IOWA CITY, Iowa — Most Iowans don’t know how to cook with pumpkin leaves, hibiscus leaves and amaranth, but Alfred Matiyabo grew up with these African crops and believes he can find new markets in the United States.
Matiyabo, 43, grows greens, eggplant and several varieties of hot peppers on 2.5 acres he rents at the Johnson County Poor Farm.
“I didn’t want to face the competition, so I chose specialty crops that you can’t typically find in your local farmers markets,” he told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Matiyabo’s company, Africando Foods, sells produce online and at local African and international grocery stores. But there are a limited number of these stores in Eastern Iowa, which has caused Matiyabo to drive his produce to stores in Des Moines, southern Illinois and as far as Ohio. Shipping fresh produce also is expensive.
Now he’s thinking of new ways to get his produce to African immigrants and to Iowans interested in trying new foods.
Matiyabo grew up in the Congo, where farmers grow food crops including cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts, yams, beans, peas and rice. Nearly one-third of Congolese people are involved in agriculture, as was Matiyabo’s family.
He went to college at the University of Maine, graduating with an engineering degree in 2004.
“That’s when a lot of jobs were outsourcing,” he said. “I didn’t really work in my field.”
Matiyabo tried farming in Maine and learned about value-added agriculture, which involves turning a raw product into something new, such as the Alfredo Hot Sauce that Matiyabo makes from the peppers he grows.
The hot sauce is available for sale by the bottle at Wawa Caribbean Restaurant, African Family Market and Sisters African Food Market in Cedar Rapids and World Food Market, MODINA African Market and Iowa City Halal Food and Grocery in Iowa City.
Matiyabo moved to Iowa with his family in 2017. He and his wife, Grace Muzemba, have seven kids, 16 months to 17.
He has been farming at the Poor Farm since 2017, first working with the Global Food Project. He started renting 2 acres in 2018 and with the purchase of a tractor this year, hopes to expand to 4 acres next summer.
The Poor Farm, established in 1855 on 160 acres on the edge of Iowa City, originally was a place where the poor and mentally ill could live and work under the county’s care, The Gazette reported in 2019. The county-owned land now has been re-imagined for education, local food production, historic preservation, conservation, recreation and affordable housing.
This year, Matiyabo started growing thousands of plants in a farm greenhouse and moved them outside in June.
Matiyabo had help with this process June 22, when students from United Action for Youth came out to see his farm. The students were from SPARK, a program intended to help middle school and high school students of color explore new hobbies and professions.
Popular foods like peas, beans and rice haven’t always been properly linked to African cultures, said Michael Carter Jr., Small Farm Resource Center coordinator within Virginia State University Extension.
Carter operates Carter Farms in the Piedmont region of Virginia that specializes in growing organic ethnic, African tropical vegetables and serves as a hub for vegetable Afro tourism, according to his website.
“There’s not understanding that many of our (American) foodways are directly involved in African agriculture,” Carter told The Gazette. For example, the word “gumbo” is a derivation of the Senegalese word for okra, which immigrants made into soup, Carter said.
Many Americans think because starvation has plagued some African countries and droughts have reduced agricultural production the continent does not produce healthy, filling and tasty food, Carter said.
“Sweet potato leaves are great leaves nutritionally — more nutritional than kale and collards,” Carter said. “It’s a good-tasting leaf.”
In larger metro areas, such as Washington, D.C., there is demand for greens traditionally grown in Africa, Carter said. But those urban markets aren’t always accessible to rural farmers.
Matiyabo is hoping to expand his freezing capacity so he can sell frozen produce to outlets nationwide. He also would like to get a better delivery truck to transport fresh produce to Midwest stores without fear of it spoiling or being damaged in transit.
“There’s enough markets, it’s just logistics,” he said.
Carter recommends producers of African greens post nutritional information and recipes on their retail sites. The Africando Foods website includes this sort of information, such as how to substitute many of the leaves for spinach.