African Leafy Vegetables

Since about 3 years ago, one can find African leafy vegetables in the supermarkets of the Nairobi city. Various types of these vegetables are now consumed by the elites. There is just one reason for this. The urban elites still have a taste for these vegetables but found it difficult to buy them from the streets, or where they were not assured of the source. Word had it, and to a large extent this was true, that these vegetables were being grown in raw sewage, a fact the urban elites found distasteful.

It is now 10 years ago when we started working on this project through our NGO, Rural Outreach Programme (ROP), with initial financing from the JJ Charitable Foundation in the United Kingdom. Why I was personally interested in these vegetables? I grew up on them. For my community, the Luhya in western province, these vegetables are both food and medicine. My parents lost 6 children as toddlers. We later came to learn that it was due to malaria. Not knowing what the children were dying of proved very difficult for my parents and put a major strain on their socialization within their community. My father’s people even begged him to send my mother away and marry another woman, since it appeared that my mother (his wife) was ‘cursed’, as she was losing her toddlers repeatedly.

But then, that is history now. My mother and father stayed together for more than 60 years and died 2 years apart. The bond between them had grown stronger and indeed withstood the various tragedies in their lives. Why am I telling all this? Well, it forms part of the story that describes me and my passion for plants both herbs and African Leafy Vegetables which as far as I am concerned, constitute the most potent nutraceuticals we have on the African continent.

I was told by mother and my elder sister that by the time I was 8 years old, I was still suffering from the same ailments. I remember missing school, class 2 for a whole term, my mother having given up on modern medicine and now using herbal medicine. She told me her worst nightmare was when those who used to advice her told her to feed me on faeces of a dog if she wanted me to be cured.

As years went on, my mother rarely talked about the children she lost. She died, however, having seen me not only survive but successfully finish school, train and become the professional I have become. I am aware that herbal medicine cured me. By working on these vegetables, which I know are strong medicines in themselves, and restoring them into people’s diets, I know that more lives, and not just mine, will be saved. Indeed, our unseen research findings point to the intrinsic value in these vegetables even where we have not scientifically identified the exact medicinal components. Other than the beta carotene and other micronutrients, there must be pharmaceutical components that cure diseases. Therefore, my own testimony leads me to safely refer to these vegetables as nutraceuticals. They serve to provide both nutrients and therapeutic pharmaceutical components. Many consumers will often describe the beneficial health effects of these vegetables without being specific about the components in them. Going modern should not necessarily result in the abandonment of our positively valued traditions especially in the case of foods which are said to have health promoting effects.

The African leafy vegetables have all the attributes of a healthy food. First, they are dark green and therefore rich in beta carotene. Most poor consumers may have such vegetables only as their only source of beta carotene. These vegetables, at the least the way they are cooked in the Butere community of western province where Rural Outreach Programme(ROP) operates, whole cream milk, groundnut sauce or dairy ghee and indeed any other fat are often used to improve their taste. That way, the absorption of beta carotene is also enhanced. The vegetables provide good fibre and are low in energy. Both these aspects promote health. The vegetables take long to cook and often, the initial water is thrown out in order to get rid of any toxic components that normally contribute to the unpalatable bitter taste. So by cooking this way, palatability is enhanced and toxic components removed.

In this Issue, we are happy to bring to you a collection of research papers that were potential at a special IPGRI (now Bioversity International) regional conference held in Nairobi some two years ago. Please contact individual authors for any other information.

Ruth K. Oniang’o
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND

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