Matundu Mbulu said he was faced with two options when he lost almost everything during the Great Recession in 2007. He could either give up or make the most of what he had left.
“All my plans had fell, I lost everything,” Mbulu, 67, said. “I said ‘OK, I am a scientist, let me start doing a plan.’ Because you are not a scientist if you cannot solve something.”
The Congolese agronomist and soil scientist, who moved to the United States almost 31 years ago, chose the latter and began using the knowledge he gained with his master’s degree at Tuskegee University to start a farm in Sparta, about two hours southeast of Gainesville. The food grown at the farm is now sold at his store at 1175 Thompson Bridge Road, Suite B, in Gainesville.
The store has been open for almost a year, and one of the most popular items are cassava leaves grown on his farm. He said they are a staple in the Congolese diet. He also grows hot peppers and some other vegetables.
Cassava plants are toxic if eaten raw, so they are cooked in many different ways, similar to potatoes. According to the University of Illinois’ RIPE project, cassava can “also be ground up into flour or a starchy meal that is used as a condiment or side dish.” It also says the “leaves can be cooked like spinach.”
Mbulu said he likes to cook the leaves, chop them up and eat them over rice or meat. He said they’re a good source of protein and have a lot of other benefits.
“It’s one of the most popular vegetables in Congo,” Mbulu said. “They can eat it every day because it has a lot of nutrient value.”
Mbulu said the cassava roots he grows are different from many others, though. He said when cassava plants begin to grow roots, the quality of the leaves decreases.
He wanted to fix that. So at his farm in Sparta, he was able to make his own variety of cassava leaves by combining a cassava plant with roots and a cassava plant without roots.
“What people like is cassava with roots,” Mbulu said. “My variety is without roots, but with the quality of plants with roots.”
He said the plant without roots is more sustainable, so combining the two plants was what he knew would make his cassava leaves the best for his customers. But he doesn’t take all the credit. He said he had the idea, but his faith is what helped him create the variety successfully, and he’s happy to provide for other Congolese people in the city.
There are a handful of Congolese families in Gainesville, most of which attend a church service at St. Paul United Methodist Church, after resettling due to violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Here in Gainesville, the Congolese community is growing,” Mbulu said. “And I try to supply their need.”