Spider plant. Photo, Zablon Oyugi.
Broad-leaved African nightshade (Solanum scabrum) long vilified by many households across East Africa and relegated to being orphaned crops are now enjoying fanatical uptake thanks to rising prices of exotic vegetables like tomatoes, Kale and spinach and the heightened push by organizations pushing for their consumption.
Across 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.
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 says that 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 said.
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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.
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,” said Ojiewo.
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, for markets in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
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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.”