Posted 09 September 2011, by Jacon Ng’etich, Daily Nation (Nation Media Group), nation.co.ke
As a young girl, she suffered from a condition that made it impossible for her to eat animal proteins.
It was probably this allergy so early in life in her village, Ematusuli in Vihiga, that would lead Prof Mary Abukutsa to a lifelong quest for alternatives to animal proteins.
“Since I was allergic to animal proteins, including meat, eggs and fish, my mother would look around for indigenous vegetables and she insisted that I eat them. I did not know that they contained important nutrients to augment my diet,” said Prof Abukutsa in a recent interview.
After being introduced to indigenous vegetables so early in life, Prof Abukutsa took it upon herself to popularise them to the rest of the world.
Her struggle has been long. Fellow researchers were skeptical of the importance of traditional vegetables at first.
Over the years, however, she has managed to bring back to the cooking pots 10 different indigenous African vegetables that she claims are high in nutrients and easy to grow.
“Forget about spinach, cabbage and kales, our indigenous vegetables are far more nutritious,” said Prof Abukutsa.
“When I started out, no one was keen to support me in my research. I had no one to fund me, and even the government was reluctant,” she said.
The lecturer in horticulture was recently named among the four women mentors by the African Women in Agriculture Research and Development.
The four will mentor 70 winners of the 2011 fellowships selected from across the continent.
In the two decades she has done her research, Prof Abukutsa says indigenous vegetables have grown in stature from being seen as weeds to being considered essential food good enough to be stocked on supermarket shelves.
“I look back with contentment at what I have achieved. The struggle has given birth to more initiatives, both locally and internationally, on indigenous foods,” said Prof Abukutsa.
Through her efforts, vegetables like jute malon, (murenda), slender leaves, (mito), vive spinach, (nderema), African kales (kanjera), spider plant (saget), vegetable amaranth (terere), African nightshade (managu), cow peas and pumpkin leaves have found their way onto supermarket shelves across the country.
“What were once despised as vegetables for poor peasants are now found in any supermarket and in numerous restaurants,” said Prof Abukutsa, a mother of two boys.
In recognition of her achievement, Prof Abukutsa, 52, was awarded the Order of the Burning Spear by President Kibaki.
In September 2010, she received an African Union award for her research in the production of traditional vegetables in developing countries.
“The awards are not only a victory for me but for the country because the research will boost the fight against poverty, malnutrition and poor health,” she said.
Each of the winners of the AU Regional Scientific Awards receives a Sh1.4 million reward.
Prof Abukutsa’s journey has not been without hurdles. She says when she started her research in 1991, many dismissed her as trying to further an empty cause.
“It took time before they actually realised that previously overlooked vegetables in essence have a significant impact on reducing malnutrition. No one was ready to fund the research, not even the government ,” said Prof Abukutsa.
She said, however, she somehow managed to carry out research to prove her argument that the vegetables were high in vitamins and other nutrients.
“Another area where I encountered real challenges was publishing my research work. No international journal would touch it because they had a low opinion of indigenous vegetables, which some considered weeds,” said Prof Abukutsa.
“I was only left with the option of publishing it locally through university journals,” added the lecturer.
She said the cultivation of about 200 indigenous crops in Africa has significantly declined.
“We remain with only a few species. Only 30 species now remain at the National Gene Bank in Kikuyu and regional botanical gardens and national museums,” she said.
Prof Abukutsa is currently working with over 300 farmers in Central and Western provinces who are trained in all aspects of growing indigenous crops, from seed production to processing, using organic methods.
“I have farmers with whom I am working with closely, they have acquired and are passing on the knowledge of indigenous food growing to others in their communities,” she said.
The farmers have also learnt simple food preservation techniques like drying, which increases shelf-life but retains nutrients. Supermarkets prefer this kind of preservation.
Prof Abukutsa said it would be hard to solve nutrition security, poverty, and health problems in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops.
“Many African indigenous vegetables have medicinal properties. Spider plant is known to help constipation, as well as facilitating birth. Nightshades have been used for centuries to cure stomach ache, and colocasia esculenta and elephant ear (also known as taro root), have been used to treat irregular heartbeat,” she said.
“The use of African foods, including vegetables, holds the key to the future food sustainability in the country,” she said.
She said the current focus of promoting the production of the African vegetables, particularly by rural women farmers, would help reduce poverty and improve nutrition.
“This has been my passion and desire, to see to it that people acknowledge the importance and benefits of indigenous vegetables. My father encouraged me to study science as a means to pursue the course,” she said.
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