< Two Months in Kenya
13.07.2017 10:00 Age: 3 yrs
Category: General HORTINLEA, SP 13, PhD & Master theses

Studying Underutilised Vegetables in Tanzania

In mid-March 2017, together with another student from Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), I started a two-week field work trip under the wing of the HORTINLEA Master’s Thesis Programme. We travelled to Kilimanjaro and Morogoro regions to conduct research that focused on the potential role of underutilised vegetables for improving food and nutrition security in Tanzania.

The weather was in our favour as it was cool due to the short rains that marked the beginning of the unusually delayed rainy season.We started our research with sincere prayers that the process would not be thwarted by the intermittent rains. As planned, we met our officials at Ushiri-Ikuini Ward office, Rombo District (Kilimanjaro region), who cordially welcomed us. They introduced us to farmers with whom we conducted focus group discussions, interviews and participant field observations before moving out to Mnadani Ward, Hai District for our final interviews. The week later, the team travelled to Morogoro to proceed with the research in its two selected wards: Mvomero District’s Melela Ward and Kilosa District’s Chanzulu Ward.

The peculiarities of research objects

From the two regions, lots of underutilised leafy vegetables were pointed out. In discussions and through literature review, we decided that four particular crops could be useful for our research purposes. These were ‘Mokiki’ (Momordica foetida) and ‘Inyiri’ (Basella alba) form Kilimanjaro region and ‘Sunga’ (Launea cornuta) and ‘Kikundembala’ (Vigna vexillata) from Morogoro region. The biggest challenge and a quite surprising encounter was the strong and unfading smell of the vegetable Momordica foetida after plucking its leaves during sampling. Fellow passengers seemed annoyed and wanted to know who was responsible for ‘spoiling the air’. We had to explain what we were carrying and for what purposes. Thank God they understood us! During those field days, a lot of stories and claims were shared by the inhabitants concerning the nutritional and medicinal potentials of the selected underutilised vegetables. Now it is time to put the stories in relation with data from the field observation and the laboratory.


Launea cornuta: commonly known as ‘wild or bitter lettuce’ is a wild vegetable; an upright perennial herb with hollow stems and creeping rhizomes. It has long and narrow leaves, which contain white fluids that taste very bitter when cooked. L. cornuta was claimed to be a rich source for vitamins, minerals and; due to its bitterness, an appetizer. The vegetable is believed to provide cure for a number of diseases including malaria, joint pains, coughs, typhoid, fever, swollen testicles/hernia, measles and that it is also anti-diabetic.


Vigna vexillata: commonly referred to as the ‘wild cowpea,’ was reported to have a special characteristics of spreading/climbing, covering a large surface and with a deep tap root system. The morphology of the leaves resembles much that of the legumes Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata). Besides increasing strength, V. vexillata was claimed to provide vitamins. The leaf of the vegetable was reported to cure eye problems, relieve pains due to menstrual flow ‘tumbo la mgongo’, increase blood and its roots are believed to cure hernia.


Momordica foetida: was reported to grow by spreading/climbing using its tendrils. It bears seed; the leaves being soft, broad and spoon-shaped. Surprisingly, its leaves when plucked from the mother plant provide a strong and very unpleasant smell (stench), but according to the claims, the smell disappears on cooking! The leaves of the plant can be prepared and eaten alongside any other vegetable and or food. It was reported to increase appetite, blood and to provide energy; and as remedy for cough/flu, diarrhoea and removing toxins from the body.


Basella alba: commonly called ‘Malabar spinach’ has leaves that are fleshy; oval or heart shaped. It spreads on ground surface and on other vegetation as a climber. When cooked, it behaves like ‘Mlenda mgunda’ (Corchorus olitorius). The vegetable was claimed to be a good source of vitamins and minerals. It was also claimed to increase appetite and blood; preventing constipation as well as relieving ulcerative pains.



Pictures and text: © James Chacha