When Ruth Oniang’o was working as a nutrition researcher in 1980s Kenya, she noticed an ominous change in the country’s agricultural landscape: regions that had once provided a diversity of nutritious food crops were being turned over to cash crops like sugarcane. Grown mostly for export, these crops were usurping land and soil that was intended for feeding people.
Spurred on by what she witnessed all those years ago, today Oniang’o–a professor of nutrition and a native Kenyan–leads the Rural Outreach Program, a nonprofit that champions the role of indigenous African crops and smallholder farmers in safeguarding food security. With the ROP, Oniang’o visits hundreds of farming communities in Kenya and helps them access, grow, and share seeds for indigenous crop varieties like sorghum, cassava, arrowroot, and jute mallow–foods that are not only nutritious, but also disease-resistant and climate-resilient. This year, these efforts got her recognised as the joint winner of the 2017 Africa Food Prize.
Aside from the practicalities of nutrition and food security, she’s motivated by the desire to help smallscale farmers realise their importance, she says: “If farmers were to go on strike for a season only, we would starve. Then maybe we would value them.” Here, Oniang’o shares her thoughts on commercialising African agriculture, the COP23 climate conference, and the trouble with that now-ubiquitous term, ‘orphan crops’.
Why do you choose to work with Kenya’s smallholder farmers?
Most of the voters are in the rural areas. Most of them are agricultural, and most of them are the poorest of the poor. So for smallholders to wield power they have to be organised. If they aren’t organised and they work individually, they’ll always be misused, and ignored. So I work to raise income for smallholder farmers, to raise their dignity, and their voice.
You place a special emphasis on women in your work: how is that connected to farming and nutrition in Kenya?
The main aim is to address rural poverty, through agriculture, and more than three-quarters of people doing agriculture [in Kenya] are women. So my focus is rural poverty and improved family nutrition, especially through women. But as I went along, I realised I needed to figure out how to bring in the men too. When we started, our field days would be mostly women, discussing women’s affairs. But now we have men attending, because they see how the women have transformed. Women have become village elders, and chiefs. A woman needs the support of the family, the spouse, the whole community; you all have to rally around her for her to feel comfortable being a leader. So when men [come to me and] say ‘I want my daughter to be just like you,’ I say you, ‘start by making your wife feel good. Then we can talk.’
What do you think about the calls to commercialise African agriculture?
The whole idea of commercialising African agriculture has been around for a long time. When Kenya became independent in 1963, it was feeding its population–OK, so it was only about seven million then–on subsistence farming, through smallholder farms. Then we saw the commercialisation of agriculture. I was one of the researchers in the late 80s, [looking into] how farms were being commercialised, going into cash crops and so on. And yet people were becoming hungrier, and nutrition was being compromised. That’s why the area where I started doing my interventions were sugarcane growing areas. With all the land going to sugar cane as a monocrop, people had to import food for family food consumption. And the money they were getting from sugar cane was not enough to actually purchase family food.
So all I can tell you is that we haven’t capitalised on African smallholder farming. We still have a lot of smallholder farmers in Africa, and Kenya feeds people from subsistence farming. We haven’t seen its full potential, but we have seen the bad impacts of commercialising.
And yet, you’ve supported the idea that in the future, Africa should become a major exporter of food.
The reason I said ‘in the future’ is that our governments must realise that you must feed your people first, then you can look at what we can give to the rest of the world. India is now asking Africa to feed them pulses. But Africa also needs pulses for nutrition. If we don’t give farmers incentives to feed into the local food system they will export that food, or go into commercial crops, which aren’t necessarily food crops. So it requires a well-thought-out plan by government. Give us way forward, on how we feed our people. It’s not something that you just leave open to a free market–especially when the markets are not understood by the majority of your people. When it comes to food, you must have self interest in your people.
It seems that indigenous crops are gaining recognition in the African farming context–something you have been advocating for, for decades.
Yes that’s true. They’re being called orphan crops–a term that has come onto the scene, and suddenly everybody has adopted it. Personally, I have an issue with that terminology.
Why is that?
Well, it’s how we see orphans–as an unfortunate situation. In this case we virtually neglected these crops, and yet, they are our foundation. And, they are also still there. We have tuber crops, sweet potatoes, yams, and arrowroot. And then you have cassava–now being promoted much more as an industrial crop, to produce starch and byproducts, for example for animal feed. But we know that as a food it’s also critical, and drought-resistant, growing with very little rain. We have the grains, finger millet, sorghum, which are mostly drought-resistant, using very little water. And they’re nutritious. We also have insects–we know which ones can be eaten. We have mushrooms, and fruits from the wild. The other day I was in Mombasa, and I really enjoyed tamarind juice. So culturally, we need to identify with these foods; they should be given prominence.
With COP23 having unfolded earlier this month, how optimistic are you that it will translate into benefits for smallholder farmers?
I’m wary of these huge conferences, where resolutions come out, and commitments are made, and huge amounts of money are put forward. Yet, if you try to apply for that kind of funding, you don’t get it. Maybe there are just too many demands on what’s available. That said, what I do like about the conferences now is that there is a global agreement, so there’s political will. But for those of us who work with farmers on the ground level, we aren’t seeing resources. That’s something I would really like to see–bringing it down to where it really matters. Climate change has really, practically, affected smallholder farmers. They now don’t even know when to plant. They’ve stopped believing in the climate itself. So I need to follow the resources, and bring to them to the ground. That’s where I’m happiest–making a difference on the ground.