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Scaling readiness to improve health, well-being and ecosystem management: the valorization of vegetables in vulnerable food systems

Diversifying food systems using traditional vegetables, such as amaranth, to improve health, well-being and ecosystem management

Photo of Kumbirai Ivyne Mateva
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

- Future food Beacon Malaysia, University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM); - University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN); - uMgungundlovu District Municipality (uMDM); - South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI); - Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS); - Plant Breeders without Borders (PBWOB-UK);

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Nhlazuka, located in Richmond Local Municipality in uMgungundlovu District of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It covers an area of 103 km^2

What country is your selected Place located in?

South Africa

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Climate projections indicate that the uMgungundlovu District Municipality, in particular, Nhlazuka, will experience a warmer future with uncertain changes in mean annual rainfall, but with an increased number of flash flood and storm events due to an increase in short-duration rainfall. The high level of poverty and the associated vulnerability of the community to the predicted impacts of climate variability further threatens the potential of utilizing biodiversity for improved health and well-being. The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM), have been undertaking various research initiatives, all aimed at improving food and nutrition security, soil erosion regulation and rural livelihoods. The location and the community are ideal for scaling up technologies geared at improving food systems due to the threats posed by climate change as well as the willingness and eagerness of the communities to participate in community-led research for development activities. The team has an established relationship of working with Nhlazuka on participatory plant breeding and applied new technologies to improve their food and nutrition security and general livelihood.   Both universities have formed mutual relations with local-seed-companies, community leaders, farming households and service providers within the community. Thereby, facilitating the formation of a traditional vegetable value chain farmers’ group in Nhlazuka that is capable of fostering farmers’ collective action to meet a growing consumer demand and earn more income.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Named after a mountain located in the uMgungundlovu District Municipality of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the Nhlazuka area sits at an elevation of 1313 meters above sea level. It is home to the Zulu/Amazulu, a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa. Embracing strong cultural identity, the Zulu take pride in their ceremonies such as the Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, and their various forms of beadwork. Art and skill of beadwork take prominence as a signifier of identity for the Zulu people and acts as a form of communication. The men and women both serve different purposes in society in order to function as a whole. The Zulu predominantly believe in Christianity but have created a syncretic religion that is combined with the Zulu's prior, ancestral, belief system.

Nhlazuka is rural, and land ownership is communal, administered by traditional authority, with the majority (89%) of dwellings made up of traditional houses. The majority (52%) of people are under the age of 19, while 39% of population are in the 20-59 year age group. Earnings are low with 86% of people considered as "low annual income” earners, i.e. < USD 3,638 per year.

The landscape consists of hilltops and steeply sided valleys draining into the Umkomazi River and its tributaries. Drainage down steep slopes and valleys results in downstream erosion, placing the generally un-terraced agricultural plots at risk from loss of topsoil and associated negative impacts to food production. This is especially tragic as the Nhlazuka communities are highly reliant on ecosystem services from their land. Communities use wetlands as water collection points, fishing grounds and clay collection points (for brick-making). Nhlazuka, like many areas in the province, is experiencing a loss of natural habitat, which has profound ecological consequences for this species-rich area. Similarly, the loss of natural capital and environmental degradation has socio-economic consequences for the inhabitants reliant on natural resources for fuel, fibre, food and medicine.

Subsistence farming is a more prevalent form of agriculture with all households having a direct or indirect role. Timber and sugar cane are cultivated as the dominant cash crops, with crops such as maize and groundnut being grown in home gardens. Maize is a primary staple food in the area, and when grown by the households, is mainly consumed as green mealies.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Due to nutritional transition, traditional diets are being replaced with more refined diets that are high in sugar, fat and salt. This phenomenon is consistent with a general trend in eating habits seen globally. Reasons include the long time necessary to prepare the food, demographic shift accompanied by dietary changes, limited supply and/or demand for the forgotten foods, lack of advanced postharvest and processing technologies. Perhaps, most importantly is the cultural shift as elders who remember preparing these foods advance in age, while the younger generation lose connection with the traditional crops. In addition, they are often perceived as “poor man’s food”, animal feed or reminders of tough seasons.

The loss of traditional vegetables is not only a cultural loss, but poses negative impact on human health, well-being and the environment. The wider adoption of uniform global diets has been accompanied by a rise in the incidence of non-communicable diseases and obesity. Not to mention, the prevalence of the “double burden of malnutrition” – a phenomenon associated with the consumption of nutrient-poor and calorie-rich foods that contribute towards obesity and nutrient-deficiency, which is a severe health concern globally  and South Africa is seeing a significant rise in both forms of malnutrition [United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization & World Bank Group 2017].

According to the 2016 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey, one in five women were severely obese and 27% of children under five years were stunted [National Department of Health, Statistics South Africa, and South African Medical Research Council 2017]. The high percentage of stunting is alarming as it can result in non-communicable diseases in adulthood as well as affect mental performance in school. Furthermore, micronutrient deficiencies are also a problem, especially vitamin A, iron and zinc. Not all micronutrient deficiencies are routinely treated in South Africa, and the government has put in places interventions and policies to help alleviate malnutrition. However, it is still a serious problem. Thus, emphasizing the need for complimentary strategies.

When the demand for traditional vegetables is lagging, it is not a surprise that growing traditional vegetables would be perceived as risky business by farming communities. The stigma associated with consumption of traditional vegetables has pushed farming communities to intensify their production of the main cash crops and introduced food crops.

 As such, the custodians of these diverse plant species move to embrace trending new species that are not necessarily compatible with their land and available resources e.g. water, technology infrastructure. As an example, they may resort to growing an array of water-intensive crops under monocrop culture that threaten to aggravate the challenges of water scarcity, flash floods and other climate vulnerabilities already encountered in their hilly landscapes.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Possible reasons traditional vegetables remain neglected are that the young generation in Nhlazuka are not familiar with these crops, are unsure of how to prepare these traditional vegetables into a meal - or lack the interest in learning production and processing techniques from the elders. In addition, with no guaranteed markets, there are no financial drivers to stimulate their engagement with these crops.

To valorise traditional vegetables, UNM and UKZN integrate a multi-pronged approach that speaks directly to the community. We integrate knowledge of local crop diversity and indigenous knowledge systems with relevant technologies, to develop practices that optimize crop performance, quality and resource-use-efficiency.

From a policy intervention perspective, promotion of traditional vegetables, would not only improve Nhlazuka people’s nutritional status, but also protect their environment through the production of plant species that are adapted to their sloppy terrains and erratic rainfall patterns as well as regulate soil erosion through sustainable practices. Therefore, incentivized programmes supporting farmers across the supply chain would lead to sustainable-environmental-harmony born out of complimenting the major crops. This stimulates aggregated-marketable-surpluses and generates higher financial returns to the farmers.

Incorporating traditional vegetables in food products generates new ways of looking at nutrition and food, while exploring Nhlazuka common food heritage and rediscovering recipes for the many `forgotten foods’ that are being displaced by a uniform, globalized diet. Much like the traditional vegetables, many of these foods are in danger of disappearing. By engaging food development specialist UNM and UKZN will conduct research on how traditional vegetables products might be combined with other ingredients for a more widely acceptable food. Through an online platform Forgotten Foods Network (Video Link), our collective brings together forgotten traditional vegetables among others and respective recipes from individuals and this could be expanded to cover other communities within the region, and perhaps neighboring countries.

We propose diversification of our current food system by means of traditional vegetables, and the use of household score-cards to reflect the community’s acceptance of these traditional vegetables.  However, it is the resounding effect of complementing our current food crops for improved diets that is truly UNM and UKZN’s greatest value. By reinstating a basket of crops and vegetables, providing participatory plant breeding (PPB), production and post-harvest technologies, commercialization and food development, we showcase the potential power of diversifying our food system through simply revisiting sustainable, traditional vegetables.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The valorisation of traditional vegetables is envisioned to revitalize local food systems in a manner that provides healthy diets and supports sustainable livelihoods (contributing towards Sustainable Development Goals 1,2,3,8 and 13). We foresee the establishment of a model community, where the drastic multigenerational impacts of the “triple burden of malnutrition” are reduced. We picture Nhlazuka as a community with an abundance of nutrient-dense crops locally grown and procured. The enhanced access to information, technology and recipes for preparing dishes using traditional vegetables would stimulate an increased demand for the consumption of traditional vegetables. This could largely be amongst the younger generation, who although times are changing, still contribute to crop production.

Living in a healthy ecosystem where soil erosion is regulated through the adoption of locally adapted farming systems, the community members would be less vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate. As important, the establishment of local seed banks and production of nutritious and healthy foods locally will support in building economic resilience and chartering pathways towards economic freedom within the community.

Crucial to this, is fostering a sense of collaboration for long-term sustainability of the gains the community derives from the proposed activities. The partnership that will be built through the community engagement and uptake of the project, as well as local government support, is the key driver towards a fair and equitable society.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Traditional vegetables – often dubbed “poor man’s crops” - have a history of growing within these communities in Nhlazuka, often on marginal eroded lands and under extreme environmental conditions. These crops could be re-introduced to their host communities through nutrition education and recipe-sharing.

We seek to relieve ‘hidden hunger’ and climate change vulnerability by reintroducing a basket of traditional vegetables and relevant technologies. These are specifically selected for their cultural connection to the community, inherent hardiness and high micronutrient content. Currently diets in Nhlazuka are high in refined carbohydrates and fats, and low in micronutrients and fibre bringing about stunting, overweight and obesity, micronutrient-deficiency and an impaired immune system. With the support of the local government, and the interventions in place, our collective aims to compliment and achieve the full definition of ‘food and nutrition security’ and ensure that community members from Nhlazuka have access to food that is healthy and affordable.

The University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM) and University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) act as catalysts in the development of solutions that diversify agriculture using traditional vegetables and underutilised crops. This is possible through a network of location-specific and international collaborations. Their ongoing partnership with Plant Breeders Without Borders (PBWOB) UK and South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI); provides a functional classroom that will empower smallholder farmers to reach their farming potential, through breeding and development of traditional vegetables, while also training current and the next generation of rural farmers. Filed as a community interest company (CiC), PBWOB’s current research thrusts in, Indonesia, Nepal, Ecuador, Ghana, Tanzania, Fiji and worldwide, includes community training and supporting small breeding and selection projects for minor crops. The improved crops remain owned by the community, but PBWOB encourages wider sharing and return to national and international genebanks for reuse.

Further partnership with the uMgungundlovu District Municipality (uMDM) in conjunction with Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) helps to drive not only nutrition education, recipe-sharing and crop reintroduction, but ensures a well-structured and organized municipal-aggregated-commodity-center linking supply chain actors (i.e. producers and markets). This will set prices for farmers not on the basis of “cost of living” but rather production costs or supply and demand conditions, resulting in increased bargaining power of farmers.

At the initiation of the project, consent will be sought from the community members willing to participate in the project. Initial engagements will be centred on the documentation (using digital technologies) of local knowledge on the diversity and agronomic practices associated with traditional crops from the community. This will be complemented with story-telling and recipe-sharing sessions on the traditional vegetables using the Forgotten Foods Network platform. Tailored community training programmes will then be delivered to support breeding and selection of the identified traditional vegetables, as well as processing and production into marketable, nutritious and desirable food products through the expertise of UNM and UKZN.

The project incorporates the use of a score-card by the participating members of the community to provide critical feedback on the project progress and valuable information on their nutritional status and general well-being. The score-cards will be used throughout the intervention programme, to establish a baseline of the community status, and encourage feedback on their priorities and perceived well-being. It is hoped that it will also stimulate ownership of the project by the community, to strengthen inclusion and motivation for successful uptake of the intervention.

Is there an opportunity to celebrate culture and history in a manner that is respectful of our land, heritage, health and well-being? We believe that the valorization of vegetables traditional to the communities of Nhlazuka holds the answer to this quest.

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Photo of Tapiwa Muzerengi

Hie Kumbi

This is so good and i can see communities going back to basics and prolonged life spans are going to be recorded. This piece is one of its kind. We love to replicate this in Zimbabwe

Photo of Kumbirai Ivyne Mateva

Thanks Tapiwa Muzeregi!

There is more than enough room for collaboration. We would love to see this particular vision/submission crossing borders!

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