The power of amaranth and cowpea Documenting the realities of indigenous vegetables in Tanzania

In Tanzania, growing and eating indigenous vegetables – meaning those plants that have been traditionally cultivated and consumed in a specific area – could be very beneficial for producers and consumers alike. Yet, many of them made it to the list of neglected species. In a country heavily affected by malnutrition, indigenous vegetables – which are highly nutritious and grow easily and abundantly – would be expected to figure on policymakers’ agendas. However, our two-year research on the realities surrounding the production and consumption of indigenous vegetables in Arusha has shown that it is not the case.

Our research into the world of indigenous vegetables and how they are (or not) integrated into the Arushan food system led us to talk to small-scale farmers, researchers and government officials. We share their stories and views in this series of short documentaries shot by Fulvio Montano with the help of ECDPM’s Paulina Bizzotto Molina.

These documentaries are the result of a joint effort between the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) and the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation. For questions and feedback, please contact Paulina Bizzotto Molina at pbm@ecdpm.org.

Lemburis, Naomi and their sons own a small farm business in Oldonyowas, where they grow Ethiopian mustard (sukuma wiki), spinach, carrots and beans, among other crops. Although some of the crops they have on their plot, such as amaranth leaves, are neglected by policymakers and researchers, Lemburis and his family are aware of their great nutritional value.

“My favourite one is the one that grows spontaneously: original amaranth. That's the king of vegetables.”– Lemburis Cornelio Mrupe

Just like Lemburis and Naomi, 51-year-old Redecunda William supports herself and her six children by growing vegetables, including African nightshade and Ethiopian mustard leaves, in the Olori area. Armed with her bucket and mattock, she makes her way to the plot of land where she grows her vegetables, as she proudly emphasises, without the use of any fertilisers or pesticides. Life as a small urban farmer is tough, but Redecunda is making plans for when her work allows her to save some money. For now, she lends a hand to neighbours collecting their vegetables.

“When I’m done, sometimes I meet someone who is collecting vegetables and I help them” Redecunda William

Since 1968, Mama Elinuru cultivates a wide range of organically grown vegetables and has committed to teaching others how to do the same. She knows all about the myriad of functions one plant can have: it can be food, medicine or a solution to garden pests. She is particularly happy to teach women just like Redecunda, who "do small things but do them well, and do them for their family". Mama Elinuru loves her work but also sees the challenges, which include packaging the food she and other women produce, and getting it to the market.

“I’m happy to do something that people [understand], they do it and they now help their children understand what is needed for their life.” – Mama Elinuru

Edith Banzi, agricultural extension specialist for the agricultural department and NGOs for over 30 years, adds to Mama Elinuru’s list of the many functions of local and often neglected vegetables by emphasising their resilience to the adverse effects of climate change. But, she states, more awareness needs to be created around the importance and nutritive value of these vegetables – because not all farmers are as knowledgeable as Lemburu, Naomi, Redecunda and Mama Elinuru.

“Most of these vegetables are resilient to different climates, are drought-tolerant, disease-resistance and are growing throughout the year” – Edith Banzi

Rosemary Camba agrees with Edith Banzi: not all farmers know about the importance of neglected species and more needs to be done on this front. At the moment, the great gap of knowledge on these species has caused Arushans to disregard them, often connecting cowpea, smaller carrots, sweet potato leaves and pumpkin leaves to poverty and a lack of means to get ‘bigger’, more profitable vegetables.

“The agricultural officers of our country are there, but they are not coming to the small farmers. They are dealing only with the big farmers.” –Rosemary Camba

According to some, information is not the only key to giving indigenous vegetables the importance they deserve, and to boost their cultivation and consumption. Evariste Makene from the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute is confident that one essential step towards integrating them into Tanzania’s agricultural systems is the creation of binding commitments among the various actors, and the creation of effective partnerships. Commitment can be further strengthened by involving local actors like small-scale farmers from the get-go in research initiatives, making these processes more inclusive, relevant and responsive to the needs and priorities of small-scale farmers.

"Our research is called demand-driven. Before we identify the problem ourselves, we engage the farmers." – Evariste Makene

Mugune Masatu, representative of the Prime Minister’s Office, summarises the importance of indigenous vegetables by reminding that better-nourished people will create a good environment for the overall development of the country.

"When discussing food availability, it is important that we talk about indigenous vegetables" – Mugune Masatu

About this project The Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies (SASS) project aims to contribute to the ongoing debates and initiatives on increasing the sustainability of food systems, by examining the role of neglected and underutilised species or indigenous vegetables.

About the European Center for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) ECDPM is a leading independent think tank that wants to make policies in Europe and Africa work for inclusive and sustainable development. The Centre has over thirty years of experience in development policy and international cooperation and know the African and European institutions inside out. Its focus is on EU foreign policy and European and African policies related to conflict, migration, governance, food security, regional integration, business, finance and trade.

Comments or questions? Please contact Paulina Bizzotto Molina at pbm@ecdpm.org. For media enquiries, please contact Valeria Pintus at vp@ecdpm.org.