Mr. Mudenga is a farmer in Binga District, whose life has been changed by what he calls the ‘Rubies of Binga’. Binga is one of the driest and most disadvantaged places in Zimbabwe. The road network and general infrastructure are very poor, leading to its isolation and largely contributing to the overall poverty of the area. The remote location means there are few employment and market opportunities. The little rainfall the area receives is erratic; agriculture is unreliable and livestock holdings are relatively small. Mr. Mudenga struggled to feed his family of six and could barely afford to send his children to school.

What are these ‘rubies’ that have made such a difference to Mr Mudenga’s life? They are fruits from a type of hibiscus plant known scientifically as Hibiscus sabdariffa; commonly called Rosella. Rosella can be grown over a wide range of climates: it does very well in drier, warmer regions but also grows well under high rainfall. It is ideal for traditional cotton growing areas like Binga.

Rosella for export

Organic Africa, a private business, assists people in Binga to grow Rosella and sell it to international markets. Mr. Mudenga took up the opportunity to raise an income for his family and was thrilled to find that Rosella farming brings in more than growing cotton ever did. The plant is easy to grow and few inputs are required. Mr. Mudenga managed to raise $400 from a hectare of Rosella with which he was able to send his children to school, invest in growing other drought-resistant crops to feed his family and have surplus cash to replace livestock animals which had been lost due to drought.

The first records of Rosella date back to 1687 in Java, Indonesia, where the leaves were sold as a food (a spicy spinach) and the calyces (dried fruits) as a medicinal tea. It fetched high prices and spread with speed onto the ships of the explorers who made a tea from the brilliant red calyces to treat the sailors’ scurvy, sore throats, colds, influenza and chest ailments. Ever since it has been used in folk medicine as a diuretic, mild laxative, and treatment for cardiac and nerve diseases particularly in Asia and East Africa.

Mr Mudenga surrounded by his 'rubies'
Mr Mudenga surrounded by his ‘rubies’

The many uses of Rosella

Today, the fleshy red calyces are used for making wine, juice, jam, jelly, syrup, spice, gelatin, ice cream and flavours and also brewed into tea, and used as sauce or filling for pies, tarts, and other desserts. The calyces can also be merely chopped and added to fruit salads. They are increasingly exported to the United States and Europe, where they are used as food colourings to replace some synthetic dyes.

The young leaves and tender stems are eaten raw in salads or cooked as greens alone or in combination with other vegetables and/or with meat. They are also added to curries as seasoning. A lotion made from the leaves is used on sores and wounds.

The seeds are considered excellent feed for chickens. Oil extracted from the seed is a pharmaceutical ingredient for ointments treating different skin conditions, as well as for skin moisturizing. The residue after oil extraction is valued as cattle feed when available in quantity.

Rosella has numerous properties that make it beneficial to our health. It is very rich in Vitamin C and a good source of calcium and iron. It has properties that are excellent in reducing hypertension (high blood pressure). It also carries a property that stops the absorption of carbohydrates which is great for those that have diabetes as well as those that are trying to control their weight. The calyces are rich in anti-oxidants, which are great for preventing premature ageing of the skin, as well as anti-viral properties.

Where can you buy it?

Dried rosella calyces can be purchased from Bio-innovation Zimbabwe (20 Garlands Ride, Mount Pleasant) and at Maasdorp Market (Wednesday), Food for Life Market (Thursday, Phillips Ave, Belgravia) or Amanzi Market (Friday). Four Seasons produces a rosella tea from calyces bought from Binga farmers.

Check out our recipe section for some rosella recipes.