Food heroes changing perceptions of nutrition in Kenyan Households

By Samwel Onyango, Cassava project assistant and masters graduate in food safety and quality at the University of Nairobi

Samwel Onyango showing Caroline Dama how to use a phone and capture images. Photo credit: Benson Kimbio, UON-Semis.

Cassava crop has been grown along the Kenyan coast since time immemorial, but farmers scarcely appreciate the crop for its role in the country’s food and nutrition security. Nor is the historically predominant role of women in cassava production widely appreciated. However, the full exploitation of the cassava value chain in Kenya could significantly impact the diversification of carbohydrate sources in a country that depends on maize and potato as the major sources of starch.

Our work with Kenyan coastal farm households to diversify cassava plate options has led to a total change in farmers’ perceptions of the crop’s value and nutritional properties. It is timely to share some of the small impacts that we have made amongst the more than 3,000 farmers that we have interacted with.

The Kenyan coastal counties of Kilifi and Taita-Taveta were among the regions highlighted for food aid by the Kenyan government in 2014. This has created an interest to devise alternative solutions to reverse malnutrition in the Kenyan coastal community. Through a MasterCard foundation-funded cassava project, and with the support of Partner in GFAR, Regional Universities Forum for capacity building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) our team of researchers and extension agents from the University of Nairobi, has managed to work together with the farmers through provision of healthy seedlings;  agronomic expertise, advise and extension services; pest and disease control; and training for farm households on value addition of cassava to minimize post-harvest losses.

Our initial interaction with the farmers through focus group discussions was quite a worthy venture: we were able to assess the level of knowledge of farmers regarding their own cassava production and utilization. Some of the feedback from the farmers were fascinating while others were quite surprising. “Whenever, I eat cassava for breakfast, I hardly eat until evening,” one farmer told us. This can be attributed to the high energy content and the starch level of cassava.

During the same focus group discussions, farmers highlighted that it becomes boring and unpalatable to consume cassava primarily as boiled roots. This particular feedback was music to our ears: here was a gap to be filled!  In fact, some of the local practices also increase the nutrient content, such as blending cassava meals with pigeon pea, fish, coconut and beans.  Farmers were already taking a key step towards healthy living.

As mentioned earlier, cassava production at the Kenyan coast is primary dominated by women and youth. I would like to acknowledge the efforts of two rural women and a youth who have been outstanding in our engagements at various stages of the cassava value chain. At production level, Mama Caroline Dama is a leading figure. In 2018, she had a small cassava farm that was intercropped with maize. After our engagement with her, she transitioned to a pure cassava crop stand, while on her other farms she intercrops cassava with cowpea leaves as a source of protein. Today, Caroline Dama also benefits from digital innovations in agriculture—like an AI powered mobile app that gives her advice on how to manage pests and disease.

In Taita-Taveta County, Mama Jane Ndela took part in a farmers’ training session at the University premises. She has since earned the title of a cassava county ambassador, thanks to her efforts to revolutionize cassava value addition within the county. This has propelled her to partner with both the National and County governments to train fellow women on the importance of cassava production with a focus on minimizing cassava post–harvest losses. In our last training session at Mbale Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), she reported, “I have developed about 16 plate options of cassava. I have learnt to blend cassava with fish, pigeon pea, cowpea, meat, pork, chicken.” I can tell you, I did enjoy her cassava meat balls, big time. Mama Jane’s value-added products are available at selected outlets and quite accessible and affordable.

Amos illustrating healthy cassava plants. Photo Credit – Benson Kimbio-UON SEMIs

One inspiring young man called Amos Mwangala, in his own accolade as a cassava ambassador reported, “I have become a consultant; Indeed, I can now see money in cassava.” Amos is a youth who has embraced healthy cassava seedling production, and his enthusiasm about cassava has taken his fame him beyond the Taita-Taveta county borders. Women’s groups within the coastal region are ever seeking his services for healthy seed production trainings and for provision of healthy seeds.

Appreciating Farm Households as the primary change agents in building a resilient and sustainable food system in Africa is a model that has worked for us in Kenya, particularly in our cassava project.  The farm households need the innovations and technologies that are often shelved in higher institutions of learning as well as research organizations.  Rural women have proven that they can adopt innovations and launch successful business initiatives to develop nutritious processed cassava products. We need to share these innovations and technologies with other farmers so more Janes, Amoses and Carolines can come to the fore.  

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for September is ‘Safe and nutritious food systems for all’.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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