Promoting New Value Chains for Neglected and Underutilised Crops

Researchers in the Umngeni Resilience Project (URP) are working with small-scale farmers in Swayimane and Nhlazuka, north of Pietermaritzburg, as well as retail outlets for agricultural produce to highlight some of the challenges and opportunities for marketing underutilised crops in KwaZulu-Natal.

The URP is a partnership between the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), uMgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) and UKZN’s Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems (CTAFS).

The Project focuses on reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change, particularly in rural communities. This includes the promotion of neglected and underutilised crop species such as taro and sweet potato.

With 5% of the world’s 400 000 plant species classified as edible, 150 species are commercialised but only three – maize, wheat and rice – are used to meet 50% of people’s daily nutritional requirements. If marketed effectively, several underutilised crops could provide essential nutrients, unlock new value chains, and promote sustainable agriculture within South Africa, especially for resource-poor households.

Underutilised crops commonly cultivated in Swayimane and Nhlazuka include imbuya (amaranth leaves), amadumbe (taro) and ubhatata (sweet potatoes), with farmers choosing these crops because they are easier to cultivate than commercial crops like cabbage and onions, require fewer inputs, and have been grown for generations.

Small-scale farmers focus their postharvest techniques and value addition on exotic crops like cabbage, spinach and potatoes, and are well-versed in the production, processing, and trade of these crops rather than underutilised crops. Many underutilised crops are produced and stored traditionally, with methods differing between households, possibly contributing to their value chain remaining underdeveloped.

Farmers grow underutilised crops for household consumption, selling the excess to neighbours, local grocery stores and informal vendors for any price they can get. Swayimane farmers sell their amadumbe and ubhatata in Pietermaritzburg and through vegetable vendors and fresh food markets in eThekwini by way of “bakkie” traders. Nhlazuka farmers only sell their produce locally, but reserve imbuya for free exchange as these are regarded as natural plants that should not be charged for, formerly even being considered weeds.

Despite the nutritional value of underutilised crops, retailers and agro-dealers do not experience high demand for them, forecasting low profit from their sale. Amadumbe and ubhatata are sold by some supermarkets, but underutilised crops are largely seen as a risk to profit margins.

Perceptions and attitudes significantly affect what consumers purchase, an important factor in promoting and normalising these crops. Underutilised crops shift between being perceived as low-income food security crops, and healthy, nutrient-dense ones that can diversify diets.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, one supermarket remarked that while consumer behaviour was thriftier, some of their customers wanted to eat more healthily and were more willing to purchase underutilised crops.

A major challenge facing increased utilisation of underutilised crops is poorly developed value chains and marketing channels. The URP has assisted emerging farmers with production through purchasing inputs and training on plant techniques, protecting crops from pests and diseases, the use of alternative organic fertilisers, post-harvest techniques, agricultural business skills, tunnel production and crop production climate change mitigation strategies, and other advice.

This has resulted in higher yields, maximised land use, improved record keeping, and changed perceptions and attitudes towards these marginalised crops. Working together, the URP and emerging farmers have supplied Pietermaritzburg’s SAVE Hyper supermarket stores with taro and sweet potato twice a week.

Words: Nomfundo Shelembe

Photograph: Supplied