Exotic and commercial vegetables still form the bulk of Kenyan diets; campaigners for indigenous foods hope to reverse the trend
United Nations (UN) and World Bank reports indicate climate change has negatively affected global food systems, drastically reducing agricultural productivity. But rural communities in developing countries like Kenya seem to have found a solution: local and indigenous foods.
Rural communities and smallholder farmers inthe east African country have resorted to indigenous foods to adapt and increase resilience against climate shocks. Hundreds of farming communities have reverted to indigenous leafy vegetables and tubers with the help of various rural outreach programmes.
Small-scale farmers, like Geoffrey Momanyi from Kenya’s Kiambu County, had a great time farming indigenous foods. He plants and rotates various indigenous food crops on his one-and-a-half-acre farm, including cassava, maize and vegetables.
He had bountiful harvests in the last eight years, resulting from what he described as “simple and natural pollination by wind, birds and insects.”
“All my harvests are always successful. This is because I use indigenous drought-resistant seeds, which guarantee me relatively good harvests, regardless of erratic rains,” Momanyi said.
Momanyi propagates and stores seeds for the next planting season or seeks those he lacks from fellow subsistence farmers or local youth and women groups.
Mary Akelo, another small-scale farmer in Kenya’s Kajiado County, said she prefers indigenous crops, especially vegetables, due to their growing demand.
“Most people prefer my leafy vegetables because of their higher nutritious value and medicinal properties. They are also easy to propagate,” she said.
Hybrid seeds are expensive, yet you can only use them in one planting cycle. They also need heavy application of fertilisers and pesticides, which pollute the environment, she added.
Rural communities and small-scale farmers across Kenya have effectively built climate resilience and adaptive capacity. Most are holders of invaluable knowledge on indigenous food systems, passed from generation to generation.
This information guides them to provide nutritious food, interdependently interact with the environment and preserve nature’s rich biodiversity.
Various non-profits, such as Grow Bio-intensive Agriculture Center of Kenya (G-BIACK), assist smallholder farmers in selecting, storing and managing indigenous seeds.
Most are naturally adapted to specific locations because of various unique environmental factors. This helps to guard against total crop failure/loss.
G-BIACK coordinates with over 100 groups, representing over 20,000 indigenous smallholder farmers across Kenya, said Samuel Nderitu, director of the non-profit.
“We are a charity and train farmers to select indigenous seeds and establish community seed banks, through which they preserve special varieties,” he said.
We aim at setting up 10 such banks yearly across the country, where over 2,000 endangered varieties will be preserved, he added.
Nderitu said he has indigenous seeds for almost every crop in his gene bank. He criticised the commercialisation of mainstream food systems, saying it exposes the country in case of a pandemic or geopolitical crisis like Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine.
“I call upon fellow stakeholders in the indigenous seed market to protect the often ignored smallholder farmers and help them adapt to climate shocks and boost food security,” he said.
Many other stakeholders — the National Museum of Kenya, Biodiversity and Biosafety Kenya, Inter-Sectoral Forum on Agroecology and Agro biodiversity and Seed Savers Network Kenya (SSN-K) — have embraced the idea and are helping small-scale farmers build capacity in this regard.
“Seeds are not only the basis of agriculture. They are carriers of plants’ genetic makeup,” said SSN-K in a statement to this writer.
In Kenya, over 80 per cent of seeds that smallholder farmers use are indigenous. However, most of these subsistence farmers face challenges in accessing or multiplying these seeds, the statement added.
Small-scale farmers and researchers petitioned UNESCO to recognise and protect the endangered species in February 2022, following a sharp decline in the country’s food diversity.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)recognised Kenya’s indigenous foods as a unique cultural heritage worth protecting.
“The Intergovernmental Committee for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage has selected Kenya’s success story of promoting traditional foods. The species will be listed in the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices,” UNESCO said.
Some of the indigenous Kenyan vegetables that made it to the list of protected species include Manager (Amaranth), Osuga (black nightshade), Mrenda (jute plant), Kunde (cowpeas) and Terere/Muchicha (pigweed).
Some schools across Kenya, including Mundika High School, have now switched to consuming indigenous foods through an initiative by the United Nations Environment Programme and other partners.
The need to help small-scale farmers commercialise the production of indigenous foods and boost food security has gained the attention of the Kenyan government and necessary plans are in the works already.
A plan is in place to ramp up the acreage under indigenous tubers and vegetables by producing affordable seeds for farmers through the country’s lead research organisation, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari).
“We plan to propagate more indigenous seeds and help farmers increase the intake of these special plants,” said Lusike Wasilwa, an assistant director at Kari.
Sadly, exotic and commercial vegetables like cabbages and kales account for almost three-quarters of the total vegetables consumed in Kenya. We aim to reverse this trend, Wasilwa added.
Experts and officials are calling for more national and regional forums on the importance of indigenous foods, including festivals and symposiums.
They say this will equip small-scale farmers with knowledge on how to adapt to climate change and boost food security for sub-Sahara Africa’s ever-expanding population.
“These crops will play a key role in boosting economies for most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and their Gross Domestic Product,” said Frankline Mithika Linturi, Kenya’s minister for agriculture.
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