By Patricia Ngwale:
Indigenous vegetables such as bonongwe, luni, chidede, denje and limanda are often thrust to the periphery of what entails good food for a moderately well-off family.
This is despite that they are rich in nutrients and are readily available in backyards of households that care about vegetables.
That is why Laura Banda, from Traditional Authority Tambala in Dedza District, made it a habit to disperse seeds of vegetables, at the beginning of every rainy season, behind her house.
“They don’t require much care. They don’t demand fertiliser and are ready within weeks. They also do well even in not-so-good weather,” Banda, a mother-of-four, says.
She states that for vulnerable households, like hers, the vegetables sometimes come in as food supplements as people wait for maize to mature.
“Of course, no-one can eat vegetables throughout without compromising their health. So, once in a while, we get food like Irish potatoes to ensure that we, at least, get the minimum food groups,” Banda says.
Sitting on a windblown veranda of an old grass-thatched house, with two of her children beside her, she smiles weakly and assures us that the little food they have been getting is keeping them going.
She is hopeful that she will get a good harvest from her maize field, which stretches around her small house to a stream at the base of a small hill.
“Since the death of my husband four years ago, I have been making use of every food items that I find. Vegetables are proving to be very good, especially when we blend them with foods like meat,” Banda narrates.
But, elsewhere, women are struggling to have the vegetables handy as rapid land degradation is threatening them with extinction.
High population growth, particularly in urban locations, i s also putting pressure on land such that backyards which were being used for growing bonongwe and its cousins have been occupied by structures such as pit latrines or even dwelling houses.
Recent studies have established that increased access to quality seed, improved awareness on superiority of indigenous vegetables and availability of extension services on recommended agronomic practices are key to improved consumption and cultivation of indigenous vegetables in Malawi.
Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), through the Capacity Building for Managing Climate Change in Malawi (Cabmacc) Programme, has been implementing a project on promotion of indigenous vegetable seeds conservation and utilisation in Malawi.
According to principal investigator Abel Sefasi, the project aims at increasing the productivity and conservation of indigenous vegetables for smallholder farmers by promoting access to quality seed and good agronomic practices.
“The consumption and commercialisation of indigenous vegetables in the country is being constrained by poor access to quality seed and technical messages on recommended agronomic practices,” Sefasi states.
This, in fact, is evident in many households both in rural and urban locations.
Seeds which can adapt to changes in the environment are not always handy.
Sefasi, however, glories in the experience of some farmers who produce seed on their own since Luanar started producing indigenous vegetable seeds with the involvement of the Department of Agricultural Research Services – Seed Services Unit.
The aim of the initiative was to ensure the production of seed capable of responding to various challenges, most of which brought about by land degradation and climate change.
“Through the project, we collected indigenous knowledge on issues related to collection, cultivation and utilisation of indigenous vegetables, established a seed bank for indigenous vegetables at Bunda-Horticulture Farm and one farmer field in Nkhotakota and Dedza districts, respectively.
“In addition, a starter-pack of indigenous vegetable seed was given to 40 farmers. These inputs, together with technical messages on agronomy and identification of markets, were useful in building the capacity at Luanar and farmer fields in commercialisation of these vegetables,” Sefasi says.
He adds that the project promote conservation, utilisation, preservation and marketing of indigenous vegetables and vegetable seed. This, in turn, improved the nutrition status and climate resilience among poor farmers.
Sefasi further says the project has assisted the department significantly in supplementing the much needed funds for teaching and learning.
“Organisations which buy seed from the Horticulture Department are assisting the department to reach out to farmers around the country, beyond the project area. Such farmers and communities benefit through improved nutrition and climate resilience,” he says.
In Linga Extension Planning Area in Nkhotakota District, farmer Bowasi Bondo, looks at the future of indigenous vegetable farming as bright.
His group is already reaping the benefits of knowledge they acquired in the production of indigenous vegetable seed that is resistant to different challenges.
They are selling the seed to others who want to have a taste of modern seed in the midst of land degradation and climate change.
“We feel that we can benefit a lot with this farming. What we need most now are markets for our products,” Bondo says.
He and other farmers, particularly those in rural areas, are also waiting for a time Malawi will have policy support for the production, export and commercialisation of these vegetables.