Traditional vegetables bring a new perspective to Uganda
Nalonge and Agnes used to be like most farmers in their villages: they regarded traditional vegetables as weeds. They were also shy, particularly among groups of people, as women rarely speak out. Not anymore. They are now convinced of the nutritional benefits of traditional leafy vegetables, even plant them to beautify their homes, and influence other women to do the same.
Vegetables have been grown in Uganda since time immemorial, but in some parts, especially the central region where Mukono district is located, they have been less important than other foods. In many homes, traditional vegetables like amaranth and nightshade are considered to be weeds, and are usually fed to pigs, goats and other livestock.
Undernutrition is widespread in Uganda with 38% of children being chronically undernourished or stunted. Many lack micronutrients in their diets; 28% of the children suffer from vitamin A deficiency and 73% from iron deficiency, both of which increase the risk of blindness, disease, and death. African tradition vegetables hold the key to improving nutrition for young children because they are rich in minerals and vitamins. These crops are easy to grow and require few or no expensive inputs such as fertilizer or chemicals.
The Home Garden Scaling project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), was initiated in Uganda to increase the availability of quality seeds of tested nutritious vegetables, including a range of traditional leafy vegetables. Women are taught agronomic skills to improve vegetable production and thus increase availability of vegetables throughout the year. They also learn how to prepare nutritious recipes, and earn income from selling surplus vegetables from their home gardens.
AVRDC together with Voluntary Efforts for Development Concerns (VEDCO) embarked on an initiative to sensitize farm households about the dangers of micronutrient deficiencies, and the benefits of balancing diets by consuming more vegetables. Interested farmers, particularly young mothers, were then trained to raise vegetable seedlings for their home gardens and to produce vegetables throughout the year. Extension workers and other influential people in the villages were also trained to amplify the message of growing vegetables for healthy diets.
The farmers have now turned their courtyards into home gardens to optimize the small spaces at their disposal. Nalongo Sekinkuse, a 67-year-old widow in Nakisunga Sub County, Katente village, Mukono district used to think vegetables were a poor man’s food, the traditional types in particular. After participating in the training, Nalongo’s opinion of vegetables improved—especially when she realized how these foods can provide nutrients for her seven dependents (four of them under the age of 5). This attitudinal change is not only apparent with Nalongo, but also among her grandchildren, who have started to consider vegetables as a delicacy. Well-respected in her community, Nalongo’s enthusiasm for gardening prompted her group members to select her to become a Community Trainer. She received three days of training on nutrition and agronomy from the National Agricultural Research Organisation, and then she started training other group members and fellow farmers.
Agnes Kyambadde of Nama village in Mukono district is another farmer who has wholeheartedly embraced the home garden scaling project. Her experience with gardening was focused on beauty—she mostly grew flowers of different types around her courtyard. However, with the advent of the home garden scaling project, she decided to try growing vegetables as well. Agnes has improved her farming skills, such as mulching her vegetable beds to keep moisture in the soil longer. She plans to expand her vegetable garden all around her plot, a 200 x 100 foot space, to serve as a demonstration garden for other women in the community. She also likes that more visitors are attracted to her homestead to find out how she grows nice vegetables on such a small piece of land. This has led to home improvements, especially improvements in home hygiene and sanitary structures (for example, the construction of a tippy tap at the latrine for visitors to wash their hands). Improved family hygiene has another beneficial effect: small children that do not suffer from diarrhea and other diseases can better utilize nutrients when they consume vegetables. Healthy growth is the result.
Both Nalongo and Agnes have become Community Trainers. They now have the confidence to speak in public, even to large groups, and they are training other farmers on their own.
“I used to plant flowers for beauty around my compound but after the training in vegetable production this has changed, and now I have substituted flowers with vegetables. They even look more beautiful than flowers. I have also learned better farming practices to help my vegetables grow well; they are rarely attacked by pests. I intend to do this as a business, since we are near the town market.”
“I used to refer to people who feed on vegetables, especially amaranth, as poor people. I thought that to be a well-to-do person one had to feed on chicken or beef. However, VEDCO and AVRDC my perception towards vegetables. I was trained as a Community Trainer and I am now a change agent in this community. My 3-year-old granddaughter enjoys eating amaranth more than banana or cassava and she normally cries if we do not prepare it. Having known the nutritional benefits accrued from amaranth, I am very sure that I will not have challenges of nutritional deficiency diseases among my grandchildren.”
Contributor: Ralph Roothaert, AVRDC Eastern and Southern Africa, Kenya Office