Best African Leafy Vegetables for your organic urban farm

Though they were previously regarded as food for the poor in many communities, African leafy vegetables are now high-value crops in Kenyan domestic and international markets. They are now packaged and sold in leading supermarkets in Nairobi and they are a common vegetable demanded in “mama mboga” kiosks and from roadside vegetable vendors. In leading towns across Kenya and East Africa region you will find various vegetable dishes prepared on various local recipes in restaurants, hotels and public canteens. To tap into this ever-growing market, more urban and peri-urban farmers are growing them commercially and intensively for sale. You can do too, profitably. In this post, we focus on the benefits of why grow the traditional green vegetables and provide a list of the most profitable types. Researchers and seed supplying companies offer quality seed varieties promoting the harvest quality, shortening the maturity period and improving profitability for farmers.

The best indigenous vegetable types to grow in Kenya.

English BotanicalSwahili Kikuyu Luhya LuoKisiiKipsigisLugandaKamba
AmaranthAmaranthus DubiusMchichaTerereLidodoOdodoEmbogaKelichotDoodoW’oa
CowpeasVigna UnguiculataKunde MathorokoLikhuviAlot’boEgesarekundeKiyindiruNthooko
NightshadeSolamon Nigrum ComplexMnavuManaguNamaskaOsugaIsoiyotNsuggaKitulu
Spider PlantCleome GyandraSagaaThageti TsisakaAlotDekChinsaggaSagetJjobyuMwianzo
CrotalariaCrotaralia OchroleucamirooMitooKipkururietAubiKausuusuu
Jute MallowCorchorus OlitoriusMlendaMurereomotereChikosho
PumpkinCurcubita Maxima Malenge MarengelisebebeRisosaUlenge

Kenya has around 210 species of nutritious leafy traditional vegetables. We consider about 20 types of these key. We attribute this great diversity to agroecology and culture variation. Kenya’s has 55 unique community groups with each growing, buying and eating a unique set of traditional vegetables known to them. While this is a constraint in large scale commercialising effort for some crops, it also provides a ready market for each of these vegetables among those familiar to them.

The list below comprises the most common traditional green vegetables in Kenya. We base the popularity on the crops familiarity across many regions and communities in the region. We have provided the English/common names botanical name as well as local names in Swahili, Luganda, Kikuyu and other languages.

Amaranth (terere)

Considered a weed by most people. We recognise around 70 species. Its leaves range from purple, red and gold. It’s a valuable crop and is used as a leafy vegetable, cereal and an ornamental plant. In Kenya urban farms it is cultivated as a protected weed in backyards and home gardens. You can either sow them directly or transplant them from established nurseries. Best yields are realised in 20 cm spacing. You harvest the vegetables once the plant is 6 weeks after transplanting and has grown to 30 cm high. 

 There are many recipes to cook amaranth leaves. Separate the tender leaves from larger stems. You can cook or fry the green vegetables in oil, cheese or milk. It is cooked separately of mixed with other vegetables, meat, fish or groundnuts. Amaranth contains proteins, carbohydrates, calcium, iron and vitamins B and C.

 You can also grow amaranth for its nutritious seeds. You can utilise these to process a range of amaranth products that include; amaranth fortified mail meal, whole grain, pure amaranth flour, and amaranth cold-pressed oil.

Besides using amaranth as human food, it is a good livestock fodder and can be fed to cattle, goats, rabbit and chicken.

Cowpea (Kunde)

We plant this leguminous herb from seed that is planted at about 20-40 cm spacing. Kenyan farmers inter-crop it with maize or sorghum. For commercial vegetable production purposes, mono-cropping is practised. It has many varieties, some are the climbing type while some are upright herbs. Its young stems, leaves, pods, fresh seeds and dried seeds are edible.

This is the best choice for urban farmers in semi-arid areas since some of its varieties are drought tolerant.  Being a bean family plant, it has soil fertility improvement benefits through nitrogen fixation.

Nightshade (managu)

There are many varieties grown and marketed in Eastern Africa. You will plant African nightshade from formal seeds marketed in agrovets shops or source seeds from neighbours. Another propagation method is transplanting young plants 10-15 cm from wild to well-tended organic plots.  The plant does well in organically rich soils. You can enrich your “managu” plot with well-decomposed cattle, chicken or rabbit manure. The crop does well in plots applied with recently burnt ash and requires frequent irrigation for higher yields. Its tender shoots are susceptible to spider mites, early blights and aphids.

The plant leaves and fresh fruits are the edible parts.  You will start harvesting around four weeks from transplanting and you can pick vegetables at a weekly interval. The plant is best harvested early morning for marketing and consumption in the same day. For farmers far from the market, pick the crop late in the evening and preserve on plastic sheets or banana leaves. Mostly prepared together with other vegetables. You can also prepare it alone by boiling and discarding the water.  Ripe berries are children delicacies.

The raw leaves and seeds provide vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein, carbohydrates and lipids. Medically, nightshade is used in, easing teething in children, treating toothache stomach-ache and tonsillitis,

Spider Plant (saga)

Best propagated through direct planting in harrowed and well-levelled seedbeds with properly applied organic manure. The small seeds are shallowly planted in around one cm depth and spacing of 30 cm between rows. You can also broadcast the seeds and rake the seedbed. The seeds germinate in 6 to 8 days and you can do thinning 20 days after. Sagaa does well in weed-free beds, hence the need for periodical weeding. In drier periods, the plants will require 2-3 time watering per week.

 Harvest the thinned plants for consumption and sale. Shoots can be harvested severally till flowering and seed production. Ripe capsules are harvested and preserved to get seed for subsequent season. 

The common recipe for cooking spider plant involves boiling the leaves sometimes with flowers. This is then buttered to serve with ugali. The leaves are bitter and it’s mostly cooked together with cowpeas and amaranth. In western Kenya, we cook it in milk to dilute the bitter taste.

Sagaa is a key traditional medicinal plant and is used in treating chest pain, constipation and diarrhoea.

Crotalaria (mitoo)

This leguminous perennial herb is most popular in western Kenya. You will plant “mitoo” from seeds. Does well in raised seedbeds that are well fertilised. Grown for its edible leaves that are bitter and hence well cooked in combination with other indigenous vegetables.

The plant is good in nitrogen fixation and widely promoted in crop rotation practice for sustainable climate-smart farming.

Jute Mallow (mlenda)

Best for you if you are an urban farmer in Kenyan towns below an altitude of 1500 metres above sea level. You will grow this from seeds planted in rows. To harvest, uproot the entire plant or prune branches and combine to sellable bunches. This latter method promotes Jute to produce more branches.

The vegetable is rich in protein and carbohydrates as well as vitamins B and C. when prepared on its own it is very slimy and is best cooked by combining it with the slightly hard cowpeas leaves or crotalaria.

Pumpkin (malenge)

Cultivate pumpkin and the related species for their nutritious leaves and fruits and seeds; pumpkins and squashes. It is a “vine” plant whose running and bristled stems with big deep lobed leaves. It flowers yellow or orange.

Its young tender leaves are the most utilised. Remove the tough skin and leaf veins. They are then washed, chopped, and either boiled, steamed or/and fried.

Other vegetables in the pumpkin leaves category are cucumbers, watermelons and “kahurura”

Less popular traditional vegetables

Apart from the above-listed vegetables, smallholder farmers also utilise leaves from the root, fruit and leguminous vegetables. These include leaves from the cassava plant, sweet potato, Irish potatoes, bean leaves and melon. Other types are more localised and mostly picked or grown by specific communities and consumption has not spread in other areas. These include the stinging nettle (Urtica massaica), “mabaki”, Ethiopian mustard, moringa, okra, blackjack and African eggplant.

Common Recipes / preparation

African leafy vegetables are cooked separately or mixed with other indigenous vegetables. In most communities, the plant leaves are harvested and removed from leaf stalks. Wash these in clean water and sometimes sliced into small leaves. Some people boil the leaves and discard the leaves while others prepare them directly. To fully prepare, fry onions till brown, add tomatoes and then vegetables for not less than five minutes. Stir the vegetables occasionally till ready.

Preservation method

Most indigenous vegetable types featured in this post can be sun-dried for preservation. Though this means some loss in nutritional value, it’s a key method to ensure a reliable supply of green vegetables and nutrients during drought. This is a chance for agribusinesses to venture into food processing, packaging and distribution to create income and employment.

Why you should grow African leafy vegetables?

Farming “Mboga kienyenji” as they are commonly referred to has many benefits. It contributes to nutrition safety, environmental benefits, income generation and African traditional medicine among other benefits. We briefly explore these benefits.

Food security.

Traditional vegetables have higher nutritional value than most conventional vegetables. The table below compares the nutritional value of 100gm of edible cabbage with 3 most common traditional vegetables; amaranth, spider plant and African nightshade.

Nutrient Amaranth Spider plant African Nightshade Cabbage
Moisture (gram) 84 86.6 87.2 91.4
Iron (milligram) 8.9 6.0 1.0 0.7
Protein(gram) 4.6 4.8 4.3 1.7
Calories 42 34 38 26
Carbohydrates 8.2 5.2 5.7 6.0
Fibre (gram) 1.8 1.4 1.3 1.2
Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) (milligram) 64 13 20 54
Calcium (milligram) 410 288 442 47
Phosphorous (milligram) 103 111 75 40
*B- Carotene (microgram) 5716 10452 3660 100
Thiamine (vitamin B1) (milligram) 0.05     0.04
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) (milligram) 0.42   0.59 0.1

You should not only grow these vegetables for the market but also as a nutritious food for your family.

Food safety

Indigenous vegetable farming is majorly organic.  The majority of indigenous leafy vegetables in the wild. We consider other undesirable weeds in other high-value crop farms. They are not highly dependent on the spraying of toxic farm chemicals and the application of chemical fertilisers for their production. Most like the black nightshade grows best in fertile grounds rich in animal manure. By feeding on traditional vegetables you cut down the intake of toxic chemicals to your body.

Ready market

Over 25% of Kenya’s population lives in urban centres. This presents 55 unique domestic markets for different community groups in cosmopolitan towns that mostly buy traditional vegetables that are known to them. The urban consumers are more health-conscious and hence prefer organically grown vegetables to avoid toxic grown conventional vegetables. Another unique market for these greens is the chronically ill, especially people with stomach problems, diabetes and hypertension.

Income generation

As neglected crops, growing, picking and marketing of the local vegetables is a preserve for women. This makes it a good entrepreneurial venture for ladies and youth. It takes short cooking time for people wishing to venture in food processing. Traditional green vegetables can be sundried in solar dryers, packaged and marketed as a ground powder or dried vegetables

Growing demand

There is intense sensitisation on production, processing, marketing and consumption of African leafy vegetables by national and county governments, donors, NGOs and other stakeholders. We see these speciality crops as a tool for nutritional, health and economic improvement for vulnerable people such as PLWHAs, women and young people.  The result will be scarcity as there will be more people demanding vegetables are in short supply. To enjoy this, agribusinesses can venture into this area to multiply seeds, grow, process and distribute traditional vegetables and their products.

Environmental benefits

Some indigenous plants like cowpeas belong to the leguminous family with soil nitrogen fixation. This help to improve soil health and the environment. As you practise urban farming, you will apply decomposed animal waste and other organic food wastes help manage solid wastes.

Short term to maturity

Some traditional vegetables are harvested as early as 3 weeks after planting or transplanting. This allows you to enjoy nutritious food and make money early.

Medicinal value

Indigenous African leafy vegetables possess anti-oxidative properties and thus have the potential as natural sources for reducing cellular oxidative damage, and suppression of various cancers and cardiovascular diseases. Kienyeji vegetables are popular among people with stomach related problems, especially ulcers. They are rich in secondary components crucial in fighting chronic health problems like diabetes and hypertension,

Samuel K

Samuel Kibicho is passionate about profitable and safe agriculture as a tool for wealth creation and food security. He is the founder of Agcenture and consults in market systems development (MSD), program management and result measurement, monitoring and evaluation for sustainable agriculture & rural development projects.

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5 Responses

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    […] African leafy vegetables such as amaranth, spider plant and the black nightshade. […]

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    […] variety of fresh greens and fruits on your property. Options of food products you can grow include, African leafy vegetables like amaranth and exotic herbs and spices such as rosemary and chives. By growing your own food, […]

  4. September 3, 2020

    […] of the best crops to grow are highly consumed vegetables like kale or spinach and traditional leafy vegetables (manage, sage, Kunde) and […]

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