Harare — ZIMBABWE needs to develop an enabling policy framework which supports and strengthens the capacity of rural communities to conserve, produce and utilise indigenous vegetables to enhance food security and improve their livelihoods, experts say.
Ernest Chivero, director of the Food and Biomedical Technology Institute at the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre told participants at a one-day workshop on policy options for indigenous vegetables which was held recently that Zimbabwe needed to draft laws that specifically promote indigenous vegetables in terms of production, commercialisation, market linkages and socio economic empowerment of women.
"Zimbabwe has a Science and Technology Policy whose agriculture and health sections are relevant to indigenous vegetables.
"While the policies spell out strategies for areas ancillary to indigenous vegetables such as land and land reform, water, tax rebates of companies supporting research, it does not specifically lay down strategies on indigenous vegetables," he said presenting a paper at the workshop organised by the Community Technology Development Trust.
"The mainstreaming of indigenous vegetables into national programmes is critical for the country's food security and for promoting these vegetables that provide much needed vitamins and contain medicinal properties."
He said the country needed to mainstream indigenous vegetables into the national nutritional programmes and policies, as well as national curricula and training programmes to close the gap between exotic commercial vegetable production and indigenous vegetables by smallholder farmers.
"Intensive promotion should be done from both a production and consumption perspective. More research should be done on varieties suited for the several regions of the country with a view to commercialisation.
"Seed Houses should be encouraged to produce seeds for indigenous vegetables," he said.
"Cooperation and working together among all players will yield the desired results."
The workshop which drew together agronomists, environmentalists, legal experts, policy makers, seed production and marketing experts, Government officials and other stakeholders discussed ways on how policies could be crafted to increase production, processing, marketing, preparation and consumption of the traditional leafy vegetables found in Zimbabwe.
The Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, Dr Olivia Muchena expressed concern over the erosion of indigenous vegetable germplasm which were important in improving the nutrition of people particularly now when there is a rise in non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and others.
"There has been a practical disappearance from our diet of vegetables such as tsunga, nyevhe, mutsine, derere rebupwe, regusha, rename, renyunje and others.
"Among the questions we should answer are: 'Why have these vegetables disappeared and where have they gone?" she asked.
She said it was worrying that the consumption of indigenous vegetables had declined sharply with the introduction and aggressive promotion of exotic vegetables (cabbages, spinach, carrots, broccoli).
"This drastic decline in eating indigenous vegetables is a reflection of how seriously our pallets have been colonised. How can this be addressed or reversed?"
She urged workshop participants to come up with strategies that could help increase production, processing and consumption of traditional vegetables.
Claid Mujaju, head of Seed Service in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development said Zimbabweans needed to change their attitudes that treat indigenous vegetables as inferior.
"Indigenous vegetables are still seen as poverty crops. They are still seen as food for the poor, the lower class. We need to change our mentality and attitudes towards indigenous vegetables if we are serious about promoting traditional vegetables," he said.
"We need to mobilise resources to conduct extensive research on indigenous vegetables to develop new breeds that could meet new demands for taste and other properties."
Concurred Dr Muchena: "Young people don't want to eat mufushwa, derere or nyevhe. They will say you are giving us poison. We need to prepare tasty and appealing indigenous vegetable dishes so that our young people can eat them as well."
Participants said there was need to fully integrate indigenous vegetables in national feeding and nutritional programmes as well as national curricula, and training programmes.
They said the Nutrition Unit in the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare should further extend this policy, not only from the point of view of HIV and Aids cases but promoting a holistic approach to health for everyone.
Information on the nutritional and medicinal value should be packaged in a simple and easy-to-read manner and circulated widely to promote the intake of indigenous vegetables across the country.
The ministries of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture and Higher and Tertiary Education could incorporate programmes of traditional foods in the school curricula while agricultural training centres, in their horticultural programmes could design courses for selected indigenous vegetable crops.
Chivero said production-related information such as varieties suited for certain regions of Zimbabwe, yields and cultivation practices should be packaged and made available to extension personnel and seed companies.
"Public education on Indigenous vegetables should be intensified. Promotion leaflets should be distributed in supermarkets, schools and aired on radio and TV," he said.
He said incentives mentioned in the Science and Technology Policy such as granting of tax rebates for research can be extended to seed houses to encourage them to produce indigenous vegetable seeds.
"This works well when there is clientele receptive to growing indigenous vegetables on a commercial scale," he said.
Research on indigenous vegetables, Chivero said, should be promoted by making use of tax rebates as provided for in the Science and Technology Policy.
"The Horticultural Research Station in Marondera, the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre and any other competent research centres can be key players. Seed houses can work with researchers to identify the most productive varieties for Zimbabwe and develop new improved ones," he suggested.
CTDT director Andrew Mushita said Zimbabwe must adopt policies that will increase the uptake indigenous vegetables and promote comprehensive production, marketing and consumption of indigenous vegetables.
"This calls for increased involvement of the private, civil society and public sector institutions in the promotion and marketing of indigenous vegetables designed to economically empower our communities," he said.
"We must strive to see traditional leafy vegetables -- nyevhe, muboora, mutsine and many others being grown on a commercial basis just like the common brassicas, cabbage, broccoli and rape."
Smallholder farmers face numerous challenges when it comes to the production of indigenous vegetables.
These include seed availability, the seasonal nature of traditional vegetables, lack of information, post harvest handling and processing problems, quality controls, market linkages and limited capacity to satisfy the urban markets.
Wellington Chaonwa, an Agritex official identified some of the weaknesses in the marketing system for indigenous vegetables:
- Low volumes rendering assembly costs high
- Short production season
- Poor rural transport system inadequate to meet smallholder farmer needs
- Weak financial services for rural transport operators
- Weak management skills
- Absence of grading and packaging facilities
- Poor marketing information system
- Distance from large markets (favouring processing to high value products)
- No promotion board/organisation to articulate needs and lobby for interests of industry
- Lack of effective producer/marketing organisations
Apart from these challenges and the overwhelming influence of western diets, there is a growing appreciation of the importance of indigenous vegetables in Africa.
Some of the most common indigenous vegetables in Southern Africa include amaranthus (mowa), Cleome (nyevhe), pumpkin, cowpeas and okra while in West Africa amaranth, African eggplant, corchorus (nyenje), okra and sweet potato leaves are also popular.
Amaranth, cowpeas, pumpkin, corchorus and solanum nodiflorum (nightshade) are also common in East Africa.
"Consumption patterns however seem to be dependant on wealth status of households with poor households consuming more indigenous vegetables than the wealthier households," noted Chivero.
Food experts say indigenous vegetables contribute significantly to micronutrient consumption. They estimate that approximately half of pro-vitamin A and one third of iron requirements are met by indigenous vegetables for poor households in Tanzania for example.
Indigenous vegetables as an industry, they say, create jobs and improve livelihoods enhancing food security and reducing poverty.
In Cameroon, it is estimated that more than 32 000 households are engaged in indigenous vegetable production and marketing while in Kenya, indigenous vegetables contribute 30 percent of all the vegetables marketed.
In terms of nutrient value, biochemists say indigenous vegetables generally show a higher level of minerals than exotics and several of them have a high percentage protein content, for example, cleome and amaranth.
They also contain some non-nutrient phytochemicals linked to protection against non-communicable diseases.