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The first time Fatie Sore sowed the seeds of a plant called African nightshade, her curiosity about the vegetable was tinged with apprehension. She had never grown it before — in fact, she had never even heard of it before Helen Keller provided her with its seeds.

But here she was, planting nightshade and two other unfamiliar crops, African aubergine and jute mallow, in the reddish soil of her village, Abaza, in eastern Burkina Faso. Fatie is a participant in a project funded by Global Affairs Canada called CHANGE (Creating Homestead Agriculture for Nutrition and Gender Equity). Through CHANGE — which also provided seeds of conventional vegetables and legumes, such as tomato, peppers, spinach, and cowpea — Fatie was able to experiment with high-performing varieties of traditional African vegetables.

Referring to a vegetable as “traditional” can cause some confusion:  though these crops may be commonly grown in one region of Africa, or were grown in the past, they are not necessarily known throughout the continent’s diverse cultures and agronomic zones. Indeed, agriculture worldwide is currently reliant on a small number of crop varieties, with three grains (wheat, maize, and rice) providing more than half of all plant-derived calories.

There is often little crop diversity in places like Abaza. However, because farmers in Africa have historically made use of a wide range of indigenous crops, rediscovering this variety can be invaluable for farmers affected by challenging climates and conditions. It not only aids them in addressing issues of food insecurity and market viability, but it can also help them manage risks and be more resilient when facing stresses like pest infestations.

Greater crop diversity also leads to a more diverse and nutritious diet. Dark green leaves, like those of African nightshade, are rich in essential vitamins and minerals that are not found in common starchy staples, such as millet and maize. Another benefit of these crops is that they add flavor to a sometimes monotonous diet. The ongoing cultivation of diverse crops also helps to ensure their conservation and continued adaptation to new environments, thereby increasing the resilience of global agriculture.

Since this was her first African nightshade crop, Fatie watched expectantly as the young plants sprouted, wondering what they would look like as mature plants. She was eager to discover their taste and the best ways to use them in her family’s meals. But she also knew she was taking a risk.  She might suffer a loss by planting this unknown crop instead of locally established crops like roselle, bean, and spinach.

Such concerns about new crops are common in marginal environments like Abaza’s, where there is little opportunity for replanting if a crop fails. Though cultivation in small-scale home gardens helps to lessen this threat, HKI also makes sure that participants are supported with regular demonstrations in communal plots, called “model farms.” These fenced plots of land provide effective teaching platforms in which novel techniques can be tested, and the women who became “leader farmers” can then train others in their communities how to use the new techniques.

Fatie, who received this additional training along with 119 other women, grew increasingly enthusiastic about her experimentation with novel crops.  She was delighted that, only four weeks after planting the African nightshade, her plot was growing greener every day. And she eagerly tried out the techniques she learned from Helen Keller, including careful pruning of the plants to increase the number of leaves. When her neighbors came by, she would boast about the delicious greens they would soon enjoy.

After harvesting her very first nightshade plants, Fatie brought a few leaves to share with others in her neighborhood.  But her friends were reluctant to try cooking them. They said they didn’t know how they would taste or even how to go about preparing them. They were concerned that their families would not accept the new vegetable.

Fatie felt discouraged as she headed back home with the nightshade leaves in her hands.  But suddenly she heard an eager shout:  “But that’s loudo! Where did you get that!?”  She turned to see a friend who had recently returned from visiting relatives in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and was pointing excitedly at the leaves. African nightshade might be unknown in Abaza, but a few hundred miles to the southwest it was a popular and well-loved dish. Fatie’s friend was certain that “loudo” would be appreciated once their neighbors tasted it.

In fact, a week later CHANGE staff organized a cooking demonstration to show how the nightshade leaves could be prepared and to give people a chance to taste them in various dishes. This was also an opportunity to discuss the importance of including dark, leafy greens like nightshade in the diet and to note how vitamin-A-rich foods can lessen the risk of malnutrition, especially among children and young mothers.

In the end, tasting was believing.  Fatie’s once-skeptical neighbors were now eager to buy her nightshade leaves — and to begin cultivating their own crops for use at home and for sale.

Through the CHANGE project, 12 new crop varieties — including another vitamin A-rich crop, orange-fleshed sweet potato — were introduced, and the training model reached 2,500 people.  In just three years, more than 165 tons of crops were produced. And to encourage sustainability, farmers were also trained in seed production, yielding a total of 15.6 kg of seeds.

It remains to be seen whether African nightshade will become an indispensable ingredient in the kitchens and markets of eastern Burkina Faso. But if Fatie’s successes are any indication, the vegetable’s future there is much sunnier than its name would suggest!