Direct use values and nutritional potential of selected wild edible plants from Teso-Karamoja Region, Uganda



Save A Seed for the Future (SAFE)


December 2019






Direct Use Values, Wild Edible Plants, Nutritional Potential, Landscapes, Teso-Karamoja Region, Uganda


Samuel Ojelel1,2, James Kalema1, Esther Katuura1, Esezah K. Kakudidi1, Mary Namaganda1 and Patrick Mucunguzi1

1Makerere University, College of Natural Sciences; School of Biosciences; Department of Plant Sciences, Microbiology and Biotechnology; P.O. Box 7062 Kampala, Uganda

2Save A Seed for the Future (SAFE), P.O. Box 703 Soroti, Uganda


The use of wild edible plants is steadily being limited by biodiversity loss. This study therefore sought to investigate the instrumental value of nature in terms of wild edible plant species, their direct use values and the nutritional potential of selected wild edible plant species in the landscapes of the Teso-Karamoja region of Uganda. An assessment of the opportunities, challenges and biodiversity benefits of maintaining these landscapes was also made. Semi-structured questionnaires, focus group discussions and field excursions were used to collect data in the field, and laboratory analysis performed following standard methods. Data was analyzed using relative frequency of citation indices, factor of informant consensus indices and one-way ANOVA. A total of 99 wild edible plant species in 78 genera and 45 families has been documented. The nutritional potential of five species, namely Vigna kirkii (Baker) J.B. Gillett, Maerua angolensis DC., Leptadenia hastata (Schumach. & Thonn.) Decne, Senna obtusifolia (L.) H.S. Irwin & Barneby, and Dioscorea sp., was significantly different at the p=0.05 level. The highest moisture content was 80.74±0.34%/100g in V. kirkii, ash content was 3.95±0.23%/100g in M. angolensis, gross energy was 19.04±370.65Kcal in M. angolensis, dietary fibre was 27.93±0.85%/100g in L. hastata, and crude fat was 3.40±0.13%/100g in L. hastata. Likewise, carbohydrate content was 65.43±2.91g/100g in Dioscorea sp., crude protein was 36.37±0.42%/100g in M. angolensis, ascorbic acid was 14.71±3.56mg/100g in M. angolensis and beta-carotene was 1082.12±0.08μg/100g in S. obtusifolia. The direct use values of wild edible plants include food (99 species), medicine (17 species), woodfuel (39 species), wine (10 species), construction materials (13 species), timber (8 species), crafts (17 species), fodder (3 species), fibre (14 species) and gum (8 species). Species such as B. aegyptiaca, T. indica and V. paradoxa have multiple direct use values. Therefore, a high diversity of wild edible plant species with potential to enhance human well-being exists in the Teso-Karamoja region. This implies that various opportunities can be harnessed from the biodiversity benefits of maintaining landscapes in this region. However, the deteriorating state of the landscapes due to anthropogenic activity is one challenge that needs to be overcome. This inevitably requires adoption of methods to conduct regular assessment and monitoring of the impacts on these landscapes. These findings can be used to create awareness about the nutritional potential of selected species and incentivize the stewardship of species and landscapes in the Teso-Karamoja region of Uganda. Microlevel domestication initiatives, adoption of improved cook stoves and clean energy sources, as well as streamlining the collection, value addition and marketing of natural products, need to be prioritized in this region.

1. Introduction

People conceptualize the “value” of nature as either principles or core beliefs underpinning rules and moral judgement, importance and preferences for something or a particular metric, indicator or symbol (Gonzalez-Jimenez et al. 2018). These values are determined by local, cultural, socio-economic and ecological contexts, shaped by human experiences and change across spatio-temporal dimensions (Gonzalez-Jimenez et al. 2018). Piccolo (2017) summarizes the value of nature into three categories, namely intrinsic (inherent value of nature and its components), instrumental (nature’s contribution to human well-being) and relational (human-nature relationships).

One example of instrumental value is the consumption of wild edible plants to enhance human well-being. This practice is common in most African communities (Maroyi 2011). These plants enable communities to cope with food scarcity (IPC 2017). As a result, they make up a significant proportion of the global food basket (Bharucha & Pretty 2010). Approximately one billion people globally supplement their diets using wild edible plants (Shumsky et al. 2014). Such plants also hold great cultural significance (Shad, Shah & Bakht 2013) and greatly increase the nutritional quality of rural human diets (Msuya, Kideghesho & Mosha 2010). Some of them contain genes that can improve the productivity of domesticated crops (Gockowski et al. 2003). In addition, their sale bolsters household incomes (Maroyi 2011).

Notwithstanding the potential of wild edible plants, their diversity and associated indigenous knowledge globally has not been sufficiently documented (Karjalainen, Sarjala & Raitio 2010). This is worsened by the rampant loss of biological resources (Bhattarai, Chauldhary & Taylor 2007) and erosion of the associated indigenous knowledge (Alves & Rosa 2007). It has been estimated that one in every five plants is at risk of extinction globally (Bachman et al. 2016). In the Teso-Karamoja region, it has been reported that 77%, 66% and 45% of the natural vegetation cover has been lost in the districts of Katakwi, Kotido and Kaberamaido respectively (Drichi 2003).

Although ethnobotanical surveys have been conducted in Uganda (Kakudidi, Bukenya-Ziraba & Kasenene 2004, Agea et al. 2011), the diversity of species in the different locales has not been comprehensively established, largely because the species used are determined by local culture and location (Bortolotto et al. 2015). Therefore, this study was designed to examine the diversity of wild edible plant species, their direct use values and the nutritional potential of five commonly used species in the Teso-Karamoja region of Uganda. This region is comprised mainly of the dryland landscape of Uganda (cattle corridor) and is an important socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL) (Olupot 2015). The drylands are a dry belt stretching between the country’s North eastern and South western borders with an area of 84,000 km2 (Olupot 2015). However, this study was only conducted in the North eastern (Teso-Karamoja) region due to information paucity created by cultural and biogeographical diversity, rampant food scarcity (IPC 2017) and few botanical surveys due to a history of armed conflicts (Kalema 2005). This study also highlights the challenges, opportunities and biodiversity benefits of maintaining landscapes in the region, futuristic assessment and monitoring of impacts, and the institutional framework involved in the management of these landscapes.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1 Study area

The study was conducted in eight forest reserves of the Teso-Karamoja region (see Fig. 1), namely Onyurut, Bululu Hill and Ogera Hills (Teso); and Akur, Kano, Mount Napak, Mount Kadam and Mount Moroto (Karamoja). These forest reserves are found in the dryland landscape and are identified as a socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL) in Uganda (Olupot 2015). The SEPL is comprised of mainly woodlands, grasslands and shrublands (Drichi 2003) (See Fig. 3). This dryland landscape is popularly referred to as the “cattle corridor” and stretches from the South western to the North eastern parts of the country. However, this study was conducted in the North eastern part only. The forest reserves studied have ecological and biodiversity conservation importance (National Forestry Authority 2005). In terms of climate, Teso experiences a humid and hot climate with rainfall between 1,000-1,350 mm annually (Egeru 2012). On the other hand, Karamoja is mainly comprised of semi-arid lands inhabited by pastoralists and agro-pastoralists (Egeru et al. 2014). It receives variable and unpredictable rainfall between 500-800 mm annually (Egeru et al. 2014).

Figure 3. Human settlement in the savannahs on slopes of Mount Moroto, Uganda.

2.2 Ethnobotanical survey

Semi-structured questionnaires, focus group discussions and field excursions were used to collect ethnobotanical data, namely species identity and uses. The questionnaires were administered to 240 respondents in and around the eight forest reserves of the Teso-Karamoja region (see Fig. 2) between November 2017 and May 2018. Focus group discussions were conducted to corroborate responses in the questionnaires, while field excursions were undertaken to collect the voucher specimens of the enumerated wild edible plants. Voucher specimens were identified at Makerere University Herbarium. The five wild edible plants for laboratory analysis were selected based on (i) high frequency of use, (ii) paucity of information on the nutritional potential, and (iii) use as ingredients for making local sauces.

2.3 Laboratory analysis

Analysis of the nutritional composition of four leafy vegetables (See Fig.4) and a tuber was carried out in triplicate following standard methods: Moisture content (AOAC 2016), Ash content (AOAC 1996), Protein (Kirk & Sawyer 1991), Crude fat (AOAC 2016), Dietary fibre (Kirk & Sawyer 1991), Carbohydrate (Nielsen 2003), Gross energy (AOAC 1995), Ascorbic acid (Kirk & Sawyer 1991) and Beta-carotene (De Ritter & Purcell 1981).

consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Figure 4.: Commonly used wild leafy vegetables; A (L. hastata), B (V. kirkii) C (S. obtusifolia) and D (M. angolensis).

2.4 Data analysis

The Relative Frequency of Citation (Tardio & Pardo-de-Santayana 2008) and the Informant Consensus Factor (Trotter & Logan 1986) were determined for each species and use category respectively. The statistical difference in the means of macro-element, ascorbic acid and beta-carotene content was analyzed using one-way ANOVA at P<0.05 in SPSS vers. 16.0.

3. Results

3.1 Socio-economic characteristics of respondentse

A total of 54% female and 46% male respondents were interviewed. They had varying levels of education, whereby 36% had no formal education, 42% primary level, 19% secondary level and only 3% tertiary level. The respondents were comprised of 91% peasant farmers rearing livestock and/or growing crops, 4% petty traders, and 3% fishers, while 2% were civil servants.

3.2 Diversity of wild edible plant species

A total of 99 wild edible plant species in 78 genera and 45 families (Appendix 1) was recorded. These species are in five lifeforms, namely trees, forbs, shrubs, climbers and graminoids, corresponding to 35%, 29%, 26%, 9% and 1% respectively. The families with the highest representation of species are Fabaceae, Moraceae and Malvaceae, each with at least six species each.

3.3 Nutritional potential of the five wild edible plant species

The five wild edible plant species selected for analysis of nutritional potential are shown in Table 1. Table 2, on the other hand, presents the mean values for the macro-element, ascorbic acid and beta-carotene content for each species. A one-away ANOVA test of the means of species showed a significant difference at the P<0.05 level for all the parameters.

3.4 Direct use values

The number of species in each direct use value is summarized in Figure 5. It is worth noting that some species have multiple direct use values. Such species include, but are not limited to B. aegyptiaca, T. indica and V. paradoxa. It is clearly evident that these wild edible plant species serve other multiple purposes in addition to the foods (spices, leafy vegetables, fruits, oils, seeds) derived from them.

4. Discussion

4.1 Diversity of wild edible plant species

The diversity of wild edible plant species (Appendix 1) identified by the local people in the Teso-Karamoja region demonstrates that they still rely on the wild plants for food. Carissa spinarum L, Strychnos innocua Delile, Balanites aegyptiaca (L) Delile, Tamarindus indica L. and Ximenia americana L. were the most cited species. The Rubiaceae, Fabaceae, Anacardiaceae, Amaranthaceae and Moraceae families with the highest number of species are generally among the largest, economically important sources of food and are widespread in the tropics (Maroyi 2011). Trees are the dominant lifeform because the landscapes surveyed are woodlands.

4.2 Use and nutritional value of the five wild edible plants

The wild edible plants documented in this study are used are varying ways. The five major parts used categories are fruits, leafy vegetables, seeds, tubers and gum. Most of species produce edible parts that are eaten without cooking (64%), while the reminder (36%) require cooking or preparation. Some of the species eaten without cooking are fruits from C. spinarum, Psilotrichum axilliflorum Suess and V. doniana. The method of preparation depends on the edible parts. For instance, V. kirkii and S. obtusifolia leafy vegetable preparation starts with plucking young leaves, followed by wilting under direct sunlight for about 30 minutes, washing and then boiling. Thereafter, local salt called “Abalang” is added and then sodium chloride is added to give a good taste. The vegetable can be eaten at this stage, or with sour milk, groundnut or simsim paste added to spice it.

Nutritional parameters in food play different roles in the human diet. Moisture content determines the growth of micro-organisms (Nollet 2004) and the shelf life of food (Agea et al. 2014). All the leafy vegetables in this study have moisture content values between 59 and 80%/100g (see Table 2), which is within the acceptable range of 60-83% moisture content for vegetables (FAO 1986). The Adequate Intake (AI) for dietary fibre ranges from 19-29g per day for different life stages and groups (IOM 2005). Therefore, consuming 100g of L. hastata (27.93±0.85%/100g) per day supplies the AI for normal laxation in adults. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates for different life stages and groups ranges from 130-210 mg per day (IOM 2005). Thus, consuming 200g of Dioscorea sp. daily can ably meet the RDA of carbohydrates for healthy individuals aged 1-70. Ash content is the residue after burning and it represents the total amount of minerals within a food (Nielsen 2003). The lowest ash content was recorded in Dioscorea sp. (0.63%/100g), while the highest was in M. angolensis (3.95%/100g). The AI for crude fat in infants between 0-12 months (30-31g per day) is higher than the values obtained for all the wild edible plants from the Teso-Karamoja region. This conforms to earlier findings that leafy vegetables are inferior sources of crude fat (Agea et al. 2014). The RDA of protein for different life stages and groups ranges from 13-71g per day (IOM 2005). Therefore, consuming 200g of M. angolensis daily (36.39%/100g) supplies the RDA of protein for a lactating mother (71g per day). Dioscorea sp. (16.17Kcal) provides the lowest gross energy while M. angolensis provides the highest (19.94Kcal). However, there is no RDA for energy because energy intake that is above the Estimated Energy Requirement (EER) would be expected to result in weight gain (IOM 2005). The RDA of ascorbic acid for different life stages and groups aged 1-70 is 15-120mg per day (IOM 2005). Therefore, consuming 100g of M. angolensis (14.72mg/100g) daily can meet the RDA of individuals aged 1-3. The RDA for beta-carotene for different life stages and groups aged 1-70 is 300-1,300µg per day (IOM 2005). Thus, consuming 100g of S. obtusifolia (1,082µg/100g) meets the RDA of healthy males and females aged 9-70.

4.3 Direct use values

The consumption of wild edible plant species in the Teso-Karamoja region is highly valued due to: (i) hunger due to food scarcity, (ii) spicing staple foods, (iii) preservation of cultural practices, (iv) nutri-medicinal value and (v) their delicacy. Zanthoxylum leprieurii Guill. & Perr was a commonly mentioned nutri-medicinal plant for flavoring tea but also used in treating various ailments.

The direct use values of wild edible plants enhance human nutrition, healthcare, housing and energy (see Fig. 3). Earlier studies have also reported this pattern, for instance in Nepal, where 80 percent of 62 wild food plants have multiple uses (Shrestha & Dhillon 2006), and in the Mekong Delta and Central Vietnamese Highlands, where several wild food species are used as medicine and livestock feed and one-fifth are used as all the three (Ogle et al. 2003).

The direct use values of the wild edible plants offer opportunities, which include but are not limited to low-cost and low-input boost to human nutrition; enhancement of household incomes through the sale of natural products such as shea butter, gum Arabic, tamarinds, etc.; provision of employment opportunities especially to women and youth; sustainable harvesting of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) and apiaries. In a nutshell, the landscapes in the Teso-Karamoja region make a vital contribution towards Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA).

The sustenance of values from these landscapes is however, being threatened by detrimental human activity. Examples of such anthropogenic activities include indiscriminate tree cutting for woodfuel (charcoal and firewood), clearing for agricultural expansion, as well as demand for land for settlement caused by the high population growth rate. Olupot (2015) observed that although wild resources such as fruit plants may be appreciated by local people in the Teso region, this has not translated into their active retention, and instead resources are being decimated by unsustainable uses, for example wood over-exploitation. It has also been noted that weak forest management capacity has largely contributed to the poor state of forest reserves in Uganda (Obua, Agea & Ogwal 2010).

It ought to be noted that the benefits of maintaining biodiversity are enormous, although not well appreciated by many. As illustrated by some of the instrumental values of wild edible plants in Figure 3, biodiversity has a huge potential to enhance the well-being of mankind, especially in rural smallholder communities. In this way, these landscapes represent a vibrant depot where communities collect multiple items (see Fig. 3). The species, landscapes and associated Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in the Teso-Karamoja region represent living libraries where cultural heritage is being preserved for posterity. The benefit of biodiversity in this region is even critical because the majority of the population are peasants predominantly engaged in rain-fed subsistence agriculture. In addition to Figure 3, plant diversity in this region also offers services such as nutrient cycling, eco-tourism opportunities, and maintenance of water quality in the rivers running through the mountainous and hilly areas of Moroto, Nakapiripirit, Kano and Akur, as well as the water catchment areas of Lakes Bisina, Opeta and Kyoga.

4.4 Assessment and monitoring of values and benefits

The design of effective conservation actions is premised on accurate biodiversity information (Lovett et al. 2000). In order to generate this information in the landscapes of the Teso-Karamoja region, a mixture of methods ought to be pursued. For instance, spatio-temporal surveys of key indicator taxa, such as vascular plants, birds and arthropods, can offer vital information on species richness and diversity. Furthermore, measures of landscape structure, land use change as well as intensity of human activity are pertinent. This combined with remote sensing can help assess the spatio-temporal aerial extent of these landscapes.

In terms of assessing the value of nature in these landscapes, different methods can as well be used. These include but are not limited to: (i) ecological valuation such as field visits and species richness, (ii) socio-cultural valuation such as ethnographic studies, participatory approaches, interviews, cartography, etc. and (iii) economic valuation such as choice experiments. As a precaution, when planning for value assessment, it is pertinent to recall that the choice of valuation methods is not only a technical but also a political decision because underlying worldviews will determine which types of value, valuation approaches and methods may be perceived as appropriate in any given context (Gonzalez-Jimenez et al. 2018).

4.5 Institutional frameworks on management of landscapes

The level of awareness and adoption of the concept of Socio Ecologically Productive Landscapes (SEPLs) in the Teso-Karamoja region (Uganda at large) is still in its infancy. The institutions include clans with clan elders as custodians of TEK and advocates of principles and values, and cultural institutions such as the Iteso Cultural Union and Karamoja Women Cultural Group. These advocate for the preservation of TEK for posterity. Recently, the concept of SEPLs has been championed by Nature and Livelihoods, a civil society organization in the Teso region. This is now followed by another organization, Save Aseed for the Future (SAFE), in this region. At the national level, the epitome of this movement was the formation of the Satoyama Initiative National Network (SINN) for Uganda in 2016. On the side of government, both local and national institutions exist to advocate for the protection and sustainability of biodiversity and ecosystems. These include local government departments, parastatal bodies like the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), National Forestry Authority (NFA), and ministries such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) and directorates.

Appreciation of the value of nature has elicited various decisions and actions. These include among others, parkland farming systems; cultural beliefs and ethics attached to individual species; community by-laws; home and kitchen gardens; local government ordinances; afforestation and reforestation programs; adoption of improved cook stoves; environmentally-friendly sources of income like bee-keeping; clean energy sources like solar energy; research and development of natural products; trade in natural products like gum Arabic, shea nuts, shea butter, tamarinds and desert dates; protected areas like forest reserves; legislation such as the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act 2003; and ratification of international conventions, targets and agreements such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. 

5. Conclusion and recommendations

A high diversity of wild edible plant species and direct use values exist in the Teso-Karamoja region of Uganda. The nutritional potential of the five wild edible plant species analyzed can be harnessed to bolster human nutrition among communities in the region. Generally, the wild edible plants encountered in this region contribute to improving human well-being. Opportunities are, however, being threatened by a number of challenges that need to be addressed. It is therefore recommended that (not in order of relevance):

  1. a handbook of wild edible plants and their values is produced for this region as a step towards preserving cultural heritage for posterity. This will give ownership of Indigenous Knowledge to this community in the event of any bioprospecting agreement.
  2. awareness is raised regarding the nutritional potential of the wild edible plants investigated. This will greatly improve their appreciation and stimulate the protection of individual species and the landscapes where they are found.
  • mineral content and anti-nutrient profiling is carried-out on these wild edible plant species.
  1. assessment of the multiple values of nature in the landscapes of the Teso-Karamoja region is carried out in order to reveal power asymmetries in land use and in decision-making. It is envisaged that this will promote formulation of equitable and just development-related decisions.
  2. microlevel domestication initiatives for key wild edible plants are encouraged and supported. This can be through vegetable gardens, kitchen gardens, parklands and home gardens.
  3. the collection, value addition and marketing of natural products such gum Arabic, shea nuts, and tamarinds are streamlined. This will contribute to the bolstering of community incomes and eventually to incentivizing the stewardship of the landscapes where these species are found.
  • improved cook stoves and clean energy are promoted widely in the region in order to reduce the felling of wild edible plants (especially trees) for woodfuel (firewood and charcoal).


Funding for this study was provided by the German Academic Exchange Service through the In-Country/In-Region programme to Samuel Ojelel. It has not been submitted to the IPSI Secretariat as a case study.


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