Based on direct observations in all the focal markets, we estimated that between 5 and 10% of the vendors were selling vegetables, of which 20–50% sold leafy vegetables. Some of these vendors were commercializing their products in established stalls and others placed their produce in small baskets on the floor, which was the case for most selling chaya. Besides Spanish, a third of the vegetable vendors interviewed in the markets also spoke Mayan languages: Cakchiquel and Quiche (Guatemala City), Kekchi (Petén), and Mam (Chiquimula). Around 80% of the informants and all those selling chaya were women, who according to respondents “understand business better than men.” In Guatemala City, 22% of the vendors interviewed knew about chaya, while all of those in Petén (100%) and the majority in the Dry Corridor (77%) were aware of this plant. Only 14 of the 54 respondents were selling chaya at the time of the interviews (Table 2).
Finding chaya in the focal markets was difficult and we were only able to encounter it on sale in 6 of the 12 surveyed markets: Central and Palmita in Guatemala City, San Benito and Santa Elena in Petén, and Jocotán and Central in Chiquimula. In these markets chaya was sold in bundles (Fig. 3), made by 15–25 fresh leaves tied together with string (weighing approximately 250 g/bundle) and in small amounts (10–15 bundles). Estrella and Mansa were the varieties sold in Guatemala City and Chiquimula, whereas Estrella was the only type found in Petén.
In Petén and Chiquimula, chaya vendors were predominantly farmers who produced the leaves in their homegardens and brought a mean 70% of their fresh production to the markets for direct sale to consumers. In other cases, vendors bought chaya directly from producers. The vendors reached the market by bus, taxi, bicycle, foot, or a combination of them, taking them around 30–60 min to arrive. However, vendors from remote communities reported deficient infrastructure and limited access to transportation, which makes it difficult to access the market. In Guatemala City, a similar situation for chaya supply was observed, except that some vendors in smaller markets (Central and Palmita) were found to source chaya from La Terminal, a large wholesale market which is an important hub for agricultural products coming from across Guatemala. Other leafy vegetables generally had a similar value chain pathway as chaya, although with more links to large wholesale markets.
Due to limited demand in Guatemala City, vendors sell chaya mostly on request at higher prices. They reported selling a mean 3 bundles/week at a price of 0.6 USD/bundle (exchange rate at the time of study: 1 USD = 7.33 Quetzal/GTQ). In the other sites, sales volumes were generally higher, but prices lower. In Petén, vendors sold a mean 10 bundles/week at a price of 0.45 USD/bundle. In Chiquimula sales volumes were more variable, ranging from 1 bundle/week in the Central market to 24 bundles/week in Jocotán, with mean prices of 0.22–0.41 USD/bundle. With these rates, we estimated that a vendor could make a mean of 9 USD per month from chaya sales in Guatemala City, 22 USD in Petén, and 12 USD in Chiquimula, with a mean rate of return at 41%, 26%, and 9%, respectively (ESM, Appendix 4). Although chaya sales only represent a mean 1.5% of vendors’ gross income from vegetable sales, they contribute to covering production and transaction costs.
Vendors interviewed were selling a total of 25 species of leafy vegetables and herbs, of which the most important, based on their demand, included chipilín (Crotalaria longirostrata Hook. & Arn.), black nightshade (Solanum americanum Mill. and S. nigrescens M. Martens & Galeotti), chard, spinach, watercress (Nasturtium officinale R.Br.), leaf amaranth (Amaranthus sp.), lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.), squash leaves (Cucurbita sp.), coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.), parsley (Petroselinum crispum Mill. Fuss), and spearmint (Mentha spicata L.; ESM, Appendix 5). Prices of these leafy vegetables ranged from 0.14–1.23 USD/bundle over the year, noting that their bundles were similar in size and weight as chaya’s. In Guatemala City, the price of chaya was one of the highest of all leafy vegetables on offer, only surpassed by spinach (Fig. 4). By contrast, in Chiquimula, chaya’s price was the lowest compared to other leafy vegetables; while in Petén it was mid-range. Vendors explained that the prices of edible leaves, including chaya, tend to be higher by 0.14–0.27 USD/bundle in the summer (December–May) as compared to the winter or rainy season (June–November) because production is lower, access to water is limited, and only people with access to irrigation produce enough to sell.
Low consumer demand was a reason mentioned by 88% of all the vendors interviewed for not selling chaya and preferring to trade other vegetables instead. Some vendors observed that people have lost the habit of consuming chaya and are not aware of its nutritional and medicinal qualities. Another reason for low demand for chaya in Petén and Chiquimula was the fact that it is grown in many households’ homegardens, and thus people do not need to purchase it from the market. In these areas, around a third of vendors also expressed that there is a stigma on chaya as “food of the poor” that reduces demand and makes them embarrassed to sell it. Around 75% of vendors in Guatemala City who do not sell chaya and 60% of those in Petén and the Dry Corridor expressed their willingness to start selling it, provided that a high demand and good sale price were in place, which would be enough incentive to produce or procure it.
In contrast to the situation seen in Guatemala, chaya vendors were easily found in the selected markets in Merida, Mexico. These vendors sold the leaves either by weight or in plastic bags each containing 20–30 leaves. The quantity of chaya sold, as well as the frequency of the sales in the markets visited, was higher than that observed in Guatemala. Chaya was usually sold every day at prices that ranged from 1.5–3.5 USD/kg. In the urban markets visited, a vendor reported selling a mean 80 kg of chaya per week, while in the rural market a vendor sold around 27.5 kg/week. Vendors interviewed stated that demand for chaya is higher than for other leafy vegetables, such as spinach and lettuce, because of its importance in Maya culture and traditional gastronomy. For instance, chaya sales double during the week of Easter because it is a key ingredient of typical dishes consumed during this holiday. Chaya was also easily found in many restaurants, food stores, and supermarkets (e.g., Walmart) in Merida, suggesting that this crop is much more popular here than in Guatemala. Respondents moreover highlighted that is customary for houses in Merida to have at least one chaya plant in the homegarden.
Among the consumers interviewed in the markets, 20% in Guatemala City stated that they knew about chaya, versus 100% in Petén and 70% in the Dry Corridor. The majority (75%) of those who knew chaya consumed it occasionally. In Guatemala City, only one of the 10 respondents consumed chaya, consumption that was motivated by knowledge of its nutritional value and availability in the homegarden.
More than half (60%) the consumers in Petén and 10% in the Dry Corridor consumed chaya out of custom as they grew up eating it at home, while its nutritional and/or medicinal values were a primary motivation for 40% and 90% of them to consume chaya, respectively. Across all sites, a family of six members consumed a mean two bundles of chaya per week, which they procured from their homegarden, neighbors, or market. When not available at home, consumers in Petén estimated to buy 1–2 bundles/week, while those in the Dry Corridor bought 2–3 bundles/week. Besides chaya, consumers reported purchasing a mean of 7 bundles/month of other edible leaves, such as black nightshade, chipilín, spinach, chard, and watercress to use in soups, salads, rice, with eggs and tamales (steamed maize dough wrapped in maize husk).
Overall, 60% of chaya consumers said they would like to increase their consumption, but they noted that its availability in markets is unreliable. Forty percent of chaya consumers were not interested in increasing their intake because they already consume enough; and also, interviewees in Chiquimula stated that their children prefer the taste of chipilín or black nightshade over chaya. Of the consumers in Guatemala City and the Dry Corridor that never heard about chaya, almost all (92%) were interested to try it because of its nutritional and medicinal properties that were explained during the interviews.
There are small restaurants known as “Comedores” located in the focal markets in Guatemala City, Petén, and the Dry Corridor. Only one of the 14 Comedores found in the visited markets reported using chaya as an ingredient in one of its dishes. This restaurant was located in Zacapa market, where a chaya soup is served for 0.68 USD when clients request it in advance, which tends to happen around twice a month. According to owners of the Comedores interviewed in Petén, Chiquimula, and Zacapa, most of their clients come from rural communities where they usually eat traditional vegetables like chaya; thus they prefer eating something different when visiting the market. The most popular foods offered in these restaurants include fried chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas (thin flatbread, made from ground maize cooked in limewater).
In Petén, we found a restaurant named “La Chaya,” where a diversity of dishes with chaya are offered. The restaurant’s mission, according to its owner, is to contribute to safeguarding the country’s food and Maya culture, and make its gastronomy better known and appreciated. This unique restaurant targets tourists and affluent consumers, offering dishes ranging from chaya tamales to more elaborate recipes (e.g., omelets, pasta) that cannot be found elsewhere in Petén. We were not able to find any other restaurant in the focal sites that includes chaya in its menus.
Processing Industry Surveys
The expert and internet surveys revealed that a few private companies are processing and selling nutraceutical products based on chaya (ESM, Appendix 6). We were able to interview the owners of four of these companies: Eurotropic, Sanue, Chaya Herbal, and Chaya Trading. In their marketing campaigns, these companies advertise chaya for its nutritional and health benefits, including preventing and treating obesity, anemia, kidney disease, and diabetes. Most of these benefits are known from anecdotal information, and at least the last three have been supported by clinical trials with mice (Oladeinde et al. 2007). These companies have been selling chaya products for more than five years and according to them, they are gaining good acceptance, even though we were not able to have access to their sales volumes.
Eurotropic is the only Guatemalan-based company among those identified. It sells chaya flour and capsules on a small-scale but at high prices (27–34 USD/package) in Guatemala and occasionally in the USA and Canada. An important challenge this company faces is the limited demand as a result of consumers’ low awareness about chaya and its multiple benefits. However, the owner’s connections with traders and the promotion of the products in international markets and agricultural fairs are key advantages for the company. We located a health food store in Antigua (Guatemala) that occasionally sells Eurotropic’s products. No other sale points were identified that carried products made from chaya in the sites surveyed through our study.
To explore the current use and future prospects of chaya at the community level, 20 chaya producers in Petén and Chiquimula were interviewed from communities that produce, consume, and supply chaya to the focal markets. The producers were selected for the interview following a convenience sampling approach. Most of the chaya producers interviewed were women (70%), and all spoke Spanish. Their primary economic activity was small-scale agriculture. Their main crops were maize and beans that were grown for subsistence and income, complemented by production of leafy vegetables, fruits, tubers, and flowers. In both departments, the whole family participates in chaya production and marketing activities, but women tend to be more engaged in its cultivation and deciding how to use the production.
All the producers interviewed in Petén and Chiquimula stated they grow chaya mainly for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, especially for fighting anemia and stimulating lactation. Moreover, in Petén 60% of the respondents added that they continue producing chaya out of habit. Most interviewees in Petén (40%) and Chiquimula (73%) appreciated that chaya grows easily, requiring few inputs and minimal care. The following comment by a producer in Chiquimula stresses this concept very well: “Chaya grows alone, it does not need so much care, basically it takes care of itself.” Producers also appreciated its resistance to pests and diseases and drought tolerance; as stated by one respondent: “Chaya is fierce to face drought periods.” Nevertheless, heavy drought spells and limited access to water were found to reduce yields and constrain production.
Chaya production typically took place around the farmers’ houses, homegardens, or agricultural plots, and varied by region and level of access to irrigation. In Petén, where rainfall is comparably higher than in Chiquimula, all interviewees reported having access to water year-round and a mean chaya production of 5 bundles/week during the year (Fig. 5). These producers stated that they mainly used chaya to make and sell tamales; and to a lesser extent for home consumption (cooked with scrambled eggs or stews). In Chiquimula, half of the producers interviewed had access to irrigation and maintained a mean production of 20 bundles/week throughout the year, of which they sold half in local markets. By contrast, households with more limited access to water gathered 3–5 bundles/week, which they used for consumption, mostly in soups and pinol (toasted maize flour mixed with water). In both sites, farmers also shared some of their chaya within their social networks and used it to feed their animals. All the families in Petén reported producing the Estrella variety because of its higher productivity, better taste, and greater softness when cooked compared to Mansa. Conversely, in Chiquimula, the predominant variety produced out of custom was Mansa, although some chaya Estrella plants were observed during our field work.
Most producers in Petén (80%) and Chiquimula (67%) stated that chaya is among the most important leafy vegetables they produced. However, 75% of them prefer to consume chipilín and/or black nightshade, mostly out of habit. The production of these other vegetables is similar to chaya during winter, whereas in summer, only chaya can be harvested, since it has lower water requirements. According to 33% of the respondents in Chiquimula and 80% in Petén, increasingly people in their communities, especially younger generations, are opposed to eating or selling chaya because it is perceived as “food of the poor.” This phrase was also associated by respondents to other leafy vegetables (e.g., amaranth leaves, chipilín, and black nightshade). Furthermore, a few respondents stated that some people do not consume chaya because they believe it is poisonous. Lastly, some interviewees in Chiquimula felt that the recipes used for chaya were not very attractive or well appreciated by children.
Research and Interventions
We identified and interviewed 21 organizations that work with chaya in 17 of the 22 departments in Guatemala (ESM, Appendix 7). Efforts of these institutions focus on research activities (nutritional, chemical, botanical, and agronomic), raising awareness of chaya’s benefits, promotion of its production (establishment of home, school, and/or communities gardens), and consumption (workshops, recipes, and school lunches). Of these, for the last five years a couple of institutions from the private sector (e.g., universities and small businesses) and donor agencies have been assisting small-scale activities regarding marketing, processing, and increasing demand for chaya. Some of these activities include development of recipes, sharing food samples in markets, and disseminating information through videos and flyers. However, most of these organizations work independently.