distinct preferences. For example, traditional vegetables are not usually purchased by single men because of the time and skill demanded for their preparation. Traditional vegetables are best when prepared the traditional way. Applying modern cooking techniques like frying spoils the taste. Many people argue that specific vegetables types can be mixed, e.g. "lidodo is best when mixed with tsisaka, likhubi or sukuma wiki", or "miro and lisebebe are simply immiscible".

Transport of fresh vegetables is generally by matatu (privately owned minibus taxis). Women travel to the farms, buy the vegetables, carry the load on their head to a matatu, then carry the load from the matatu stop to the market. The labour and time commitment is high, yet the average purchase is rarely more than one bag, because of perishability, limited supply and the impossibility of handling large quantities using this means of transport.

Most traders are specialists in traditional vegetables. When asked about other products like tomatoes and onions, most stated that these have a different source and there is higher competition for them than for traditional vegetables.

Trading is generally through networks and along well-established patterns. Some of the trading networks are rather complex and stable. This suggests that it may be difficult for newcomers to enter into relationships with existing networks. This is certainly the case in seasons of low supply, when family networks give preference in selling to traders in the family.

Proximity to the local marketplaces is a major advantage for producers because it allows the supply of quality products at reasonable prices. Pre-bundled, fresh, succulent vegetables represent a market advantage due to quality of presentation. Survey enquiries revealed that 100-g bundles of each vegetable type are preferred. About 200 bundles of assorted vegetables are handled by each retailer daily.

Potential of traditional African vegetables

Soil fertility improvement

In collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), OMMN has initiated research work on using Crotalaria ochroleuca (giant crotalaria) as a green manure. Farmers in Kakamega were provided with seeds and given a choice of either intercropping it with maize in the short rains or planting it as a rotation crop in fields where maize had been removed. Most farmers have shown preference for planting in rotation with maize. Most of them are still skeptical of the effect giant crotalaria will have on maize if intercropped, although the traditional practice is that farmers intercrop Crotalaria brevidens (dwarf crotalaria) with maize and either uproot the whole plant for consumption or harvest the branches piecemeal. This practice does not allow the accumulation of enough biomass for improving soil N content. The advantage of intercropping giant crotalaria with maize could arise in retention of soil moisture in the maize field. Observations suggest that maize may withstand two additional weeks in a dry spell when intercropped with C. ochroleuca compared with monoculture.

Most traditional vegetable seeds are broadcast and end up being closely spaced in the field. This provides good groundcover, which reduces rainwater impact on the soil. Surface water overflow is reduced through improved water percolation due to a dense root network. The topsoil is very loose and soft, and this allows the farmer to plough even in the dry season. During land preparation, the unharvested parts of the traditional vegetables are ploughed into the soil, thus adding to soil organic matter content.

Weed suppression

Many traditional African vegetables may be classified as 'edible weeds'. Many (e.g. Amaranthus) have high growth rates, especially in soils rich in organic matter. Some farmers use them as soil fertility indicators. When broadcast in the field at close spacings, traditional vegetables like C. ochroleuca can suppress other, non-edible weeds, especially on fertile soils. The use of traditional vegetable species as suppressants of specific weeds needs further investigation, especially in conditions of long-term establishment of these vegetables on the farm.

Pest suppression

Farmers report little incidence of insect pest attack on traditional vegetables compared with exotic ones. Certainly, C. ochroleuca, Gynandropsis gynandra and S. nigrum all have a bitter taste and a strong smell. This suggests that these vegetables may repel some pests. It has been reported that full-grown plants of sunnhemp placed between bags of maize have the effect of keeping away all insects. Farmers practising organic conservation farming in Kakamega have been observed incorporating leaves and stems of bitter plants in the soil with the aim of keeping off nematodes in vegetable gardens. Among the plants used are Dithornia diversifolia and S. nigrum. With this treatment, farmers have reported reduced nematode attack on their exotic vegetables.

Organic conservation farming and traditional African vegetables

There is considerable potential for the integration of organic conservation practices with the production of traditional African vegetables. Some development of the current traditional vegetable production systems along these lines can be envisaged. Deep digging and composting of small beds can increase yield dramatically. This starts a process that can lead to land intensification, sustainable land use and increased income generation.

Most women trading in traditional vegetables stay with their husbands in urban centres. Most of them have no access to agricultural land and therefore depend entirely on purchasing their commodity from farm counterparts. With urban farming now becoming an important phenomenon in all major towns in the country, production of traditional African vegetables is a significant opportunity, providing that some people specialize in seed production and all producers obtain basic skills in making compost from organic wastes. This compost could then be used to add soil fertility to the vegetable gardens.

The few women who are farm-based and still act as middlewomen do so because profits in this are higher than in production. The opportunity here is to help such women to develop skills in production and encourage them to set up as traders too. This will increase production and profitability simultaneously by minimizing the number of times vegetables have to change hands before arriving at the consumer's table.

Reference

Cheatle, R.J. and P. Nekesa. 1993. First identification of work with farmers to promote agricultural development. KIFCON Internal Report.


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