Kenyan Professor Promotes Indigenous Crops to Solve Africa’s Food Crises

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Mary Abukutsa-Onyango In Kenya, a devastating cycle of drought and flood reflects the worst that climate change has to offer. These and other more insiduous impacts of warming temperatures threaten the health and survival of the nation's poorest and most at-risk inhabitants, namely women and children.

The average yearly income in Kenya is less than US$1,000, 60 percent of the population is below poverty level, and one-fifth of children under the age of five are malnourished. Already, the nation has experienced at least 28 cycles of drought in the last century, as well as 15 floods of epidemic proportions, according to Mahboub Maalim, Executive Secretary of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development.

Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta is attempting to address the disparity between an expanding population and the nation's reduced ability to produce food by providing 32 billion Kenyan shillings ($40 million) for agricultural and rural development projects and 51 billion shillings ($63 million) for environmental programs, including water and sanitation infrastructure upgrades.

But in fact, money - and even agricultural techniques based on Western agriculture - may not be the answer. As Allan Savory, founder of the Zimbabwe-based Africa Center for Holistic Management, points out, these approaches typically involve the use of synthetic fertilizers, stronger pesticides, and genetically modified seeds to increase yields-all tactics that view soil as a "problem" to be solved rather than as a resource that offers its own unique opportunities, and requires its own special treatment.

For Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, teacher, and researcher at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology, the real problem with using Western agricultural methods in Kenya is the loss of the superb diversity that once made indigenous plants a reliable and nutritious native food source. "Of the approximately 200 indigenous species of plants that were used by Kenyans as vegetables in the past, most were either collected in the wild, semi-cultivated, or cultivated. Now many are either unknown or extinct," Abukutsa-Onyango said.

What both Savory and Abukutsa-Onyango want is a long-term solution that uses the tools at hand, including the marginal, arid soil of Kenya's lowlands, to effect a lasting revolution in regional agriculture.

Savory calls this a "Brown Revolution," and Abukutsa-Onyango calls it an "indigenous food" revolution. Both are dedicated to seeing Kenyan agriculture survive, not as some protected but unmanageable offshoot of Western monocultural crop techniques, but as the sort of traditional approach to food production that operated before Europeans intervened.

To that end, Abukutsa-Onyango has reintroduced such varieties as African nightshade and vegetable amaranth to regional farmers, and set up a system to put them back into the marketplace.

"To date, we have about 100 contact farmers and/or farmer groups-77 in Western Kenya and 33 in Central Kenya-who are trained in all aspects of growing indigenous crops, from seed production to processing, using organic methods," she said. "The farmers that do well are also taught simple food preservation techniques like drying, which increase shelf-life but retain as much of the nutrients as possible, and are linked to supermarkets to sell their vegetables. Because of their extensive training, they are able to pass on their knowledge of indigenous food growing to others in their communities."

These native foods, after years of being spurned as suitable only in starvation times, and only for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, have spurred a cottage industry aimed at simultaneously reducing poverty and improving the diet of Kenya's approximately 6.5 million children.

But Abukutsa-Onyango is not one-sided in her arguments. While she foresees the hot, arid lowlands being used for indigenous crops such as bambara nuts, she is not averse to using the cool, damp highlands to grow cash crops. "For example, indigenous bambara nuts and pigeon pea yield relatively better in low fertility soils and with low rainfall, compared with beans," she notes. "And this allows a diversified, sustainable production model that insures nutritional security and prosperity."

About one thing, however, Abukutsa-Onyango is adamant: "I don't believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops. With a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to be 16 percent below former years as a result of changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize in my opinion would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought tolerant."

Professor Mary's solution, which suggests harmony with nature rather than an attempt to control it, may be the only way forward in a warming world, not just for Africa but for the globe.

Jeanne Roberts is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about the role of indigenous crops in sustainable agriculture.

This article appeared in its original form on the Worldwatch blog Nourishing the Planet. For permission to republish this article, please contact Danielle Nierenberg at