Over lunch time in Nairobi’s K’Osewe restaurant, the waiting staff runs back and forth from the kitchen, bringing out steaming plates of deep-green African nightshade, vibrant amaranth stew and the sautéed leaves of cowpeas.
The restaurant is known as the best place to come for a helping of Kenya’s traditional leafy green vegetables, which are increasingly showing up on menus across the city.
Now Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural researcher at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Juja, Kenya, is one of those spearheading the development of these traditional crops that are now popular in Nairobi’s eateries.
Just a few years ago, many of those plates would have been filled with staples such as collard greens or kale — which were introduced to Africa from Europe a little over a century ago. In Nairobi, indigenous vegetables were once sold almost exclusively at hard-to-find specialized markets; and although these plants have been favoured by some rural populations in Africa, they were largely ignored by seed companies and researchers, so they lagged behind commercial crops in terms of productivity and sometimes quality.
Now, indigenous vegetables are in vogue. They fill shelves at large supermarkets even in Nairobi, and seed companies are breeding more of the traditional varieties every year. Kenyan farmers increased the area planted with such greens by 25% between 2011 and 2013. As people throughout East Africa have recognized the vegetables’ benefits, demand for the crops has boomed.
This is welcome news for agricultural researchers and nutritional experts, who argue that indigenous vegetables have a host of desirable traits: many of them are richer in protein, vitamins, iron and other nutrients than popular non-native crops such as kale, and they are better able to endure droughts and pests. This makes the traditional varieties a potent weapon against dietary deficiencies. “In Africa, malnutrition is such a problem. We want to see indigenous vegetables play a role,” says the researcher.
For Abukutsa, indigenous vegetables bring back memories of her childhood. She chose to pursue a career in agriculture because she wanted to “unravel the potential hidden in African indigenous vegetables”, she says. Now, she is considered a leader across Africa, and increasingly around the world, in a robust, rapidly growing field. “She’s almost like the mother of indigenous vegetables in Kenya,” says Jane Ambuko, head of horticulture at the University of Nairobi.
Abukutsa started out in the early 1990s, surveying and collecting Kenya’s indigenous plants to investigate the viability of the seeds that farmers were using. In the decades since, she has come to focus mainly on the vegetables’ nutritional properties.
Research by Abukutsa and others shows that amaranth greens, spider plant and African nightshade pack substantial amounts of protein and iron — in many cases, more than kale and cabbage.
In recent years, Abukutsa has been studying how to maximize nutritional benefits using different cooking methods. “Some people just live on vegetables, and they cannot maybe afford meat.”
Abukutsa is currently studying the antioxidant activity of indigenous vegetables, as well as how resilient they are to the effects of climate change.
For Abukutsa, indigenous vegetables are not just a research subject — they remain a central part of her own diet. “Today at lunchtime, I ate pumpkin leaves and nightshade,” she says. (Part of this article was Published by Nature)