Nutritive Value: With particular reference to food security and nutrition, indigenous fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins and anti-oxidants. They improve palatability and add variety to diets, especially those of the poor. They are particularly valuable sources of food during emergency periods such as occur during flood, famine, drought and war.
Health Benefits: African indigenous fruits and vegetables have medicinal properties and health benefits. Spiderplant (Cleome gynandra), for example, has been reported to relieve constipation and facilitate child birth (van den Heever and Venter, 2007), while African nightshade (Solanum scabrum) has been documented to cure stomach ache (Adesina and Gbile, 1984). They are also known to contain substantial amounts of antioxidants that scavenge for and bind to harmful radicals, which have been linked to ailments such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Agronomic advantages: Indigenous fruits and vegetables are well-adapted to harsh climatic conditions and disease infestation and are easier to grow in comparison to their exotic counterparts. They produce seed under tropical conditions, whereas exotic species often fail to do so. Indigenous vegetables generally have a short growth period, with most of them being ready for harvesting within 3-4 weeks. They can also do well under intercropping. Furthermore, because most of them have not been intensively selected, they have a wide genetic base.
Income generation: Socio-economic surveys in various parts of Africa have revealed that indigenous fruits and vegetables provide employment opportunities and generate income for the rural population.
Despite their advantages, indigenous fruits and vegetables have not been fully exploited in Africa. The introduction of exotic fruits and vegetables on the continent had some negative impact on the consumption, domestication and cultivation of indigenous fruits and vegetables. For a long time, agricultural policies in many states advocated the use of exotic species at the expense of indigenous ones. Recently, indigenous fruits and vegetables have won some recognition through crop research at international, regional and national institutions.
The marketing system has remained informal, with economic inefficiencies. Neglect and stigmatization, non-availability of high-quality seed and planting material, inadequate awareness of value and potential of indigenous fruits and vegetables, lack of agronomic and processing technical packages, short shelf life, inadequate research, knowledge-sharing and training and a lack of transparency about intellectual property rights to guide their use, especially those collected in the wild are additional constraints.
Consequences of not addressing these constraints include low production and distribution, leading to low consumption, utilization, loss of biodiversity, malnutrition and poor health (eIFL, 2010).
Increasing population, a relative decline in agricultural productivity, accelerated food insecurity and high dependence by rural farming households in SSA have raised interest in indigenous fruits and vegetables. This needs to be supported by a strong research agenda. Research on the biology and ecology of relevant species can enhance conservation, domestication and cultivation.
Improved production technologies will lead to increased yields and improved nutrition and economic empowerment of rural communities. Appropriate management, preservation and processing protocols for the priority species are needed and should be driven by research (Abukutsa, 2010).
Priority indigenous fruits with nutritional and economic potential include: jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), sumac (Rhus natalensis), guava (Psidium guajava), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis), African plum (Dacryodes edulis), bitter cola (Garcinia kola) and white star apple (Chrysophyllum albidum). Market surveys in Kenya and Zimbabwe revealed that there was substantial trading of indigenous species in both rural and urban areas; however, the system was still underdeveloped. Identified priority indigenous vegetables include cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), nightshade (Solanum scabrum), amaranth (Amaranthus blitum), spiderplant (Cleome gynandra), jute mallow (Corchorus olitorius), eru (Gnetum africanum) and bitter leaf (Vernonia amygdalina) (Abukutsa, 2007a, Kaloki, 2009).
Germplasm collection of priority indigenous fruit and vegetable species has been carried out to enable selection and improvement in the domestication process. Additionally, evaluation, characterization and multiplication have been done for several indigenous fruits and vegetables such as African nightshade, spiderplant and amaranths, resulting in high-quality planting materials.
The ecology and biology of Uapaca kirkiana, Strychnos cocculoides and Sclerocarya birrea have been studied in Southern Africa and provenance testing of the three species has identified some superior clones, using participatory selection in Zambia and Malawi (Chirwa and Akinnifesi, 2007). However, more strategic research tailored to consumer preferences is also required.
Agronomic studies reveal that most indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown as intercrops in home gardens, most of which are poorly maintained and intercropping has several advantages that need to be exploited. The inclusion of fruit trees in production systems reduces the risks such as those from pest and disease outbreaks. Topping, the removal of the apical stem, could be used to delay flowering in some of the indigenous vegetables that flower early, such as spiderplant, and increases productivity (Abukutsa et al., 2003).
A nutritional evaluation of indigenous vegetables in two sites in Kenya considered that the nutritional contribution of cooked and uncooked vegetables was enormous (Habwe et al., 2009, 2010, Abukutsa et al., 2010). Nightshade and cowpea contained iron levels that would provide 100% of the recommended daily allowance and 50% for protein. Indigenous vegetables cooked with lye (traditional salt) had higher iron content than cooked ones.
Visioning the Future
Developing information systems and dissemination materials such as leaflets and DVDs would greatly contribute to advocacy, promotion and popularization of any commodity (Box 1. Dissemination Materials, Nierenberg, 2010).
Box 1: Dissemination Materials
University students from agricultural faculties normally form the major human resource in research and extension services. It is therefore important to build capacity in human resources that will undertake research and effectively disseminate information on the indigenous species. (Box 2. Restructured Programmes).
Box 2: Restructured Programmes
Establishing sustainable quality seed supply systems is a key step in the promotion of any crop (Box 3. Quality seed supply system, Abukutsa, 2007b).
Box 3: Quality seed supply system
Conservation of African indigenous fruits and vegetables would minimize loss of biodiversity (Box 4. Maseno University Botanic Garden, Abukutsa and Onyango, 2005).
Box 4: Maseno University Botanic Garden
The involvement of consumers is critical in determining and identifying products which have a greater chance of being accepted by rural, peri-urban and urban communities. Consumer assessment of some of the fruit and vegetable products and recipes has been undertaken in Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya (Habwe et al., 2008).
Favourable policy design is central to sustainable agricultural production, land tenure, management of natural resources and poverty alleviation. Research on indigenous fruits and vegetables will only be successful when national priorities are sensitized to the needs of local communities, industries and consumers.
Over 75% of producers in many African states processed indigenous fruits and vegetables, where most of the processed products were consumed at a household level, while only a small percentage was traded. People employ traditional processing techniques, methods and equipment to make dried products, oil, powder, juice, jams and wines (Abukutsa, 2009).
It would be beneficial to extend the production season to provide a supply of indigenous fruits and vegetables outside the peak period. Governments of African countries should set up institutional frameworks that will reduce risk and uncertainty for traders marketing indigenous species.
Research to facilitate their introduction to formal markets should be conducted. There is need to compile information on the existing marketing systems and the factors that influence the performance in the Southern African states. The shelf life could be improved by further research on ways of introducing small-scale enterprises for traders (Habwe et al., 2008).
Other approaches include the following:
- Commercial production, value-addition processing and product development for domestic and export markets and validation and standardization of processing methods used by farmers should be considered;
- Research into commercial seed production and efficient seed delivery systems for indigenous fruits and vegetables should be instituted;
- Exploring the nutraceutical development potential of indigenous fruits and vegetables should be exploited;
- Engaging the private sector and other partners in developing seed production, processing, packaging and distribution by seed distribution agents and community-based organizations;
- Developing product prototypes into business ventures;
- Mainstreaming African indigenous fruits and vegetables in the curricula of agricultural programmes
African indigenous fruits and vegetables are high-profile commodities with nutritional and health benefits. They have a role to play in food security, nutrition, income and sustainable development in Africa and beyond; they are a ‘gold mine’ to be harvested and research will accelerate this process.
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Nierenberg, D. 2010. Kenyan Professor Promotes Indigenous Food to Solve Climate Change Food Crisis. Nourishing the Planet blog, Worldwatch. August 11.
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