Morogo plants, with their juicy green leaves, grow like weeds around southern Africa, thriving in the hot, dry climate.
The plants are gathered by women from the wild or grown by subsistence farmers, and are a staple food in rural communities, supplementing a starch-rich and nutrient-poor diet. But morogo is now finding its way onto supermarket shelves in the form of Maggi 2-Minute noodles, a brand produced by Nestlé.
It is strange to find indigenous African knowledge, which has been passed down through generations, in the bright yellow-and-green packaging of convenience food, but the new product is the latest attempt to commercialise indigenous knowledge in the country.
The leafy green vegetables, a species of Amaranthus which is called wild African spinach in English and has other names according to South African languages: imifino in isiZulu and isiXhosa, morogo in Sesotho and isiPedi and muhuro in Tshivenda, are found abundantly in southern Africa. These nutritious plants could be a way to address malnutrition and food security as they have a relatively high vitamin and mineral content.
“We know our grandparents said this [morogo] is good for us, and [here is] the science to back it up.”
Tshidi Moroka, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa
However, there has been a slow uptake of the country's indigenous knowledge, despite numerous government initiatives to commercialise this local know-how in order to create new products and industries.
Public-public partnership success
The new product, which launched last month (8 October) and can be found in Shoprite, a South Africa-based retail and fast food company, is the result of a public-private partnership, which hopes to see more of the country's indigenous knowledge commercialised.
Tshidi Moroka, contract research and development outcomes manager at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa, says, “We know our grandparents said this [morogo] is good for us, and [here is] the science to back it up.”
The project – which resulted in the Maggi 2-Minute noodles with real morogo – is a collaboration involving the CSIR, the Agricultural Research Council, Nestlé South Africa and the Department of Science and Technology, South Africa, dating back to 2012.
The noodles with their morogo flavouring steam in a watery green sauce, after having been prepared in the microwave, has a salty, distinctive spinach-like flavour taste.
“Farming morogo is something very new [to the farmers]. They know it as a wild weed.”
Anold Derembwe, TechnoServe South Africa
Melake Fessehazion, a senior researcher in indigenous vegetables at the Agricultural Research Council, South Africa, explains why people like the product: “Nestlé did the market survey, especially in rural areas, and they found that people said: 'We want to eat this, but where can we get it?' I think people are interested because this is part of the culture, but they don't know how to get it.”
The science behind morogo
The research council evaluated the economics aspects of growing the crop. “They've never been commercialised before,” Fessehazion says. “[We had to find out] what are the best yields and to see [whether] these crops are profitable… They are like any other vegetable – you can make money out of them.”
This is what Okakeng Lebetle is trying to do. He is a member of a four-farmer cooperative in the country’s North West, growing morogo for the noodles. Their five-hectare farm just outside of Brits — a large, industrial town near Pretoria — is one of two sites producing the leafy green vegetable commercially. The other, an eight-hectare farm, is in the Eastern Cape and run by a different cooperative of emerging farmers.
When asked if he eats morogo, Lebetle, who is a beneficiary of Bakwena Ba Mogopa land claim just outside of Brits, and on which he is growing the crop, says: “My grandmother does. I was raised with the stuff.”
“It is an easy crop to grow. It's just a weed, [and so] it grows by itself. You have to keep an eye on the soil quality and control insects, but other than that it is not a problem,” he explains.
But Lebetle adds that a major concern is that the crop’s market seems unclear.
At the moment, this farmer-market-consumer relationship is facilitated by the high-level Nestle-government partnership, and implemented by not-for-profit TechnoServe. TechnoServe, which has been operating in South Africa since 2003 by focusing on, farmers on the ground, says Anold Derembwe, a senior business advisor at TechnoServe South Africa.
“Farming morogo is something very new [to the farmers]. They know it as a wild weed. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, it has never been commercialised… From the results we're seeing, everyone is, like, 'wow, this works',” he says.
The innovative food product is labelled as a “limited edition,” thus allowing stakeholders to gauge the success of the trial phase.
But morogo is just one of the plants that the partnership is exploring, says the CSIR's Moroka. “South Africa's biodiversity is our competitive advantage. Why are we not using this opportunity?” she asks.
This piece was co-produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English and the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa, as part of a science journalism capacity building initiative, funded by the Wellcome Trust