Africa's vegetable evangelist takes on climate change

  • By Isaiah Esipisu
  • 23/10/2017

Felda Alividza explains how to harvest jute mallow seeds in Musiega, Kenya, Sept. 15, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaiah Esipisu

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MUSIEGA, Kenya – For 15 years, Felda Alividza and 21 other widows in this village in Kenya’s Vihiga County have grown something that might not sound that unusual: indigenous African vegetables.

But in a country where many farmers focus on raising kale, cabbage or spinach to sell locally – or higher earning broccoli and cauliflower – traditional African vegetables have often been overlooked, not least because seed for them can now be hard to find.

The Musiega Women Group, however, is one of more than 1,200 such cooperatives in western Kenya following the advice of Ruth Khasaya Oniang’o, an evangelist for a return of African indigenous vegetables and other crops to curb malnutrition and hunger.

"Many farmers have ignored African indigenous leafy vegetables and yet they are very nutrient rich, and some of them have medicinal values," said Oniang'o, 71, one of sub-Saharan Africa's early nutrition professors - and now a co-winner of the 2017 African Food Prize.

The $100,000 prize, which Oniang’o shares with Maïmouna Sidibe Coulibaly, a businesswoman from Mali, honors achievements in African agriculture, and is awarded by a range of organisations including a Norwegian farm chemicals company and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

VEGETABLE SEEDS

Oniang’o Rural Outreach Programme (ROP), founded in 1992, works to make sure small-scale farmers have access to quality indigenous plants, soil testing and other help they need to grow quality food.

“This was my dream since my childhood days,” said the professor, who went to primary school in a village in western Kenya’s Kakamega County.

As a child, she saw seven of her siblings succumb to malaria. In 2005, she built the Diana Elukhambi health centre in Butere, which she dedicated to one of her late sisters.

From the early 1990s she worked as a professor at Jomo Keyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi. But in 2002 she quit to join Kenya’s legislature – the point that she also ramped up her work with rural communities in western Kenya.

“I could not clearly see the impact for the first 20 years of my work with rural communities,” she remembers. But in time, families that had once grown sugarcane began switching to local vegetables – and they began to see the health and income benefits, she remembers.

Among the plants Oniang’o has promoted are African black nightshade, jute mallow, slender leaf and pumpkins. In her kitchen garden, Alividza, a member of the Musiega widows group, has all four.

Seeds or cuttings for such vegetables are now available for sale to farmers in small, affordable packets – and farmers who grow them can also sell seeds or cuttings back to ROP Africa for distribution to other farmers.

In Mbaya, another village in Vihiga County, Veronica Kitele says her 10-year-old son who suffers from cerebral palsy has benefitted from eating soybeans – a nutritious, though non-native, plant that Oniang’o also has promoted as part of efforts to improve soil fertility.

“I have seen a big difference for the past three years since I started feeding this boy on soy products,” Kitele said. “He has become physically stronger than before, and generally he looks much healthier,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Esikholobe village, Aineah Wanda, a member of a youth farming group, also now plants groundnuts alongside his maize to improve nitrogen levels in the soil and boost nutrition and food security for his family.

CLIMATE THREAT

Oniang’o said she has one big worry these days: Climate change.

“Rainfall is no longer predictable as before. As a result, crops planted sometimes fail to germinate,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It becomes an even bigger challenge when strange plant diseases and dangerous pests such as fall army worms infest crops. It leaves farmers hopeless and devastated,” she said.

To battle such challenges, ROP Africa is now working with the Africa Agriculture Technology Foundation to promote the planting of maize that is water-efficient, drought-tolerant and resistant to insects.

Such maize, originally targeted for planting in arid and semi-arid parts of Africa, now is proving useful in normally rainy western Kenya as well as the climate grows more variable.

“Our farmers have grown this variety for the past three seasons, and for sure, when other varieties succumb to tough conditions whenever it fails to rain, (it) has remained resilient, and this is a big hope for people in Western Kenya,” Oniang’o said.

She said she plans to use her share of the prize to establish a foundation in her name to support women’s empowerment and mentor youth.

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