World Vegetable Center: Research and development in vegetables for healthier lives and better livelihoods

Women selling vegetables at a market

The aim of Veggies 4 Planet and Planet (V4P&P) project is to create employment and increase incomes through vegetable business, in particular African traditional vegetables. Farmers increase their incomes from growing traditional vegetables while adopting improved regenerative agricultural technologies.

Vegetable production has always been an attractive agricultural enterprise, as it has the potential to generate high profits per square meter, and you don’t need large areas of land for it. Yet vegetable production is not always as easy as it seems, there are so many different types of vegetables each with its own best management practices. This is one of the reasons why the World Vegetable Center (formerly known as AVRDC) was founded in Taiwan in 1971, with a mission to carry out research and development in vegetables that lead to healthier lives and better livelihoods.

In 2020, the IKEA Foundation provided a 6 million euro grant to WorldVeg to implement an initiative called ‘Veggies4Planet&People (V4P&P)’ for five years in Kenya and Ethiopia. V4P&P aims to create employment and increase incomes through vegetable business, in particular Traditional African Vegetables (TAVs). Many TAVs are leafy vegetables that are relatively rich in micronutrients, particularly when contrasted to vegetables such as white cabbage, tomato, and cucumber. For instance, they contain 4 times more iron, 10 times more calcium, and 14 times more vitamin A per 100 g of dry matter. The demand for TAVs is increasing as consumers, especially middle-income Kenyans, are appreciating their health benefits. This has become even more pressing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

IKEA Foundation gave WorldVeg an additional mission: to prove that youth and women can generate income and employment growing vegetables using regenerative agricultural practices. In other words, using the land and environment in such a way that it does not pollute soils and water, harm life or contribute to climate change. This required training and mentoring of large numbers of farmers. For this purpose, and also to facilitate collective marketing of vegetables, WorldVeg, together with SNV, have established 192 Vegetable Business Networks (VBNs). These groups differ from the traditional farmer groups in the sense that they consist not only of producers but also of many other actors in the local vegetable value chains, such as agro-input providers, micro-finance, providers, information and technology providers, traders, wholesalers, and retailers. Each VBN has identified a business coach, selected from its members, who is thoroughly trained on regenerative agricultural technologies, group dynamics, and business skills. The coach cascades the same training to other members.

The power of collective action

In a place near Athi River, Machakos County, the Kayata Farmers Group were in a perfect place to produce vegetables, as they had access to enough water through the Kayata Rural Sacco irrigation scheme. V4P&P introduced them to become a VBN and linked the group to markets. Only a handful of members initially dared to venture into the new initiative in 2021. It involved a commitment to producing at least 200 kg of traditional vegetables per farmer every week, so that the buyer, Winland Enterprises, could collect a minimum of one ton of vegetables once a week. The members also needed to invest in a structure to aggregate the fresh vegetables, so that they stayed clean and fresh before collection.

The market, consisting of a restaurant in Nairobi, as well as Naivas and Quick Mart, demands a mix of traditional vegetables such as managu (black nightshade), terere (amaranth), kunde (cowpea leaves), sagaa (spider plant) and mrenda (jute mallow); this requires coordination of production on behalf of the VBN members. To meet the targets, Kayata Farmers Group self-imposed a fine if a producer failed to reach the minimum target of 200 kg. The business model has grown in popularity and a year later the number of farmers committing themselves to produce for this market has doubled, mostly consisting of young women. The buyers have increased their share, now collecting twice a week, amounting to 2.5 tons a week. As production increased, access to quality seeds of the various vegetables, especially kunde and terere became a constraint. Through the VBN structure and helped by Winland Enterprises, they now have access to certified seeds.

Elsewhere in the country, in the hills of Kisumu County, the Osinde Farmers Group had been growing vegetables but was lacking a profitable market. Strengthened by V4P&P they gathered the courage to ask the Kisumu County Government for a space to sell. They organized themselves and built a retail shop where they now sell collectively twice a week. But it didn’t stop there as they also expanded to the nearby Gita market as well as the Jubilee and other markets in Kisumu town. Some members farm as a group together, whereas other members supply individually, using motorcycles to aggregate the produce at the demonstration site where the VBN members also learn about new agricultural practices, facilitated by experts from WorldVeg, SNV, and Rural Outreach Africa. Every week they supply between 500 and 1000 kg of traditional vegetables. One of the factors to their success is the fact that they grow these vegetables in organic ways, as the demand for safe and nutritious vegetables is constantly increasing. Another factor is that together they can supply consistently throughout the year, which is the key to a sustainable market.

The advantage of selling in bulk to buyers  in big markets such as Winland in Machakos, or wholesale markets in Kisumu is that farmers  can plan production together and each enjoy a steady income. On the other hand, VBN members also sell individually to traders who come and buy at farmgate. Prices at farmgate are often higher, ranging from Sh10 to Sh50 per bunch, depending on the type of vegetable and the season. But the disadvantage is that those buyers are less reliable. In addition to selling vegetables, VBN members are also engaged in other businesses that often make even more profits, such as the selling of vegetable seeds and seedlings. V4P&P targets are that each VBN member while adopting improved regenerative agricultural technologies, will make a profit of at least Sh100,000 per month, some EUR 17.

Improved regenerative agricultural technologies

William Olalo, business coach for Osinde VBN, explains: “Soil health is essential for a healthy vegetable crop. Rather than using expensive fertilizer we use farm yard manure and grow cover crops such as Mucuna that add nitrogen to the soil.” Since the start of V4P&P, producers in Kenya have started to adopt a range of improved practices, such as using improved disease-resistant varieties, drip irrigation, crop rotation, slurry from biodigesters, vermicompost, natural parasites and parasitoids. These practices enhance the recycling of plant nutrients on the farm and promote environmental and human health.

Written by: Ralph Roothaert (WorldVeg) and Leah Mwaura (SNV)