Indigenous plant lover Regina Kasongo has managed to turn her love for indigenous foods into a sustainable business. She grows amaranth, a crop that thrives with little water and even in poor soils, while creating employment in the rural Eastern Cape.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kasongo’s business concept was sparked by her love for the food her mother cooked when she was growing up.
“I love and crave for the indigenous vegetables I used to eat when my mother used to cook it,” she says. “But when we arrived in South Africa it was difficult to find it and when we could find it was only in Johannesburg. Hence my idea to explore the possibility of growing the product commercially and sustainably.”
In partnership with Eastern Cape farmer Rikus du Preez, Kasongo plants and processes amaranth just outside the town of Kareedouw. She then processes the plants and supplies it retailers in the province.
“This is an old plant that is known around Africa. It grows sometimes in the back yard but it has not really been used commercially,” she says.
The mother of three has lived in South Africa for close to 30 year now, moving here after obtaining her honours degree in French and English at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She spent most of her years as a teacher. Today she is a business woman and is mostly known in Gqebera for running student accommodation.
However, she says farming is in her genes. Both her grandfather and parents were farmers and she shares the same passion for the sector that they have. Her business started with an idea that grew into something sustainable over the years.
In East Africa, the amaranthus leaf is known in Chewa as bonongwe, she says, doodo in Uganda, lengalenga in DRC and mchicha in Swahili. In South Africa it is known as thepe (Tswana), imbuya (Xhosa) and ityutu (Zulu). In Nigeria it is a common vegetable used with all starched dishes and called efo tete or arowo jeja in Yoruba. The French know it as amaranthe.
A nutritional, traditional veg
Amaranthus is a tall plant with broad leaves that produces thousands of seeds. Both the leaves and seeds are edible. The green leaves are sturdy and have a slightly sweet flavour. The leaves can be boiled for salads, cooked into pies and vegetable stews especially mixed with eggplant.
Amaranth seems to be a dietary dream ingredient, filled with great nutritional properties. Kasongo says, “Although this plant grows in poor soil and only with a little bit of water, it is rich in minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium and full of proteins & carbohydrates. But above all, it is known to be gluten-free.”
Although amaranth is a well-known traditional crop it is largely foreign to the commercial cropping system. It is Kasongo’s dream to introduce it to those who do not know the benefits of the plant.
Kasongo believes that there is a gap in the market for young entrepreneurs that have a love for indigenous plants and she is even looking for two entrepreneurs to mentor by having them work alongside her.
‘I’ve got an idea that in the near future I will not only be providing for the local market, but I will also be supplying globally.’
“Like any other business there are challenges, but the challenges of this business are not the production process, but rather after the harvest of the plant,” she says.
One of the biggest challenges is finding a way to keep the leaves fresh at all times. Another challenge is the fact that communities are not educated on indigenous plants, which makes them reluctant to try the products.
Currently, Kasongo is supplying to selected SPARS in the Eastern Cape and Pro Veg & Food Lover’s Market in East London. She is eyeing an expansion to the city markets in Cape Town and Gauteng soon. She even dreams of taking her produce to international markets.
“My vision is to bring a local taste to those who are living here, but at the same time I’ve got an idea that in the near future I will not only be providing for the local market, but I will also be supplying globally.”
Regina Kasongo’s recipe for amaranth (perhaps better known as morogo).
- Morogo leaves, fresh or frozen (600/800g)
- Olive oil or cooking oil
- Bicarbonate soda
- Clean your vegetable and cut it like any other veggies of your choice.
- Put in the pot.
- Add a teaspoon of soda.
- Add onion and garlic and a pinch of salt.
- Let it cook for 10 to 15 min.
- Add oil and spices to your taste.
- Cook for few minutes and enjoy it.
- Chillies are optional.
PRO TIP: Do not overcook, otherwise it will be too soft.