By Abby Massey
In this regular series we profile African indigenous crops that can improve food security and protect the environment.
While there are many varieties of the African eggplant, with a range of shapes, sizes and colors, the eggplant most commonly found across sub-Saharan Africa is Solanum aethiopicum. This variety has a brilliant red exterior, and is about the size and shape of an egg—giving it the name, garden egg. It is also known as mock tomato, ngogwe and nyanya chungu.
Though technically a fruit, the african eggplant is usually picked when it is green and is eaten as a vegetable. (Photo credit: National Research Council)
Though technically a fruit, it is usually picked when it is green and is eaten as a vegetable; cooked into stews and sauces or even consumed raw. If picked after it is ripe, it can be enjoyed as a fruit—though some varieties are more sour than others. And, even the nutrient-rich leaves have come to be a popular meal—in the markets of Kampala, Uganda, they are the most popular vegetable on sale.
Most garden eggs sold in markets in sub-Saharan Africa come from locally grown, small plots of land—in fact, 80 percent of total production comes from small-scale growers. Women especially use them as an additional source of income.
The plant itself can grow in “agricultural wastelands,” are somewhat drought resistant, and have the ability to grow in humid areas. The garden eggs have even proven to be resistant to molds, mildews and certain soil-borne plant-pathogens. They can also be grown alongside other crops or in small pots providing a high yield of fruit from a small area. The farmer will typically first harvest the fruit after 70 to 90 days when it is still immature and after that, 8 to 10 weekly harvests can be reaped. Once harvested, the eggplant can be stored for up to three months and some consumers dry the fruit to eat later in the year.
And even though the fruit is not well known for its nutritional content—it is 92 percent water—it also provides vitamin B, beta-carotene and vitamin C in addition to calcium, iron and potassium.
Like many other crops indigenous to Africa, the eggplant is easy to grow and high yielding, making it a good plant for research. Researchers at the World Vegetable Center have been working to improve the African eggplant since 1993 and released a new variety, DB3, in Tanzania in 2006. And since 2007, the center has been working in countries within three different agro-ecological zones–Madagascar, Cameroon and Mali–to test and release different varieties of eggplant. Developing these new and different varieties will help to increase its availability and consumption as improved traits will be needed to resist the effects of climate change and increased demand for crops.
Abby Massey is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.