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ZIMBABWE: Veggies Dried and Tasted

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Jul 15 2010 (IPS) - A resurgence of interest in dried traditional vegetables has opened up a market opportunity for women entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo.

Urban consumers, who previously shunned dried vegetables as a culinary preference of unsophisticated rural people now view them as an affordable, nutritious convenience food. For some they even evoke nostalgia.

Seeing umfushwa – as the dried vegetables are known in the local SiNdebele – on a supermarket shelf inspired Mavis Svinurai to start processing her own. She now sells dried vegetables across Bulawayo’s high-density townships.

“I remembered this as something our parents used to prepare for us and decided that if it can be found on supermarket shelves, then I can as well do this from my own backyard,” Svinurai said.

Thelma Dube, who has been a vegetable vendor for years, only processed umfushwa for her household. Now she finds selling dried vegetables more profitable as they have a longer shelf life than the fresh variety. Dube sells dried pumpkin leaves, bean leaf and okra – indigenous foods whose nutritional value has been celebrated through generations.

But processing on a large scale, using the most basic of technologies, is a time consuming affair.

“It is a cumbersome process as I have to cut the vegetables, boil them, then lay them out in the sun to dry,” Dube said.

“Some customers have complained that the dried vegetables are gritty. But this is to be expected as we dry them in the open,” she added.

Local communities have used this method of food processing for generations, but Dube is anxious to find a “cleaner” method so she can expand production.

Like Dube, Svinurai also wants to improve her product. “I have not heard of any other way of preparing dried vegetables besides in the open,” Svinurai said.

This lack of information is characteristic of the operations of informal sector workers and has affected their ability to expand. Solar dryers have been available on the Zimbabwean market for many years with research and development carried out by organisations such as the Zimbabwe Technology Centre. Yet vegetable vendors across Bulawayo’s major markets complain they lack technical know-how and financial assistance to sell more hygienic food at a large scale.

Bulawayo businesswoman Naomi Mthupha has a different story to tell. Mthupha processes traditional vegetables and also makes dried fruit and raisins. She sells her produce to local supermarkets and bakeries.

Mthupha’s dried vegetables are processed using electricdriers or kilns that she bought ten years ago when Zimbabwean entrepreneurs began trekking to the Far East in the wake of government’s “look East” trade development policy. Much of her produce is grown on a farm she received under the government’s land redistribution programme.

“This kind of business has its advantages in that you are certain that you have no major losses to speak of during the post-harvest stage as drying gives these otherwise perishable products a longer shelf life,” Mthupha said.

The vegetable drying enterprises have provided spin-off effects for other women.

Dube told IPS the interest in dried vegetables has spurred small-scale horticultural production with both urban and rural women farmers registering an increase in production of vegetables like pumpkin leaf, bean leaf and okra.

Growing awareness of the importance of a healthy diet has contributed to the rising demand for umfushwa.

According to the Zimbabwe chapter of the Association for Health Education and Development (AHEAD), health professionals are increasingly recommending dried vegetables for HIV and AIDS patients. A sustained nutritious diet is a critical component of antiretroviral (ARV) therapies.

This is especially important in a country where poverty, brought on by the country’s economic decline over the course of the last decade, made nutritious food unaffordable. Peanut butter, which is usually added to the prepared dried vegetables, provides a valuable source of protein.

Svinurai also boasts a thriving market for her sun-dried vegetables in neighbouring countries. “I travel to South Africa regularly and have been totally surprised by the people there asking me to bring them umfushwa,” she said. She also sells dried mopani worms, which she says are popular with Zimbabweans in the diaspora.

Reports of the growing market for dried traditional vegetables among Zimbabweans abroad comes as no surprise to Scotland-based Zimbabwean academic, Hayes Mabweazara. “We terribly miss food from back home,” he told IPS.

“Traditional food is hard to come by here. People survive on GMOs (genetically modified foods) – potatoes, rice and this tasteless meat,” he said.


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