Prof Xikombiso Gertrude Mbhenyane Urges Promotion of Indigenous Food

Prof Xikombiso Gertrude Mbhenyane Urges Promotion of Indigenous Food

“We need to campaign and promote the idea that people must eat fruits and vegetables, including the indigenous foods. The consumption of fruits and vegetables, let alone the indigenous foods, is very low in the country. There’s a thing about meat that we need to get out of the people,” says Professor Xikombiso Gertrude Mbhenyane, DSI-NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Food Environments, Nutrition and Health, highlighting that interventions are needed in South Africa to ensure food security, and also the consumption of foods with health benefits. She tapped into her rich research to mark World Food Day.

Professor Xikombiso Gertrude Mbhenyane

Based at Stellenbosch University where she heads the Division of Human Nutrition and Research Chair in Food Environments, Nutrition and Health, Prof Mbhenyane is a leading scholar in research areas of indigenous foods; nutrition and the prevention of non-communicable diseases; food and nutrition security; and child and maternal nutrition.

Her widely cited research has demonstrated, among other things, that there is a low consumption and sale of indigenous plants in the country, despite their health benefits and a problem of inadequate access to food among the country’s poor. A journal publication that she co-wrote with fellow researchers, Zoe Nomakhushe Nxusani and Mthokozisi Kwazi Zuma, stressed that “…commercial farming, research, and development have significantly ignored these foods, making them less competitive than established major crops”. The study is entitled A Systematic Review of Indigenous Food Plant Usage in Southern Africa.

Some of the crops that are indigenous to Africa include cowpea, Amadumbe, Okra, Cucurbuta (traditional pumpkin), Amaranthus, Corchorus (“delele” in Tshivenda; “thelele” in Sepedi; “gushe” in Xitsonga) and Cleome gynandra (African cabbage, “murudi” in Tshivenda; “morotho” in Sepedi; and “bangala” in Xitsonga).

“If people ate more of indigenous vegetables we would be protected because they have phytochemicals that will make your body able to resist when your organs are not working properly. Phytochemicals can prevent the fat from clogging and causing problems for people who prone to heart diseases. They do a lot of good things in our body,” Prof Mbhenyane said in an interview with the National Research Foundation (NRF). “In the past, the elderly would tell you that they used this plant to prevent disease or to treat it. These indigenous foods are also good for disease prevention. They contribute to food security, but they can also protect us from various diseases.”

Many other countries have kept their indigenous foods, partly because of the health benefits known for hundreds of years. Said Prof Mbhenyane, “If you go to the US, they’ve got a lot of greens. If you go to Thailand, India they are commercialised. Everywhere else in the Mediterranean, local foods are commercialised. The Mediterranean diet, because it consists of a lot of local food, it’s very good for the prevention of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.”

The non-commercialisation of indigenous foods in South Africa has meant that their sales have been limited to informal traders in select parts of the country. People who consume them often have to go out of their way to purchase them. The non-commercialisation also meant that indigenous crop farmers had limited access to the market.

“We still eat the indigenous foods, but not as much as we eat other foods because of access. You should be able to buy indigenous vegetables where you buy any other food. But now you have to make an effort to get them,” said Prof Mbhenyane.

She applauded the Agricultural Research Council’s projects intended to assist small-scale indigenous crop farmers to enter the market.

“But to get people to consume it regularly will take a lot of campaigning and nutrition education. Eating habits develop much early in life, so it needs to start at school. In subjects where applicable, there needs to be an emphasis on the role of fruits and vegetables,” said Prof Mbhenyane.

Such campaigns would also have to motivate people to create small gardens at home. “You need land and you need water to be able to produce your own food,” Prof Mbhenyane pointed out. “These days we also promote urban gardens. People are planting in their spaces, but it is not as much as we would like it to be.”

She added, “If all of us had tomatoes in our gardens, the price of tomatoes in the market would go down. Food production is very important, but I don’t think we have campaigned the message enough to people to understand. If we did produce a little bit in our small gardens, whether it’s spinach, tomatoes, etc. we’d influence the prices in the market.”

World Food Day 2023 is held under the theme of Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) pointed out that the theme highlights the critical role of water in growing and preparation of food. “You can’t separate water and other food,” said Prof. Mbhenyane. “Water is an essential nutrient for food to be utilised, and therefore water scarcity will affect utilisation of food. We find that where there’s water shortage there’s also food shortage.

“Also, you need water to be able to utilise food properly. That is why the health professionals, particularly dieticians, would recommend people drink six glasses of water per day. You need water. You need to stay free of dehydration, or you won’t be able to utilise food appropriately. Water is essential in the way that the body uses food,” she concluded.

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