When Peninah Akelo began planting African indigenous vegetables (AIVs) on an acre of her land in Migori county, most neighbours thought she had lost her mind.
Akelo, a former agronomist retrenched by the government, planted amaranth, commonly known as mchicha, a crop that has been considered a weed in most farms.
“It was hard to explain to my neighbours that the weed they used to remove from their farms could be harvested not only for vegetables but its highly nutritious seeds,” Akello said.
She was contracted by an agent who was supplying amaranth seeds to several civic organisations in Nyanza region. The groups were using amaranth seed’s strong nutritional value to add value to end-products used on vulnerable people.
“While most farmers wait for three planting periods, I have three in a year, as amaranth is a local crop that grows quickly in short rains period,” Akello said.
NOT POOR MAN'S FOOD
Her venture shows that among the many impacts of colonialism in Africa was the lowering of the status of AIVs to a poor man’s food, following the introduction of exotic vegetables.
As sukuma wiki (kales), cabbage, carrots and other exotic vegetable took over Kenyans' and other Africans' dinner tables, the erstwhile indigenous vegetables disappeared from kitchen gardens and grew wild.
Between December 2-5, a food conference was organised in Naivasha to bring to an end a five-year research programme between Germany and nine African countries. It was called the GlobE – Research for the global food supply: A pan-African conference.
Besides Kenya, the other countries were Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Bukina Faso, Cameroon and Mali.
“In the face of malnutrition, famines and climate change, the consortia aimed to not only secure and stabilise food supply in Africa but also, ideally, to enhance the situation,” researcher Klaus-Peter Michel, who represented the Germany government said.
To that end, Sh5.7 billion was spent in the period for the research, which brought together over a 100 scientists. An additional Sh30 billion was provided for “German-Africa cooperation in education, science and research”.
The African indigenous crops include amaranth (mchicha), spider plant (sagaa), night shade (managu, mnavu), pumpkins leaves (malenge), cowpea leaves (kunde). These are making inroads to dinner tables and boosting the country's economy and nutrition.
Among the researchers at the conference were Ruth Githiga and Emma Oketch, two PhD students who tabled their paper: “Policy Brief: Closing the productivity gap in the AIV value chain by embedding gender”.
“During the colonial time, exotic vegetables were introduced in the country, making local vegetables lose their prominence and become the ‘poor man’s food’,” the paper stated.
In the conference, researchers shared projects and data on how to profitably plant AIVs, add value to them and harvest them.
Anne Aswami, a PhD student in the hotel industry from JKUAT, worked with several women from Kakamega county to show how the crops could be cooked using peanut butter and value added to be used in five-star hotels in the country.
A group of three women, using gas cookers, turned the vegetables into a dish, which researchers across the globe sampled.
“Unlike exotic vegetables, which can be eaten raw or in salad, the African ones must be cooked. We have worked ways in retaining their nutritional value in best cooking recipes gleaned from several communities,” Aswami said.
The researcher said the recipes will be published and shared among hotels across the globe to increase the reach of the crop to open a wider market.
According to research, AIV use has increased in urban areas and contains more protein and micronutrients than common sukuma wiki.
Arnold Opiyo, a researcher from Egerton University, said they stand to boost indigenous vegetables as “washing, harvesting and packaging them is easier”. Selling through farmers groups is more important to increase sales, as they can be stored for 2-3 days longer.
Agriculture ministry policy analyst Dr Oscar Mogenya and Nakuru Agriculture executive Immaculate Maina represented the country during the conference.
The two said the country’s Vision 2030, as well as Sustainable Development Goals, including President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda, place more emphasis on food security.
“The greatest challenge by AVI farmers is how to get seeds. Investors should use national and county development forums to scale up production, open industries and policies targeting this sector,” Maina said.
According to the Kenya Micro-nutrient Survey of 2011, investing in nutrition increases the GDP by 2-3 per cent, with 25.8p.c of the population being malnourished as either overweight and hungry people.
The country, according to the research, loses Sh289 billion annually from GDP over vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can by tackled by AVIs.
Emmanuel Oyier, the communication officer of Kmet Kenya from Kisumu, said they have concentrated on AVIs as “they provide a cheaper alternative to meat and eggs as sources of iron and significant amounts of further micronutrients”.
“AVIs can provide 40 per cent of nutrients to HIV patients on drugs, children, especially those who are affected by HIV or are weaned, and lactating mothers,” Oyier said.
According to the most recent National Aids Control Council data, Siaya recorded a HIV prevalence of 21 per cent followed by Homa Bay at 20.7. Kisumu county was third at 16.3 per cent, while Migori and Busia came fourth and fifth with 13.3 per cent and 7.7 per cent.
The national adult HIV incidence rate was estimated at 4.9 per cent, with the prevalence higher among women (5.2 per cent) than men (4.5 per cent).
Kmet is among organisations working in the region to end prevalence and boost health through improved feeds like soups and porridge, mostly made from AIVs like amaranth for these vulnerable groups.
Akelo is among farmers who benefitted from these initiatives and has formed a group which packs AVIs in night vans to Nairobi for easy sale.
“Sukuma wiki and cabbages are always given for free in most Kenyan hotels for customers, while AVIs are bought expensively. That is why they are more profitable to grow,” Akelo said.
She said getting certified seeds for AIVs has been harder, which poses the biggest challenge for them.
Marcos Wopereis, who works for World Vegetable Center, which has produced over 670,000 local global vegetable seed samples, said the problem is set to be reversed with the recent opening of a branch in Arusha, Tanzania.
“We already have a closer association with 13 seed companies in the region specifically working on AIVs. Our plan is to get African vegetables back firmly on dinner tables,” Wopereis said.
He said already, the Arusha office is working on 2,500 patents and agreements on making AIV products.