South Africans consume inadequate amounts of vegetables and fruit per day

Water Research Commission

While statistics indicate that South Africans’ general intake of fresh fruit and vegetables is below the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) daily requirements, the country is rich in edible indigenous plants that could potentially address food insecurity in many poor households.


This issue was actively discussed by researchers during the Water Research Commission (WRC) Symposium on Water Use and Nutritional Value of Indigenous and Traditional and Nutritional South African Underutilised Food Crops for Improved Livelihood held on 18 and 19 February at Farm Inn, Pretoria.


The prescribed 400g daily per capita intake of fruits and vegetables is recommended by the WHO to protect against communicable diseases. Researchers present during the Symposium pointed out that traditional leafy vegetables, which are generally rich sources of nutrients and antioxidants, are usually associated with poverty in South Africa, yet they help in reducing malnutrition. People are not aware of the nutritional value of these crops and often look down upon them.


“While South Africa produces enough food for local use and export, a lot of poor people still go to bed hungry despite the presence of highly nutritious leafy vegetables in almost all parts of the country.  About 14 million people are still food insecure, with research indicating that local households are becoming increasingly dependent on social grants – a situation which is not sustainable in the long term”, said the Symposium keynote speaker Mr Thabo Ramashala, Director of Plant Production  from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.


South Africa has focused very little on indigenous food species to date while the rest of the world has taken note of their commercial value. For example, Dovyalis caffra (kei apple) has been cultivated in California, Horned melons (Cucumis metuliferus) are produced commercially in New Zealand, France, Israel, and California and are exported widely across the world. 

WRC-funded scientific investigations have indicated that some traditional leafy vegetable plants can tolerate drought conditions which make them suitable in smallholder farms where water supply is limited. Cowpea was found to be the most drought-tolerant crop, followed by nightshade, pumpkin and tsamma melon. Amaranth (imbuya) was the most heat-tolerant crop. For optimum growth, water requirements for the African leafy vegetables studied for a full growing season range between 240 mm and 463 mm.

The recent WRC study has shown that some traditional leafy plants provide more than 50% of the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin A, and all eight vegetables studied provided at least 30% of the estimated average requirement. What’s more, the vegetables provided varying amounts of other important nutrients, such as protein and various mineral elements, and also contained significant amounts of fibre.


Dr Gerhard Backeberg, Executive Manager for Water Utilisation in Agriculture

explains, “We need to strengthen people’s abilities to cultivate food for themselves, as opposed to merely depending on government support systems, such as social grants. In this way communities are empowered to help themselves become food secure and maintain healthy balanced diets”.


Amongst many challenges regarding the supply of the indigenous leafy vegetables is that there is no formal seed supply system for many indigenous crops since the seed industry, research institutions and the nursery industry had neglected these crops for many years. As a result, farmers had been keeping seed for many years from one planting season to the other.


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