Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste

Ignas Swai, Senior Research Assistant at the AVRDC in Arusha (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Ignas Swai, Senior Research Assistant at the AVRDC in Arusha (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is the third post about our visit to the World Agroforestry Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

They have unfamiliar names, like amaranth, baobab, cowpea, dika, enset, moringa, and spider plant. And many of them are typically thought of as weeds, not food, but these African indigenous vegetables and many others provide an important source of nutrients to millions of people.

Some have been used for thousands of years, providing an important cultural link, while also helping increase food security and incomes. But these “weeds,” which are a rich source of protein, calcium, and important micronutrients, are typically neglected on the international agricultural resource agenda. Although they’ve often been ignored by researchers and policy-makers alike, who tend to focus on staple and cash crops, these vegetables can be an important part of helping alleviate hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. As food prices continue to rise on the continent—in some countries food is 50-80 percent higher than in 2007—indigenous vegetables are becoming an integral part of home gardens.

And as the impacts of climate change become more evident, the hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables is becoming increasingly important. Many of them use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease, which will likely increase as climate change becomes more evident.

Ignas Swai, a Senior Research Assistant at the World Vegetable Center, guided us through their demonstration plot, explaining the different nutritional qualities of the vegetable “weeds.” Not only are these vegetables hardy and resistant to drought and disease, but they also taste good.

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