Indigenous vegetables ‘are not poor people’s food’

Soybean farmer and advocate of indigenous crops Qinisani Qwabe is on a mission to get people excited about native veggies, like amadumbe and cowpea.

Soybean farmer and advocate of indigenous crops Qinisani Qwabe is on a mission to get people excited about native veggies, like amadumbe and cowpea.

Qinisani Qwabe grew up in a small rural community called eSihuzu in northern KwaZulu-Natal. He was raised by his grandparents and he fondly remembers eating indigenous vegetables, like amadumbe and cowpea, deliciously prepared by his “gran’zo”, Agnes Mngomezulu.

Today, the 26-year-old works as an indigenous knowledge systems and food security researcher and he started a company which promotes indigenous food in Mzansi. “It saddens me that indigenous vegetables are being underappreciated, especially by the younger generation. Indigenous vegetables are not poor people’s food, but it’s being perceived as such.”

Qwabe, who is also a soybean farmer, started his company, The Renaissance of Indigenous Agriculture (RIA) in September 2019. It is focused on sustainable agricultural production.

“Our objective is to reach out to previously disadvantaged communities by empowering rural farmers and the youth through involvement in the agricultural value chain, while embracing people’s indigenous knowledge, which is the company’s edge,” Qwabe explains.

The beginning

The young farmer says that he fully understands the importance of traditional crops, particularly vegetables. “As a family, my grandparents and I would gather around the table to dish up amadumbe (a tropical root crop) and cowpea (an indigenous legume cultivated for its edible seeds or to feed livestock). Ugogo would start telling stories about their upbringing and, oh my word, the conversations we would have was always fun,” he recalls.

Qinisani Qwabe pictured with his granny, Agnes Mngomezulu.

The Mngomezulu family have been producing sugar cane (more than 250 tons per year) and gum trees on their farm eSihuzu for decades now. “At home we all eat to work. I think this has always been my granddad’s unspoken mantra. Although at times he would say things like ‘awudli ungasebenzanga’, meaning you don’t eat before working,” Qwabe tells.

Although he grew up in a family of farmers, Qwabe never aspired to be one and was never hands-on when it came to the farm. “My relatives would come back from the fields wishing tomorrow never comes, because of the heat and being tired. Meanwhile my grandparents always wore their mask of happiness when they returned. Me, I was comfortable with pursuing teaching as a career. It seemed easy and comfortable,” he explains.

Renaissance of Indigenous Agriculture (RIA)

Today Qwabe, with his master’s degree in agricultural management from the Nelson Mandela University (NMU), credits his mother, Sizeni Mngomezulu for his falling in love with agriculture. She encouraged him to choose agriculture as a subject in school, and to his surprise, he fell in love.

“At NMU, I was involved in a research project that was primarily based on the socio-economic importance of indigenous vegetables among rural communities of the Northern KZN,” he says.

Qinisani Qwabe is an agricultural researcher at the Mangosuthu University of Technology’s (MUT) Institute for Rural Development and Community Engagement.

Wanting to include indigenous plants in the value-chain of agricultural production, Qwabe thought of establishing an enterprise that would promote indigenous foods. And in 2019, he did just that with his self-funded agribusiness, RIA.

The agribusiness, which promotes indigenous food, is being piloted in the KwaDlangezwa area where farmers mainly produce indigenous and fresh market vegetables. RIA’s mission is to develop black rural farmers, in order to improve their farming operations through introducing indigenous knowledge and modern technologies.

“Unfortunately, the teachings and practices from the western world have fallen upon Africa. So, when you mention farming, people automatically think of spinach and cabbage,” Qwabe exclaims.

He believes this is as a result of what the media has sold to Mzansi.

“Academic institutions also preach that indigenous vegetables are marketable cash or fresh-market crops, but because they are of African origin and are not known at a global scale, they are given less recognition even in their native areas. Today, these foods are perceived as ‘food for the poor’ or associated with those of low socio-economic status,” Qwabe says.

Shine bright like a diamond

Qwabe is not just an advocate of indigenous crops, but an avid farmer too. He grows soybeans on a one-hectare plot adjacent to his grandparent’s farm and plans to expand his production with land his granddad promised him in 2019. “I just hope he keeps his word,” Qwabe laughs.

The soybean farmer has been wanting to practice farming since 2014, but he didn’t have capital or land.

“My family has given me a great deal of support, and in fact I was quite surprised by it. Although they couldn’t help financially, their labour services during both the planting and maintenance stages were more than enough. Sometimes, really, money isn’t everything. Just that little practical (support),” Qwabe exclaims.

Qinisani Qwabe believes that indigenous vegetables are not known at a global scale, because they are given less recognition.

When the busy agriculturalist is not on his farm, you’ll find him at MUT’s Institute for Rural Development and Community Engagement, where he works as an agricultural researcher. “I look at the socio-economic aspects of agriculture and ways in which the university can contribute to the people’s livelihoods through sustainable agriculture.”

When asked what his farming future looks like, Qwabe quickly responds, “brighter than a diamond.”

“All I can say is I’ve got big plans for my farming business. I’m trying to branch to livestock farming too, I’ve already started breeding swine in Mpumalanga. I’m also working on producing fresh vegetables and currently negotiating with potential clients around the Richards Bay area.”