Nutrition and production interventions key for African indigenous vegetable consumption, study flags
22 May 2023 --- To increase consumption of climate-resilient African indigenous vegetables with high levels of micro- and macronutrients, a new study suggests that future programming and policies should promote the availability, accessibility, acceptability and affordability of improved agronomic practices and germplasm for these products.
Farmers that received nutrition and culinary training gained skills in self-production, nutritional awareness and culinary skills, which can offset a reported limited availability and increased market price during the dry season.
“I strongly believe that nutrition and culinary interventions are a critical missing link between traditional agricultural extension models and the type of agricultural training we will need in the future,” Gus Le Breton, African plant hunter at Baobab Exports, tells NutritionInsight.
“Consumers in Africa are bombarded with sophisticated marketing that encourages radical dietary shifts away from African indigenous vegetables and similarly healthy local foods and toward processed and highly refined foods of little or no nutritional benefit.”
“African indigenous vegetables contain high levels of micro and macronutrients,” Faith Wanjera Thumbi, a food safety and quality specialist at Green Rhino Kenya, tells us. The organization facilitates and promotes the development of safe and organic food in Africa.
She adds that seasonality substantially impacts the consumption of African leafy vegetables. Moreover, there needs to be more access to these vegetables. For example, restaurants mainly serve spinach or kale, “you don’t get the African indigenous vegetables.”
In a randomized control trial, the researchers assigned 503 smallholder farmers in five target counties in Western Kenya to one of four treatments: control group, production intervention, nutrition and culinary intervention or combining production with nutrition and culinary interventions.
The production interventions consisted of five agricultural production modules, while nutrition and culinary interventions included household nutrition education and community culinary training.
To assess the diversity of food consumption, the eldest female in a household was asked whether they consumed numerous food groups within 24 hours.
There was a decrease in dietary diversity score, household hunger scale and consumption frequency of indigenous vegetables due to seasonal differences.
However, households that received nutrition and culinary training had a higher dietary diversity score than those that did not. Diet awareness significantly influenced diet quality in this group, while production interventions had the most significant impact on diet quality.
Moreover, there was an increase in the share of respondents that reported an adequate supply of critical vegetables, especially in households that received production interventions.
Future of indigenous vegetables
In the study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, the research team suggests that agricultural training and extension services should incorporate nutrition and culinary interventions that emphasize the importance of farmers prioritizing harvests for their household consumption.
“The primary challenge that needs to be overcome regarding African indigenous vegetables is the perception – and associated stigma – that they are only suitable as ‘drought food’ or ‘food for the poor,’” says Le Breton.
“This requires a concerted effort to rebrand indigenous vegetables and position them as the healthy alternative in the mind of smallholder farmers and African consumers. This is not impossible, but it will not happen unaided. Policy-makers, practitioners and the private sector all need to come together to make this happen.”
He continues, “I would also argue that nutrition and culinary teaching should be central to the school curriculum throughout Africa.”
Wanjera Thumbi adds that building awareness and recognition of these products is vital, as new generations are not accustomed to the taste of indigenous vegetables or need to learn how to prepare them.
In Kenya, farmers don’t have agricultural officers who can advise them what to produce or how, says Wanjera Thumbi.
“There is a great variety in policies. There are good agricultural practices for produce for export markets, but limited for the local market.”
She notes that challenges for farmers include a lack of water and access to consistent and high-quality seeds. In areas where farmers have limited land, they focus on simple, high-yielding foods such as maize.
The researchers note indigenous vegetables require improved agronomic characteristics – such as delayed flowering, multiple harvests, higher yields and disease resistance – and should be aligned with communities’ cultural preferences.
Research has identified how forgotten food crops can diversify or replace major staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa by 2070 and benefit micronutrient supply.
African leaders have called for more commitment and accountability in the region’s efforts to achieve continental and global goals for nutrition.
“There can no longer be any doubt that a greater investment in promoting indigenous vegetables in Africa will have positive impacts on diet quality while simultaneously strengthening the climate resilience of smallholder farmers,” adds Le Breton.
“The nutrition, culinary and production interventions described in the study are all part of a broader cocktail of measures required to achieve this. I believe policy-makers in Africa can no longer ignore the obvious benefits and opportunities around African indigenous vegetables.”
“What’s needed now is a concerted push to expand production of, and grow demand for, indigenous vegetables across the continent,” concludes Le Breton.
By Jolanda van Hal
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.