Guest Editor

Leafy Vegetables

Prof. Dr. Timothy Johns
Professor of Human and Nutrition. School of Dietics and Human Nutrition. Macdonald Campus. McGill University. Ste Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. Canada H9X 3V9. Email: tim.johns@mcgill.ca


Leafy vegetables have a key role to play in providing healthy and sustainable diets for farmers and city dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Urbanization, commercialization of cuisines, global trade in staple foods, poverty, cultural erosion and environmental degradation are simplifying what is eaten and changing the nature of malnutrition throughout the region. Positive examples from other parts of the world suggest that successful food systems in transition draw on locally-available foods and traditional food culture within increasing market-oriented economies.

Bioversity International in partnership with the Asian Vegetable Research Development Centre (AVRDC) and national programs in several countries has undertaken a program on African leafy vegetables (ALVs) starting in 1996 from which the activities that are reported on in this volume are representative. These papers draw on comparable and contrasting experiences that provide important insights into how African leafy vegetables (ALVs) might contribute positively to mediating change in the region. The communities and countries within Africarepresent a continuum of circumstances ranging from traditional subsistence to market-oriented food systems. Collectively these realities offer insights into the situation and problems at both ends of an economic and development spectrum from which mutual African solutions and greater African self-sufficiency can emerge.

Traditional food systems reflect the diversity of African cultures as represented in these papers from East, West and Southern Africa. From an array of ecosystems Africans have over millennia successfully met their essential nutritional needs in a rich and culinarily interesting manner. While leafy vegetables are common and essential elements in most diets in Sub-Saharan Africa, the variety and range of cultivated and wild species consumed through the region also reflects diverse natural environments.

Malnutrition in Africaresults from food deficit and lack of diversity. While poverty, as it limits people’s options, remains the major determinant of food insecurity and of micronutrient deficiency, failure to consume as diversity of quality foods underlies the nutrition transition leading to increasing rates of diabetes, cardiovascular and other non-communicable disease among rich and poor alike and to a double burden of communicable and non-communicable disease. While African diets are characteristically low in fruits, this has traditionally been compensated for by vegetables. ALVs which make up the largest portion of vegetables make essential contributions of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Non-nutrient carotenoids, particularly lutein, play a vital role as antioxidants and appear to be important in prevention of cataracts and other forms of vision impairment. In addition, for diets that are also low in animal source foods, ALVs make important contributions to protein requirements.

Staple cereals, vegetable oils and sugar increasingly provide the bulk of the calories consumed by urban and rural populations. The relative inexpensiveness of these commercial agricultural products that are transported across international borders exacerbates malnutrition, particularly for the poor. Introduction of new foods, westernization of cuisine, and environmental change including biodiversity and habit loss, and potentially climate change, further reduces the positive dietary options open to people.

Leafy vegetables can make important contribution to mediating change. The papers in this volume make a strong case for the contributions that ALVs can make to alleviating food insecurity, for improving nutrition and health and reducing poverty. They underline their important social and cultural roles and offer strong support for conservation efforts and for a renewed focus on a rights-based approach to food and food culture.

As the authors recognize, in spite of their many advantages ALVs have been under-valued. Research attention, extension support, infrastructure for production and distribution and effective promotion have all been inadequate. Greater policy and monetary attention is given to exclusively technological approaches, staple crops and commercial agriculture, in other words to largely non-African solutions to Africa’s nutrition problems.

ALVs represent a vibrant and viable African contribution to sustainability and self-sufficiency, based on shared cultural values. These papers represent a progressive approach to improving diets that draws on the potential in traditional systems within a contemporary context. They recognize that ALVs remain essential to household and community food and nutrition security within a market context. Within optimal systems ALVs generate income for producers, while for increasingly urban populations remaining accessible and affordable. Rural-urban linkages focused on biodiversity can be developed within a context of ecohealth. The authors draw on both scientific and traditional knowledge to support this case while providing timely reports on efforts underway to ensure that this potential is realized. While the challenge of ensuring that the continent’s resources meet the problems faced by Africans is great, a heightened interest in agricultural biodiversity as illustrated by this volume is encouraging as it stimulates further research, expanded community-oriented programs and renewal of the best of Africa’s food heritage.

 Back to top