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31 March 2023

Indigenous crops a critical piece of South Africa’s nutrition security puzzle

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Although our planet boasts 300,000 known edible plant species, 60% of humanity’s plant-based calories are derived from just three crops. In South Africa and other parts of the developing world, obesity is on the rise alongside malnourishment, a phenomenon dubbed “hidden hunger”. The HSRC’s Peter Jacobs argued at the 2022 World Science Forum that we need to take a broader approach to addressing food and nutrition insecurity. Crop expert Tafadzwa Mabhaudbi from the University of KwaZulu-Natal argued that diversifying our crops with indigenous plant species is critical for the health of our communities – and our planet. By Andrea Teagle

The modern food system in South Africa and the rest of the world has focused on maximising food output, resulting in widespread cultivation of a handful of high-yield crops. However, the food insecurity crises highlighted and exacerbated by COVID-19 suggest that a more holistic approach is needed.

Speaking at the 2022 World Science Forum (WSF) in December, the HSRC’s Dr Peter Jacobs observed that a lack of access to food rather than inadequate production is driving South Africa’s food crisis. Ensuring that all households can access enough food requires addressing the socioeconomic determinants of hunger such as poverty and unemployment. A report by Jacobs and his colleagues on hunger during COVID-19 found that households in the lowest income quintile spent 81% of their income on food.

In another WSF session, crop expert Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudbi of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who also works with the International Water Management Institute, argued that food security also requires nutrition to be prioritised as a central tenet of human wellbeing. This is something that the global promotion of starchy, low-nutrient crops has failed to do. Underutilised indigenous plants such as the Bambara groundnut, the cowpea, amadumbe (taro), wild mustard and Amaranthus (ancient grain) are dense in nutrients and better adapted to harsh local weather conditions. By promoting their cultivation, he suggested, we can make nutritious food more accessible and enhance communities’ resilience to the climate and other crises.

Agriculture is at the nexus of people, food, climate and industry, Mabhaudbi emphasised. A holistic approach to food security should consider how crop choice affects human welfare indirectly through its environmental impact. For instance, indigenous crops help to support local insect and bird populations, sustaining local biodiversity. They have also been shown to improve soil health and reduce erosion.

Biodiversity in agriculture supports essential ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, emissions reduction and hydrological processes (processes that drive the water cycle), write Mabhaudbi and colleagues.

Managing non-communicable diseases

In the small town of Louwsburg in KwaZulu-Natal, the main industries are maize and cattle farming. Many residents, including those who work on farms, do not have adequate access to affordable fresh produce. They also suffer from high rates of diabetes, a non-communicable disease associated with unhealthy diets.

A recent HSRC policy brief by Khumo Mngomezulu and Catherine Ndinda recommends that indigenous edible plants be promoted as part of a holistic strategy to manage and prevent diabetes. ‘Due to their high nutritional value, low water requirements, and adaptiveness to poor soil conditions, traditional fruit and vegetables should be the key foods… for the management of diabetes in this predominantly rural town,’ the report states, adding that residents often cannot afford to purchase mainstream fruit and vegetables.

Avenue Street, Louwsburg in KwaZulu-Natal
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Most of South Africa’s health, food and agricultural policies are not focused on access to fresh fruit and vegetables but on general food production and consumption, the report found. Mngomezulu and Ndinda recommend aligning health, food and nutrition policies to improve the availability, affordability and acceptability of indigenous crops and other fresh produce.

Jacobs emphasised that, for much of the population, unhealthy diets reflect structural barriers such as high food costs rather than poor individual food choices. “South Africa exports much of its fresh produce. We import ultra-processed foods that form the staple diet of the poor.”

Support mechanisms

Rice, wheat, maize and the other major crops are successfully promoted in South Africa through formal seed systems and markets, and the availability of extension support for farmers. Without such mechanisms, said Mabhaudbi, attempts to mainstream indigenous crops have tended to struggle.

According to a recent study in the journal Land, the first efforts have been made in Cape Town to incorporate fresh indigenous produce into commercial agri-food chains. Edible plants indigenous to the Cape Floral Kingdom include greens like spekboom, dune spinach and sea pumpkin, and fruits like the sour fig and slangbessie. Researchers Mengyi Zhang and Peter Dannenberg of the University of Cologne, Germany, found that farmers struggled with complex harvest licensing procedures, a lack of cultivation knowledge, limited seed and cutting access, limited distribution networks, and competition with subsidised conventional crops. However, they also found opportunity for income generation and environmental adaptation.

The benefits of indigenous crops have been acknowledged for years, Mabhaudbi said. If mainstreaming is to be achieved, then government, communities, business and civil society will need to collaborate to set up support mechanisms. Encouragingly, amadumbe (taro) has become more widely grown in South Africa due to a deliberate increase in access to niche markets.

“Researchers and institutions can inform and train farmers on growing these food species, and the government can provide resources (seeds, cuttings, [and] incentives),” Mabhaudbi said. Zhang and Dannenberg note that smallholders also require training in management, bookkeeping and sales of indigenous plants, particularly in the early stages of commercialisation.

Changing perceptions

Although South Africa’s focus on high-yield agriculture is characteristic of the global food system, low consumption of indigenous plants today can arguably also partly be traced to laws restricting black farm ownership in the apartheid and pre-apartheid eras. In her book An Empty Plate, economist Tracy Ledgers recounts how the displacement of black farmers following the 1914 Land Act, which reserved 92% of all farmland for whites, led to a breakdown in indigenous knowledge around farming and food traditions.

In the HSRC report, the authors note that some residents of Louwsburg have a cultural connection to indigenous plants. However, in other areas, particularly cities, attempts to mainstream indigenous crops come up against the challenge of apathy or negative perceptions of local plant-based products. The Cape Town study notes that many farmers are not originally from the region, and are thus unfamiliar with local edible plants. Additionally, some farmers were reluctant to grow what they perceived to be “poverty food”, an association also found among some consumers.

However, interest in indigenous crops is growing among upper-income consumers, Zhang and Dannenberg found, with some innovative local chefs drawing from indigenous knowledge to revive local food cultures. This provides income opportunities to local farmers and may help to generate more widespread interest in indigenous crops over time.

As Mabhaudbi argued at the WSF, mainstreaming the cultivation of indigenous crops has an important role to play in strengthening local communities: “How can we bring youth into the conversation, so that they can be proud of their heritage? They too can find that sense of place, that sense of belonging, and find dignity through knowledge of these crops.”


Andrea Teagle, a science writer in the HSRC’s Impact Centre

Researcher contacts:

Dr Peter Jacobs, Strategic Lead: Changing Economics in the HSRC’s Equitable Education and Economies division

Dr Catherine Ndinda, a research director in the HSRC’s Human and Social Capabilities division

Khumo Mngomezulu, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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