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Egerton dons get Sh4.9m to bring back forgotten African vegetable

Rift Valley
 Dr Mirriam Charimbu with Dr Charles Kihia checks on some Togotia plants on a farm in Njoro for their research project. [Kennedy Gachuhi, Standard]

Egerton University has embarked on a project seeking to reintroduce a neglected native vegetable Erucastrum arabicum, locally known as Togotia.

Dr Miriam Charimbu and Dr Charles Kihia received Sh4.9 million funding which they won for their project in October last year under the competitively granted Innovate Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) Awards 2022.

"The project title is Exploring Potential of Togotia (Erucastrum arabicum), a forgotten African leafy vegetable for nutritional security and climate adaptation in Kenya," said Dr Charimbu.

A survey conducted prior to the project showed that half of the 45 tribes in Kenya consider vegetables as a food crop, but have failed to domesticate them on their farms like any other plant.

Dr Charimbu, a Crop Pathologist, Production and Protection Specialist at the Njoro-based campus said the vegetable, which is ignored by many, can be of great nutritional and commercial value.

"Togotia is among the native food crops that have been neglected. They were traditionally grown by Kenyan communities but disuse has resulted in a significant drop in popularity," she said.

The project entails the establishment of demonstration plots at the university and engaging local farmers to replicate the project on their own farms while sensitising the local community.

"This is a crop we have to get from the wild and transplant it on the farms as almost no farmer was cultivating it on their land," said Dr Charimbu.

"Togotia is a crop that can go a long way in addressing our current shortfall in the food supply. It will go further to address deficiencies in vitamins and minerals among our people," she added.

With the meteorological department warning that the rainy season that has kicked off in parts of the country may not yield enough for agriculture, the don said this is the right crop to plant.

"It easily adapts to the environment where it is grown. It is more drought, pest and disease resistant compared to common exotic crops. It requires very minimal attention from the farmer," she said.

In areas like Molo and Kuresoi where most residents produce potatoes, maize and several vegetable varieties, Togotia is often treated like a weed, with only a few aware of its nutritional value.

Gabriel Kagunda, a farmer in Kuresoi North says that Togotia has served his family well as an alternative for managu (African nightshade), saget (Spider flower) and pumpkin leaves eaten as an accompaniment for local delicacies such as mashed potatoes, ugali and githeri.

"The crop has greatly dwindled due to disuse and attempts to get rid of it when it invades the farms with other crops. Very few of us consume it alone or alongside other indigenous vegetables," said the farmer.

In her analysis, Dr Charimbu reported that the vegetable is a rich source of calcium, vitamin C, iron, zinc, and crude proteins.

"Consumption of Togotia offers multiple health benefits including reduced obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental decline, slowing aging and strengthening the immune system," she said.

In Central, Eastern and Western regions, the crop is mainly used as a vegetable, while coastal communities use it as fodder or a herb.

Dr Charimbu noted that the high cost of farm chemicals which exotic crops require to survive the ever-changing climatic conditions, give Togotia an edge to regain its lost popularity.

Prof Paul Kimurto, Agro-Science Park Director at Egerton University, said the university fully supports the project, noting that prospects for the vegetable are promising.

"We are supporting the development and multiplication of Togotia to get better varieties that are responsive to our needs today in terms of easy germination and resistance to drought, pests and diseases," said Prof Kimurto.

The don explained that the neglected plant can be a game changer to farmers' fortunes as it can be intercropped with maize, sorghum and beans.

"In counties like Baringo, Togotia is among the vegetables you will find displayed by vegetable vendors alongside others like spinach and sukuma wiki," said Kimurto.

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