efficiency and dispatch. And an end result of these historical trends was that most of Africa’s food these days comes from a mere 20 or so species, almost all of foreign extraction.
Like grains and fruits, Africa’s ancient vegetables were vulnerable to the sweep of these events. Long ago, hundreds of leaves, roots, tubers, corms, rhizomes, bulbs, seeds, buds, shoots, stems, pods, or flowers were eaten. Yet across Africa today the main vegetables are crops such as sweet potato, cooking banana (plantain), cassava, peanut, common bean, peppers, eggplant, and cucumber. Countries in the elevated central regions—Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Kenya—grow potato. Banana dominates Rwanda, and Ethiopia also relies on chickpea and lentil. And South Africa records its leading vegetable crops as potato, tomato, green mealies (maize), sweet corn, onion, pumpkin, carrot, cabbage, lettuce, and beetroot.
The disconnect in such modern-day enumerations is that these “African” vegetables come from Asia or the Americas. Indeed, a popular textbook on vegetables in Africa features about 100 species, only 3 of which are native born. Out of the continent’s top vegetables today, only cowpea, yam, and okra are African.
This situation is not, in itself, a major detriment. The United States, after all, has almost half of sub-Saharan Africa’s population and eats essentially no local food plants whatsoever.1 But unlike the United States, Africa needs more and better food. And unlike America, which is biologically deprived of native food plant abundance, Africa also has the blessing of hundreds of worthy candidates waiting in the wings—the old ones that during the course of history got dropped from the food supply not through insufficient merit but through the negligence or priorities of eras now past and for reasons no longer relevant.
There are lessons to be learned from such history. Many foods of the utmost importance today were bypassed in the past because they were considered “poor people’s plants.” Peanuts, potatoes, and many other top-line crops once suffered this discrimination. In the United States the peanut was scorned as “merely slave food” until little over a century ago, and in the 1600s the English refused to eat potato on the basis that it was “Irish food.” The list is lengthy, and cultural bias against peasant crops is an ultimate calamity because plants that poor people grow are usually robust, productive, self-reliant, and useful—the very type well-suited to feeding the hungriest and most vulnerable sections of society.
Surely the door is now open to a renaissance of Africa’s vegetable resources. Sadly, though, even in our times, such historical exclusionary trends continue. The imbalance between the traditional and the introduced species, already worrisome, continues tipping toward an even greater