Dr Willem Jansen van Rensburg

Lindiwe Khoza

Indigenous and indigenised edible plants and traditional crops have sustained rural people for centuries.  They are native to the places where they are grown (or become part of the culinary culture over time) and are particularly well adapted to the prevailing conditions. In South Africa, these indigenous/traditional vegetables were replaced by modern/western vegetables in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, they offer unique opportunities to diversify farming systems, increase income and improve human nutrition and health. Often indigenous and traditional vegetables can be cultivated without requiring expensive external resources, such as irrigation and agrochemicals.

Nutritionally, indigenous and traditional African vegetables are said to be rich in micronutrients. They contribute micronutrients as well as increase the bioavailability and absorption of micronutrients from staple foods. Indigenous/traditional vegetables have an important advantage in that rural people who grew up eating them like the taste, whereas this is not always the case with exotic vegetables.  An example of how these vegetables are used for their nutritional properties is, after childbirth women consume Cleome gynandra, rich in iron and other nutrients.  However, indigenous and traditional vegetables sometimes still have a negative connotation to poverty.

There are many different species of leafy vegetables used in SA, many of which are fairly localized. The lack of concerted attention by research and development of these plants contributes to the underutilisation of the potential value of these vegetables. However, this is changing and there is an increased research interested in some of the species.  Some of the first research projects in indigenous and traditional vegetables at the ARC include baseline studies. Baseline studies on the production and utilisation practices of African vegetables were completed in an effort to assist researchers in the identification of possible crops to help address community needs. The projects aimed to study the different ethnic groups as well as several climatic zones to establish production and utilisation patterns.

The following studies were completed:

Main ethnic group Province Community Methodology Year of study
TshwanaNorth WestTsetse near MafikengQualitative2007/8
ShangaanLimpopoMulati (HSRC main partner)Qualitative2005-2006
ShangaanLimpopoBerlyn (HSRC main partner)Qualitative2005-2006
Tembu-XhosaEastern CapeQunuQualitative2004/5
Pondo (Xhosa)Eastern CapeDimfi (Lusikisiki)Qualitative2004/5
Pondo (Xhosa)Eastern CapeTshonya (Lusikisiki)Qualitative2004/5
Northern SothoLimpopoMars and GlenroyQualitative, quantitative2001-2003
ShangaanMpumalangaArthurstone (Bushbuckridge)Qualitative, quantitative2001-2003
ZuluKwaZulu-NatalWatershed near LadysmithQualitative, quantitative2001-2003


The ARC was involved in various breeding initiatives to create diversity in indigenous vegetable germplasm. The first step for the breeding program is to determine the genetic diversity of the germplasm, using agro-morphological descriptors and molecular markers. The species currently used in the breeding program are amaranth (thepe or imbuya), spider flower (lerotho or bangala), cowpea (dinawa) and jute (delele or gyxe).