Nutritious weed now in noodles

Morogo plants, with their juicy green leaves, grow like weeds in Southern Africa. They thrive in the hot, dry climate. Gathered by women from the wild or grown by subsistence farmers, they are a ­staple food in rural areas, supplementing a starch-rich and nutrient-poor diet. Now morogo is finding its way on to supermarket shelves in the form of two-minute noodles.

The yellow-and-green-packaged convenience food is an incongruous place to find indigenous African knowledge passed down through generations. The vegetable – a species of Amaranthus that is called wild African spinach in English, imifino in isiZulu and isiXhosa, morogo in Sesotho and Sepedi, and muhuro in Tshivenda – is found abundantly in Southern Africa, and these nutritious plants could be a way to address malnutrition and food security as they have a relatively high vitamin and mineral content.

But 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.

The new Nestlé product, which launched last month and can be found in Shoprite stores around the country, is the result of a public-private partnership, which hopes to see more of the country’s indigenous knowledge commercialised.

“We’re bringing the science to it,” says Tshidi Moroka, contract research and development outcomes manager at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). “To be able to say: ‘We know our grandparents said this 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 between the CSIR, the Agricultural Research Council, Nestlé and the department of science and technology, dating back to 2012. The noodles, after being prepared in the microwave, have a salty and distinctive spinach-like flavour.

The Agricultural Research Council’s Melake Fessehazion says: “Nestlé did the market survey, especially in urban areas, and people said: ‘We want to eat this, where can we get it?’ They’re interested because this is part of the culture, but they don’t know how to get it.”

The research council has been responsible for the agronomics. “They’ve never been commercialised before,” says Fessehazion, a senior researcher in indigenous vegetables. “[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 co-operative in the North West, growing morogo for the noodles. The co-ops’ five-hectare farm just outside Brits is one of two sites producing the leafy green vegetable commercially. The other, which is eight hectares, is in the Eastern Cape and is run by a different co-operative of emerging farmers.

Asked whether he eats morogo, Lebetle, a beneficiary of the Bakwena Ba Mogopa land claim, says: “My grandmother does. I was raised with the stuff. It’s an easy crop to grow. It’s just a weed; 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.”

The major concern is that “the market is not clear yet”, he says.

This farmer-market-consumer relationship is facilitated by the high-level Nestlé-government partnership, and implemented by not-for-profit organisation TechnoServe, which has been operating in South Africa since 2003 and “operates with the farmers on the ground”, says Anold Derembwe, a senior business adviser at the company.

“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.

As a “limited edition”, the noodles allow stakeholders to gauge the success of the trial phase. But morogo is just one of the plants the partnership is exploring, says Moroka. “South Africa’s biodiversity is our competitive advantage. Why are we not using this opportunity?” she asks.

This story was co-produced with SciDev.Net as part of a science journalism capacity-building project funded by the Wellcome Trust

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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