Prof’s 30-year research on traditional veggies pays off

KUAT'S Prof Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, she has extensive research on Indigenous African. [Jacob Ng’etich, Standard]

“Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food,” that is Prof Mary Abukutsa-Onyango’s opening speech during a past TED Talk presentation in Nairobi.

Abukutsa, a professor of horticulture at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) is so passionate about promotion of Indigenous African Vegetables (AIVs) that she talks about them with such ease and depth, one cannot help but marvel.

“Many of us are not eating enough indigenous vegetables and that is why lifestyle diseases are catching up with us...We have plants that can address these problems. Some of you call them weeds...Look at the diversity of these plants, the colour is life that God put in it...,” she waxes lyrical in her captivating TED talk.

Nagging allergy

Having ‘tasted’ the miracle working power of traditional vegetables, Prof Abukutsa decided from an early age that she wanted to study about them more intensely. From when she was a child, she had an allergy for animal proteins (meat and milk) and her mother in her wisdom used to feed her on what were considered ‘weeds’.

“When I was a child, my mother fed me on these green ‘weeds’ to cope with my allergy and it worked,” discloses Prof Abukutsa.

Having seen how the weeds kept her healthy, when she was set to join university, she defied her father’s wish to study Medicine and instead focused on Agriculture, with a bias in horticulture.

In her journey as a scholar, Prof Abukutsa, embarked on a journey of research to promote production and sustainable consumption of indigenous vegetables to boost food security.

Abukutsa, the current Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Research, Production and Extensio at JKUAT is credited for strategic repositioning of African indigenous vegetables through pioneering research, dissemination, conservation and development of seeds and restructuring curricula to include indigenous crops.

The don believes although there are many misconceptions about these traditional vegetables, they have significantly more nutritional value than exotic vegetables.

“Indigenous vegetables have high profile compared to the exotic vegetables like Sukuma Wiki, spinach and cabbage. They have high nutrient content and medicinal value, they grow faster and are less prone to pest and disease attacks,” says the prof who has published over 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

More than sukuma wiki

According to Prof, Sukuma wiki, an exotic vegetable that was brought to Kenya as cattle feed, has little nutritive value.

“Murenda is 20 times more nutritious than cabbages while and five times more than sukuma wiki,” she says.

Despite the many benefits that traditional vegetables carry, sadly some people are stuck with their good old sukuma wiki.

But prof is on a mission to change that narrative and her efforts are making a difference.

Since 1990 when she was starting off as a junior scholar, she has been on an academic level and a practical level with farmers, digging up critical information on production of AIV. She surveyed Kenya’s indigenous plants to investigate the viability of seeds used by farmers.

Fruits of her labour

Her research has shown that amaranth greens, spider plant, and African nightshade contain substantial amounts of protein and iron and are rich in calcium, folate, and vitamins A,C, and E.

The fruits of her labour are evident now. For example, the Health Ministry has advised hospitals to use African indigenous vegetables in HIV patients’ diets.

Thanks to her efforts and other researchers and stakeholders, Kenya is on the verge of producing commercial seeds for indigenous vegetables.

“We can now have homesteads getting the seeds to plant indigenous vegetables. It’s been a journey,” says the researcher.

To add on, Prof Abukutsa is undertaking a food project that will not only provide food security but also ensure health living.

Through her effort, the jute mallow (mrenda), vegetable cowpea (kunde), African nightshade (managu), spider plant (saget), pumpkin leaves (malenge) and African kale (kanzira) are no longer considered as weed but as Natural Products under the Government’s Natural Products Initiative.

Further, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) has given clearance to the seeds and together with JKUAT they are in talks with seed companies on the propagation. Once the commercial seeds are out she says, farmers will have an opportunity to plant the crops for subsistence, commercial and export markets.

“There is an interest across the world, the globe is embracing the vegetables, we have had 30 researchers from Germany and more others from the US that have been involved in research at JKUAT, if we are not careful they will take over from use and start selling to us from their countries,” says Prof Abukutsa.

The ups and downs

Though she has made great strides in her work, the journey has not been without hurdles. Back then, she recalls that after doing a Masters in Agronomy, focusing on sukuma wiki after her first degree, she joined JKUAT as a junior research fellow indigenous vegetables, but faced a career hitch.  She was transferred to Maseno University and instead of Indigineous vegetables she was asked by her supervisors to focus on onions because indigenous vegetables were of no value. But there was light at the end of the tunnel.

“After my doctorate scholarship at the University of London — Wye College, I later won a Sh12 million from the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, for a study in 2011.” This was a much needed breakthrough.

 “I had initially sort funding but there was reluctance because some believed that the indigenous vegetables for not worth investing on. But this was huge in propelling my research forward,” she points out.

As they move to the commercial seed production, Prof Abukutsa and the JKUAT team has already entered into partnership with Bomet, Vihiga, Nandi, Kiambu and Nairobi counties to cater for growing demand.

“Today the demand is huge in hotels but the supply is little, as we are also pushing for the big hotels to embrace the vegetables and have them in their menu. The need in the small hotels is enormous,” she says.

Going forward

She now calls on the government to help in encouraging Kenyans to embrace these rich vegetables.

“When you plan to have maize, it can only go with vegetables. Thus healthy and nutritious accompaniment should be a priority for the government.”

To address the post-harvest losses, Prof Abukutsa together with solar companies have developed a solar drier that can help preserve the vegetables for longer.