Kenyan Farmers Minting Millions From Traditional Vegetables

  • A Spider plant plantation.
    A Spider plant plantation.
  • Kenyan farmers are raking in profits from the sale of traditional vegetables that have seen a steady rise in demand across the world.

    Long overlooked, indigenous greens are now capturing global attention for their nutritional and environmental benefits.

    On Monday, January 18, Kenya Ambassador to France/Portugal/Serbia/Monaco and Holy See Prof Judy Wakhungu highlighted just how in-demand traditional Kenyan vegetables were around the world.

    "Our traditional brands can thrive! Look at our homegrown dried “Saga” or “Chisaka.” In this dish the Kenya  Chisaka was mixed with fish, spinach, & cassava leaves in Pennsylvania, USA," she tweeted and shared photos of the same.

    A 500gm pack of Kenyan grown Spider plant on sale in Pennsylvania, USA.
    A 500gm pack of Kenyan grown Spider plant on sale in Pennsylvania, USA.

    Chisaka (Spider Plant) is a popular traditional vegetable dish among the Abagusii. However, many Kenyans moving towards traditional foods.

    The indigenous vegetable is gaining favour across the world due to its richness in iron, which is important for body development. For young mothers, it enhances the production of milk.

    Spider plant vegetables can yield 100 bags of leaves and 1bag of seeds per acre of land. The crop is ready for harvesting within 45 days after sowing. 

    According to research by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Chisaka yields better with organic manure than with artificial fertilizers

    Just a few years ago, plates in Kenya and around the world would have been filled with staples such as collard greens or kale (which were introduced to Africa from Europe a little over a century ago).

     In Nairobi, traditional vegetables were once sold almost exclusively at hard-to-find specialized markets.

    Traditional vegetables on display at Food Fair in Kenya.
    Traditional vegetables on display at Food Fair in Kenya.

    They were largely ignored by seed companies and researchers, so they lagged behind commercial crops in terms of productivity and sometimes quality.

    Flashforward to 2020/2021 and indigenous vegetables are in vogue. They fill shelves at large supermarkets even in Nairobi, and seed companies are breeding more of the traditional varieties every year.

    In July 2016, consumers and producers of nutrient-rich vegetables, commonly known as mboga za kienyeji, had a reason to smile following the release of nine varieties by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS). 

    It was the first time the agricultural inputs and produce quality regulator released pure seeds of indigenous vegetables to the Kenyan market.

    The licenced vegetables were Nightshade (Managu), Vine spinach (Nderma), Jute mallow (Mrenda), and Spider plant (Sagaa).

    A year later, Ruth Andeso (a farmer based in Nandi County) made the news when she revealed she was making at least Ksh400,000 from traditional vegetables on her 4-acre farm.

    ‘’When I went back to Kapsabet in Nandi County where I own a 4-acre piece of land, I decided to change from maize to indigenous vegetable farming. I now make at least Ksh400, 000 per month from this business,

    ‘’I rotationally grow cowpeas, African nightshade (Managu), Spider plant (Chisaka) and pumpkin for its leaves in my four pieces of land an acre each and supply to Kisumu, Eldoret and Nairobi,’’ she detailed during the interview.

    She went on to reveal that she harvests at least a tonne of each of the vegetable leaves per month, translating to 4 tonnes per month.

    A spot check on current market prices show that a bunch of each of those vegetables weighing a quarter a kilo is currently going for an average of Ksh25. This means a kilo of each of those vegetables goes for at least Ksh100.

    Recently, the World Vegetable Centre, an organisation championing seed multiplication and production of African Traditional Vegetables, unveiled a Ksh803 million project. 

    The project targets to empower about 120  business networks involved in the vegetable value chain in Kenya

    The five-year project funded by the SNV Netherlands (a non-profit international development organisation) and being implemented by the World Vegetable Centre will generate an estimated Ksh1.2 billion per year upon completion.

    Unlike other contemporary vegetables like kale, cabbage, tomatoes and onions which require a lot of resources and expertise to produce, indigenous crops are cost-effective and require less expertise to grow.

    Most traditional vegetables grow naturally and have a high resistance to the most common vegetable diseases and pests.

    In August 2020, Siaya County CEC for Agriculture, Dr. Elizabeth Odhiambo said traditional vegetable seeds were being distributed to farmer groups in the county free of charge, and added demonstration plots for the crops had been established near water pans dug by the county government in arid areas.

    “The demand for traditional vegetables is on the increase because many people are being advised by medics to consume them for health reasons,” said the CEC, adding that Hospitals also buy the vegetables in large quantities as part of the diet supplement for patients.

    Deputy President William Ruto inspecting a farm in Kikuyu constituency. May 20, 2020.
    Deputy President William Ruto inspecting a farm in Kikuyu constituency. May 20, 2020.