Robots and romance: Reviving South Africa’s love for morogo

Dec 1, 2015

Strange as it might sound, a new variety of Maggi noodles is using a common plant that some people dismiss as a weed. It’s a potentially risky strategy for such a well-known brand, but there is sound reasoning behind the launch, and serious research to back it up.

‘Morogo’ or ‘South African spinach’ refers to different varieties of green leafy vegetable that grow wild in South Africa, and a popular dish of the same name. Traditionally, these vegetables formed a much-loved part of the nation’s diet, but urbanisation and changing attitudes to food in the countryside have led to a decline in their popularity.

Much as Europeans have traditionally foraged for mushrooms, generations of South Africans have gathered morogo (which is high in protein, vitamins and minerals), to fry, boil or steam, and serve with onions or tomatoes.

‘Authentic taste of South Africa’

In its new format, morogo is causing a stir on South African supermarket shelves. Until today it has never been farmed on a serious commercial scale, but now Nestlé is using morogo in the ‘tastemaker’ sachet used to flavour and fortify its Maggi noodles.

“Many packaged food brands claim to cater for local tastes, but Maggi with morogo genuinely does so. We’re offering people an authentic taste of South Africa and bringing a nutritious ingredient to urban dwellers, in particular, through a product that is quick and easy to prepare,” says Maarit Rein, a scientist working at Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The new Nestlé noodles developed out of a partnership with South Africa’s Council for Scientific Investigation and Research (CSIR) and Agricultural Research Council (ARC) from 2012, to research plants growing there with clear health benefits, for potential use in foods to improve the nation’s diet.

Taste, nutritional quality and abundance were three things that the scientists were looking for in an ingredient. It had to be possible to process it for use in a food product, and it was vital that the ingredient provide farmers with an income source. Crucially, it also had to appeal to millions of South Africans.

Nestlé and its partners decided to research three species of morogo – amaranthus, cow pea and cleome – and worked closely with farmers to perfect their cultivation, and to refine the plants into a powder that preserved their nutritional benefits.

Robots get that gut feeling

Getting a robot to eat its greens doesn’t seem the most obvious way to assess morogo’s nutritional potential, but this is exactly what the team did. Maarit Rein explains how they used an ‘artificial gut’ to compare the three varieties.

“An artificial gut is like a robot with a stomach and digestive tubes,” Rein says. “It allowed us to measure the quantities of different nutrients released from morogo during digestion, to assess their ‘bioavailability’ – their capacity to be absorbed into the bloodstream.”

Following this work the scientists chose amaranthus as the winning variety of morogo, due to its high levels of beta carotene, minerals and protein in particular.

Yet while robots are increasingly valuable to help us better understand the nutritional qualities of food, they lack emotional intelligence. The team wanted to make sure that any product made with morogo captured its distinctive South African soul.

Nestlé asked South Africans from many different social backgrounds if they knew morogo. If so, what did they associate the vegetables with? Would they buy them if they were more widely available? And if so, in what format – in a canned product, for instance, or a herbal tea?

“We tried to think outside the box in terms of suggesting where morogo might appear, even going beyond the Nestlé portfolio and suggesting new things,” Rein says.

Getting people to eat their greens too

Despite this creative thinking, one of Nestlé biggest brands, Maggi 2-minute noodles, emerged as people’s favourite product in which to use morogo, because of its popularity and ease of preparation.

Nestlé’s consumer research also showed that Morogo’s distinctive ‘South African taste’ is integral to its appeal across all ethnicities and income groups.

But it’s not just the taste that appeals, as Maarit Rein explains: “Using such a healthy ingredient is consistent with Nestlé’s commitment as a responsible company to promote vegetable consumption.”

Maggi noodles with real morogo are now being produced at Nestlé’s factory in Babelegi, north of Pretoria. If the launch proves successful, then Nestlé will work with farmers and the government, to develop the morogo supply chain and create lasting social value in South Africa.

“This remains our long-term goal,” says Rein. “But I’m proud of what Nestlé and our partners have already achieved with morogo over the past three years.”