At the gate to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), in the shade of yellow acacia trees, small bundles of green leaves are on sale. We pay 5 Kenyan Shillings each for a bundle of Amaranthus and African Nightshade. It is these leaves that are our reason for being in Kenya. For two weeks at the beginning of August 2014 we, a team of four young researchers from the Centre for Rural Development (SLE) from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, are based on the JKUAT campus in Juja. The four-lane motorway connecting Juja to the sprawling Kenyan capital Nairobi stands witness to the boom in construction that the country has seen over the last five years. This road carries us to our meetings with experts in the public and private sectors concerned with the promotion of African Leafy Vegetables (ALVs) – that is Amaranthus, African Nightshade, Cowpea Leaves, Ethiopean Kale, Spider Plant and other varieties.
We interview researchers and visit seed distributors. Our investigations include insights into the work of agricultural Extension services, the collection of traditional cooking recipes and efforts to promote the ALVs over other “exotic” vegetables. It is common knowledge among a sworn community of ALV-promoters that the leaves have a higher nutritive content and serve various medicinal purposes. In addition, their production requires little input and their growth is comparatively resilient to adverse environmental factors. Owing to these factors, ALVs have seen a surge in demand in the urban centres over the past 10 years. Consequently, the earnings of their producers have gone up too. The producers of ALVs are mainly smallholder farmers who do not have the means for commercialised mono-culture as ALV-production is very labour-intensive and not suited to mechanisation. However, as ALVs become a “lifestyle” product on sale in Nairobi’s extra-large shopping malls, producers run the risk of losing ground in price negotiation against buyers who demand high standards in the supplied product.
These developments are even more noteworthy as previously ALVs were dismissed as “weeds”. Looking back at the colonial era, the indigenous varieties had been disregarded in many parts of Kenya and instead production of high value horticultural export crops such as flowers and tomatoes was encouraged. However, as our team sets out on our first field trip to Western Kenya, we find that in the “heartland” of ALVs, they are and always have been a core part of the local diet. Away from hectic Nairobi, close to the Ugandan border, we visit the small-holder farmers of Kakamega County. Getting our boots dirty on their fields we find out the longstanding knowledge about the value of ALVs and the intricacies of intercropping with other plants. People are pleased by our interest in their Miboga za Kienyeji, or “local vegetables”, but perceptions of their potential on the market are mixed. While we hear of farmer groups who sell even to distant Nairobi, others don’t even bother planting ALVs as they grow wildly on the dung heap at the back of the farm.
Among our small group of researchers, however, the belief is reaffirmed that ALVs can help deal with poverty and food insecurity in Kenya. Demand is still rising and the inherent qualities of ALV-production destine small-holder farmers to remain the key players: the amount of labour required is five times as much as needed for the popular exotic kale, while the price fetched by African Nightshade is double in the same comparison. At the same time, little pesticides or inorganic fertilisers are required. Therefore ALVs seems both a safe and profitable choice for a business-minded small-holder farmer. What is needed to optimise production and marketing more broadly is knowledge about the highly successful practices used by some and access to new solutions to common problems, such as the shortage of quality seeds. To help with this bottleneck we aim, together with our local partners both in Kakamega and Nairobi, to analyse the innovation system of ALVs in Kenya. Even if this sounds cryptic at first, it can be quickly broken down to the everyday realities of farmers, traders and consumers of these greens. Everyone producing, buying and selling them is in need of information. Information about how to harvest the maximum output and minimise losses, where to sell at an optimal price, how to prepare a meal in such a way that conserves all the valuable micronutrients contained in ALVs. Some have well-established sources of information and communication channels, through which they can exchange with others. Our task now is to find these and make them accessible to HORTINLEA.
After our days out in the field, we gather at Lawino2000, a local restaurant in Kakamega Town. Lisutsa (African Nightshade), Miro (Rattlepod) and Tsisaka (Spider Plant) are the most popular side dishes here. With one meal going at 250 Kenyan Shillings, it is apparent that there is a considerable value added in comparison to selling them at the open markets. We hope to contribute with our work to make ALVs just as popular and common in every restaurant in the rest of Kenya and thereby raise both the income of producers and food quality generally.