IOWA CITY, Iowa — Most Iowans don’t know how to cook with squash leaves, hibiscus leaves and amaranth, but Alfred Matiyabo grew up with these African crops and thinks they may find new markets in the United States.
Matiyabo, 43, grows vegetables, eggplants and several varieties of hot peppers on 2.5 acres that he rents from Johnson County Poor Farm.
“I didn’t want to face competition, so I chose specialty crops that you can’t normally find at local farmers markets,” he told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Matiyabo’s company, Africando Foods, sells products online and in local African and international supermarkets. But there are a limited number of these stores in eastern Iowa, which has prompted Matiyabo to bring its products to stores in Des Moines, southern Illinois and as far as Ohio. Shipping fresh produce is also expensive.
Now he’s thinking of new ways to get his products to African immigrants and Iowans interested in trying new foods.
Matiyabo grew up in the Congo, where farmers grow food crops such as cassava, bananas, corn, peanuts, yams, beans, peas and rice. Nearly a third of Congolese are farmers, as is 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 outsourced,” he said. “I didn’t really work in my field.”
Matiyabo got a taste of farming in Maine and learned about value-added farming, which is turning a raw product into something new, like the hot Alfredo 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 children, ages 16 to 17 months.
He has been farming at Poor Farm since 2017, first working with the Global Food Project. She started leasing 2 acres in 2018 and with the purchase of a tractor this year, she hopes to expand to 4 acres next summer.
The Poor Farm, established in 1855 on 160 acres outside of Iowa City, was originally 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 it has been reinvented for education, local food production, historic preservation, conservation, recreation, and affordable housing.
This year, Matiyabo began growing thousands of plants in an agricultural greenhouse and moved them outside in June.
Matiyabo received help with this process on June 22, when students from United Action for Youth came to see his farm. The students were from SPARK, a program aimed at helping middle and high school students of color explore new hobbies and careers.
Popular foods like peas, beans and rice haven’t always been properly associated with African cultures, said Michael Carter Jr., coordinator of the Small Farm Resource Center within Virginia State University Extension.
Carter operates Carter Farms in the Piedmont region of Virginia, which specializes in growing organic ethnic African tropical vegetables and serves as a hub for Afro-vegetable tourism, according to its website.
“It is not understood that many of our (American) ways of eating are directly involved in African agriculture,” Carter told The Gazette. For example, the word “gumbo” is derived from the Senegalese word for okra, which immigrants turned into soup, Carter said.
Many Americans think that because famine has affected some African countries and droughts have reduced agricultural production, the continent is not producing healthy, abundant and tasty food, Carter said.
“Sweet potato greens are excellent leaves nutritionally, more nutritious than kale and collard greens,” Carter said. “It’s a good-tasting leaf.”
In larger metropolitan areas, such as Washington, DC, there is a demand for vegetables that are traditionally grown in Africa, Carter said. But those urban markets are not always accessible to rural farmers.
Matiyabo hopes to expand its freezing capacity so that it can sell frozen products to outlets across the country. He would also like to have a better delivery truck to transport fresh produce to stores in the Midwest without fear of spoilage or damage in transit.
“There are enough markets, it’s just logistics,” he said.
Carter recommends African vegetable growers post nutritional information and recipes on their retail sites. The Africando Foods website includes this type of information, such as how to substitute many of the leaves for spinach.