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Traditional leafy vegetables

In Africa, around 4,000 species of plants have the potential for producing food, with about 1,000 species used as leafy vegetables

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From: Adding value to food – Footsteps 65

Practical ideas for adding value to food

The Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (KENRIK) has documented all food plants in Kenya. Their work shows the potential of indigenous food plants in improving food security. In Africa, around 4,000 species of plants have the potential for producing food, with about 1,000 species used as leafy vegetables.

Traditional vegetables are usually rich in nutrients such as vitamin Aand iron – often lacking in the diets of children and pregnant women. However, there are many things that limit their use.

  • People often have a negative attitude towards these vegetables and fail to appreciate their taste, preferring ‘modern’ foods.
  • It can be difficult to obtain seeds or cuttings.
  • Sales in local markets are often poor.
  • Little research has been carried out and there is a general lack of knowledge about their potential.
    Many people, especially in the towns and cities, do not know how to prepare them. In fact, this knowledge is being rapidly lost as older people die.
  • Agricultural policies usually emphasise export cash crops and rarely fund work with traditional foods.
  • Some varieties, especially cultivated species such as cowpea, may disappear as they are replaced by commercial varieties. These varieties need to be collected, documented and preserved for the future.

To use most of these vegetables, the green leaves and young stems are collected, washed and chopped. They are usually either steamed or boiled with other leafy vegetables and then fried with spices, onions and tomatoes. There are plenty of opportunities for new income-generating ideas to produce products using traditional leafy vegetables, especially in ways that make them more convenient to process, market and prepare.

KENRIK’s work has identified some helpful lessons:

  • Promoting the nutritional value of traditional leafy vegetables has a good impact on encouraging their use.
  • Simple techniques for seed production and packing are easy to use and share.
  • Simple selection led by researchers can rapidly lead to large increases in yield or the production of varieties with required characteristics.
  • Simple techniques to preserve leafy vegetables, such as drying, help make these vegetables available during times of low production.
  • Sharing recipes with restaurants in urban areas can increase sales.

Dr Patrick Maundu is head of the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (KENRIK), PO Box 62876, Nairobi, Kenya.
[email protected]

Processing shea butter

Shea butter nuts are another traditional wild food, whose value for food and cosmetic purposes has been more widely realised in recent years. Shea butter comes from the shea tree – Vitellaria paradoxa or Karite and is much valued for its benefits to skin. Here is some advice from women experienced in producing shea butter, and from experts, to improve both the quantity and the quality of the butter extracted. This is particularly important if the butter is to be sold for export. There is a rapidly growing market in Europe for shea butter.

  • Gather the fruit when it is fully ripe. Do not cut it from the tree or shake the tree to make it fall. Wait for it to fall, as fully ripe fruit gives the most oil.
  • After removing the pulp, cook the nuts in boiling water rather than smoking them. This will improve the quality of the butter.
  • Dry the nuts quickly in the sun to prevent mould, turning them frequently.
  • Sort the nuts to remove any which are black, damaged, broken, or have sprouted. Good nuts are hard, whole, clean, light brown and smell pleasant.
  • Roast the nuts, making sure not to burn them.
  • Process the nuts with a grinder, pestle or between stones to produce a brown paste.
  • Add clean water and continue kneading until a cream-coloured paste forms.
  • Extract the oil using a press (for the best quality butter) or by heating with water until the butter rises to the top.
  • To make the melted butter clearer, add the juice from two to three lemons to 25 litres of boiling butter.
  • Keep the butter in airtight containers. Fill them fully and close the containers tightly, making sure no air gap is left.
  • Use plastic sheets as lining to help protect the butter from air and light.

Taken from Les Fiches Techniques des paysannes africaines by Marie-Thérèse Abela. Published by GRAD.

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