To a wayfarer, vendors selling tsenza (Livingstone potato, Plectranthus esculentus) in the small farming town of Rusape are just like any other vendors.
But tsenza is what makes Rusape tick.
Tsenza is an edible indigenous tuber commonly grown in both dry and wetland areas in the Eastern districts of Zimbabwe (notably Gandanzara, Temaruru, Tandi, Tiki Tiki and Nerwande in Makoni district, and parts of Nyanga).
The tsenza market
Vendors in Rusape buy tsenza in bulk from suppliers for around $6 for a 20 litre bucket. They then repack the tubers into small packets which they sell for 50 cents, $1 and $2.
Fifty-year-old Norest Mugwambi became a tsenza vendor back in 1998 having been retrenched from government as part of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP).
“Selling tsenza is still profitable. I buy a bucket for $6 and I get $6 profit. Its 100% profit,” Mugwambi said.
He however admitted that the business has become fiercely competitive as many people are now into vending tsenza.
“These days it is impossible to sell one bucket a day as competition is very stiff and money is scarce on the market,” he said. “It now takes at least two days to sell a bucket but three years ago I could sell three buckets a day”.
The vendors sell peeled or unpeeled tsenza depending on the customer preference.
“Some customers want them peeled while others prefer to peel the tsenza for themselves,” he said.
Mugwambi has since employed two people to help sell tsenza to motorists and travellers in the Rusape central business district and along the highway.
“I do my business with my wife here at my stall (at Vengere market) while my employees sell the tsenza in the CBD and along the highway,” he said.
Though, generally things are getting harder in Zimbabwe, one can however make a decent living through selling tsenza.
“I have four children, two of whom are still in high school and I am managing to pay for their fees. I am also able to pay rentals for a house in Rusape as well as buying food and other needs through selling tsenza. I recently bought a residential stand I will soon build my own house,” Mugwambi said.
Another tsenza vendor in Rusape, Netsai Makoni said tsenza made the town of Rusape unique.
A distinctive flavour and texture
“Some people from other areas passing through the town ask what these tubers are. Tsenza makes our town different and unique as you cannot talk of tsenza in Manicaland without mentioning Rusape. We are proud of this crop and we are going to keep our town unique. Our children will take from us and keep the tsenza tradition alive,” Makoni said.
Tsenza are mostly popular in Manicaland. When eaten raw they are crunchy and juicy with a fresh, tangy taste somewhat reminiscent of water chestnuts. To people who are not used to tsenza, this taste is surprisingly sharp but to tsenza lovers, that’s what make the tubers mouth-watering.
Tsenza are also useful because they are extremely versatile. They can be boiled, roasted, baked or fried like any common potatoes in everyday recipes. And still tsenza can be dried and stored for later use.
Besides being a source of food, experts say that tsenza may have important medicinal value. It has been used in eastern and southern Africa to treat intestinal worms. It has also cytotoxic and anti-tumour activity, according to www.kew.org.
Tsenza is a yellow flowered member of the mint family (not related to ordinary potatoes despite the name). It produces elongated edible tubers between April and September. The crop has been a major part of the diet in the eastern districts notably Rusape and Nyanga since time immemorial.
Besides, its contribution to food security and diversification of the local food base, production of tsenza provides income for rural Zimbabweans, particularly women who are actively involved in the cultivation of this crop.
Research published by Biodiversity international has shown that tsenza production does not require the use of fertilisers. In fact, experts say that fertilizer applications encourage development of oversized tubers, affecting taste and texture and reducing the shelf-life.
Despite tsenza being an important crop not only in Rusape and Nyanga but the whole country, researchers have largely ignored it and there are no agronomic recommendations being developed for growers.
However the dearth of general information on the crop has led to the loss of interest in its cultivation and consequently, a gradual loss of tsenza germplasm. Hopefully the new market interest in Rusape will kick start wider promotion and cultivation of this underutilized crop.