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Growing of traditional foods and leafy vegetables declining in Kisii

Edna Machuki a farmer dries finger millet at her Kiobegi home in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Reduced growing of traditional crops in the Gusii region could lead to extinction of highly nutritious indigenous food species in the long term, the Kisii County Director of Agriculture, Nathan Soire, has said.   

Production of vegetables like managu (African night shade), chinsaga (Spider flower), pumpkin, cowpeas (kunde or egesare) and vine spinach (nderema) is reducing with farmers citing exploitation by middlemen who buy from them at throwaway prices.

Locals interviewed by The Standard said the younger generation not only lack knowledge on raising traditional crops, but shun their consumption as well.

Mr Soire blames rising human populations and subdivision of family land.

“Most of the traditional vegetables consumed in urban centres here are produced in a neighbouring county. We must go back to our shambas and produce enough for local consumption and sale,” Soire said, adding that use of non-certified seeds was also to blame for poor production.

Kisii Agricultural Training Institute Principal Dorice Ombuna however says they have been training farmers to venture into large scale production of local vegetables.

“The prices are good in the market as compared to exotic crops. Local demand is also higher than what we produce. Let us keep growing African leafy vegetables because they are nutritious and necessary in our diets.”

Medical experts recommend leafy vegetables for patients suffering from diabetes and those keen on avoiding lifestyle diseases.

Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital Chief Executive Dr Enock Ondari explains that such vegetables are key in managing one’s blood sugar levels.

“One’s diet can have a major role in preventing and managing diabetes. Green leafy vegetables are extremely nutritious and low in calories,” said Ondari.

He explains that leafy green vegetables are rich in nutrients like vitamin C as well as antioxidants that protect the heart and eyes.

Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital Chief Executive Dr Enock Ondari. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Peter Ateka,72, and his wife Elizabeth Bosibori,63, have been suffering from diabetes for close to 12 years. Ateka said they haven’t eaten red meat in their home for the last eight years.

“We have been eating brown Ugali and traditional vegetables on the advice of our doctor,” he said.

However, Bosibori says she occasionally eats meat when visiting her children in the city. “Traditional vegetables serve me better. I rarely eat chicken and fish.”

Bosibori prefers creamed managu and saga. “I would rather do creamed vegetables and not sour milk.”

The Ateka’s like many other families have now embraced local vegetables and other organic foods in their diets for health reasons.

The family grows different types of leafy vegetables on a quarter an acre piece of land. They boil and dry the vegetables when harvesting in bulk.

Josephine Nyasiaboka who also eats leafy vegetables for health reasons says the challenge has been how to access traditional seed and not the hybrid variety.

She says there is a great difference in vegetables produced from hybrid seed and seeds that are obtained traditionally.

“Vegetables grown from hybrid seed are watery. We prefer the traditional type,” she said.

Nyasiaboka grows the crops both for commercial and household consumption purposes.

Due the dry spell, a sack of managu currently trades at Sh6,000 while saga goes for Sh6,500 although the prices drop to Sh4,000 and Sh 5,000 respectively during rainy seasons.

Rachel Nyagechanga has been growing African nightshade and spider flowers for the last eight years on large scale.

She raises the crops at Nyamache area in Bobasi sub county on half an acre piece of land.

“We are unable to meet demand. There just isn’t enough land to grow crops because most farmers plant nappier grass and tea. This is why we are losing traditional vegetables,” she explained.

Rose Nyamari tending to her managu crop in Kiobegi farm, Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Norah Kemunto, a farmer in Nyasiongo in Nyamira County is worried too.

“We let go of crops that have kept our people healthy for generations. Soon we may only resort to eating genetically modified foods.

“I used to do an acre of traditional foods, but the same piece of land has now been subdivided among family members. I only grow the vegetables for family use now,” she said.

Robert Akunga, 60, says traditional vegetables are no longer served as part of the diet.

“Families now eat a lot of meat instead of maintaining a balanced diet by eating vegetables. We grew up taking managu and saga on a daily basis,” he said.

According to experts, besides early maturity and resistance to drought and diseases, the vegetables are also highly nutritious and have more iron, calcium, and vitamins compared to exotic vegetables.

Vitamin and iron rich Spider plant (sagaa) is the most common and is grown on large scale.

But it is not just traditional vegetables that are under siege. Soire lamented that that land under finger millet, a staple for most cultural ceremonies in the community, and which is consumed by pregnant women, nursing mothers, children and diabetic patients, has also been reducing over the years.

“Other than being a source of amino acids, finger millet is drought tolerant, disease resistant, suppresses weeds and has a long shelf-life, making it a strategic famine reserve,”he said.

Florence Gesare, a trader in Kisii town’s CBD market said finger millet supply is worrying because it is getting harder to buy two sacks of millet at one go.

“Sometimes we travel to other parts of the country to buy finger millet because local harvests have been going down drastically,” said Gesare.

But Edinah Machuki who grows finger millet complained that there is not enough land to grow the crop millet for commercial purposes.