By Joyce Chimbi
Elizabeth Njoroge recounts her poverty-stricken upbringing in Ting’ang’a village in the Central part of Kenya, growing up on a diet heavy on Amaranth and pumpkin.
The 45-year-old speaks about the shame of neighbours finding out the frequency with which her family consumed foods associated with poor and extremely food-insecure households.
“Terere (Amaranth) grew just like weed. We often sneaked into other people’s farms to pick the vegetable because only poor people ate terere and only babies ate pumpkin. Eating pumpkin as a family was considered a sign of poverty,” she tells IPS.
That was then; today, Zachary Aduda, who is an independent researcher in food security, says people’s understanding and appreciation of indigenous foods has grown.
“Native foods that were previously considered only fit for the very poor and vulnerable have been commercialized because of their documented high nutritional value. They include amaranth, which is also a neutralizer for vegetables that are considered bitter such as the black nightshade, locally known as osuga,” he says.
But as Kenya struggles to be free from the grips of the most severe drought in the last 40 years, he says indigenous foods have not been sufficiently utilized to halt the pace and spread of food insecurity and, more so, in the arid and semi-arid parts of the country.
The drought has resulted in the East African nation being considered seriously food insecure, with severe nutrition vulnerabilities leading to high malnutrition levels and poverty.
A UN food security outlook for October 2022 to January 2023 indicated that the number of people in Kenya facing hunger could reach 4.4 million and that 1.2 million people were projected to have entered the emergency phase and are in urgent need of food support.
The potential, Aduda tells IPS, for indigenous crops and plant species to address hunger remains largely untapped. Kenya, alongside a vast majority of the world, relies heavily on three crops – maize, wheat and rice.
Research by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that the three crop species meet an estimated 50 percent of the global requirements for proteins and calories.
Hellen Wanjugu, an agriculturalist based in Nyeri County, one of Kenya’s food baskets, says native crops and plant species are not only heavy in nutrition but can withstand ongoing extreme changes in weather patterns.
Take, for instance, amaranth: “It is easy to grow, matures fast and when cooked, very rich in nutrients such as calcium, manganese, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, folate, iron, zinc and potassium.”
Maize, wheat and rice production is buckling under the pressure from extreme climate change and pest infestation. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the size of farm acreage planted with maize has declined by approximately a quarter in recent years, an alarming development since maize is a staple food crop.
Aduda speaks of inadequate efforts to support resilience interventions around the production of indigenous foods. He says there is too much focus on fertilizers and little to no focus on the difficulties farmers face accessing and multiplying indigenous seeds.
“Every ethnic group in Kenya boasts of its own traditional crops and vegetables in line with the climate of their region. But there is a problem because our smallholder farmers, who are the backbone of our food system, cannot easily access the indigenous seeds they so urgently need,” he says.
Kenya’s smallholder farmers account for at least 70 percent of the country’s production, and their combined output meets an estimated 75 percent of domestic food needs in the country, according to government data.
“But, a vast majority of these farmers rely on informal seeds system. Traditionally, seed saving and sharing among farmers was a very normal and common practice. This way, farmers largely controlled the seeds system, and they were able to grow native species and promote our agricultural biodiversity until a prohibitive law came into place in 2012,” Wanjugu tells IPS.
The Seed and Plant Varieties Act 326 of 2012 was originally established to protect farmers from being duped into buying unregistered or uncertified seeds. Uncertified seeds are often low yielding and easily succumb to changes in weather and pest infestation.
But the 2012 Act also strongly prohibits the sale, exchange and sharing of indigenous seeds in Kenya. A violation of this law could lead to up to two years in jail, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.
A group of farmers are currently in court with a public interest litigation towards the amendment of the seeds law to allow the saving and sharing of indigenous seeds to boost the production of indigenous foods.
As it is now, farmers are required to buy seeds every planting season, which has placed the cost of farm input beyond the reach of many peasant farmers.
Wanjugu says the seeds law has removed the control of seeds from the hands of farmers and into the hands of multinational corporations, who are slowly dictating what farmers can grow because of the high seed prices.
Exotic vegetables such as cabbages and kale now account for about three-quarters of the total vegetables consumed in Kenya, she added.
She says this aligns with UN research that shows while more than 7,000 wild plants have been documented wild worldwide, either grown or collected, less than 150 of these species have been commercialised. Out of these wild plant species, the world’s food needs are met by only 30 plant species.
“Today, food recipes for indigenous species are available from reputable institutions and organizations such as FAO. Native species taste much better than exotic plants and are more nutritious, but farmers lack the capacity to fully lean on indigenous plant species to meet our food needs,” she emphasizes.
Aduda speaks of Kenya’s recent entry into the era of GMOs after the lifting of a 10-year ban, which he says has created debates that are moving the country further and further away from the critical issues facing farmers today.
He stresses that using indigenous knowledge and seeds, supporting farmers to overcome water stresses, deploying sufficient agricultural extension officers as it were many years ago, and improving connectivity between farm and market will produce the silver bullet to build a food-secure nation.