In Kenya, persistent drought is threatening food security for some 31.5 million people, and more than one million face imminent starvation.
Kenya's government, looking for about $525 million in supplemental food funds from an already inflation-impacted budget, faces the prospect of feeding its people at the expense of a number of other projects that could improve food security for the future.
It's a perilous tradeoff — survival now at the expense of future survival.
At the same time, the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) reports that the 2009 maize crop will be 28 percent below normal. This is extraordinarily bad news because maize is the staple food crop for 96 percent of Kenya's people.
And therein lies the problem, says Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, teacher and researcher with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi.
Abukutsa-Onyango, who has been following the crisis as part of her advocacy of African indigenous vegetables, says any long-term solution to global warming, drought and crop failure must be addressed by reducing dependence on Western-style agriculture in favor of indigenous crops.
The problem, Abukutsa-Onyango (in photo at right) notes, is one that has been developing for centuries as Western emphasis on mono-cropping introduced non-native foods (pineapple, cabbage, spinach, carrots, etc.) which required extensive irrigation and frequent applications of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
This non-sustainable form of agriculture, while producing revenues in the form of exportable food, is no longer a viable means of insuring Kenyan food security, given the fact that 80 percent of Kenya's crops are grown in the arid lowlands, where rain is becoming increasingly unreliable.
As a result of crop Westernization, at least 200 indigenous crops once heavily cultivated in Africa – including such species as grain amaranth, cowpeas, jute mallow, Ethiopian kale, spider plant, African nightshade and pumpkin leaves – have been lost. Today, about 30 species remain, conserved at regional botanical gardens and national museums, as well as at the National Gene Bank in Kikuyu.
It has been Abukutsa-Onyango's life work to isolate a handful of the most important of those indigenous vegetables and promote their cultivation at the most basic level – among the farmers of Kenya, many of whom are women.
Her efforts on behalf of indigenous crops and women have been surprisingly successful.
"Today, spider plant, African nightshade and vegetable amaranth can be found in Nairobi supermarkets and restaurants, after years of being spurned by the well-fed as food only for the poor, and by the poor themselves as alternatives only in times of extreme hunger," she says.
The results have been decades in the making, as Abukutsa-Onyango first sought to identify the obstacles, and then created methods of overcoming them.
The outcome – a network of 100 contact farmers, or farmer's groups, who are trained in all the technical and practical aspects of seed production, seed utilization, seed processing, sustainable indigenous crop production and organic farming methods – is the sort of grassroots outreach that has made indigenous seed more available and more viable, and provided a means of training others to grow these valuable, highly nourishing, food varieties.
"Most of my work on African indigenous vegetables has been participatory at all stages. First and foremost I had to identify and rank the indigenous vegetables grown by, and most familiar to, Kenyan farmers."
But Abukutsa-Onyango is not promoting indigenous crops at the expense of all crops. Instead, she sees a future food landscape where Kenya's cool, moist highlands continue to produce Westernized crops for export (and to supplement Kenyan diets), while the lowlands produce better yields of indigenous bambara nuts, for example, or amaranth, spider plant and pigeon pea, without irrigation and in spite of less fertile soils.
"For example, grain amaranth has high protein content, in the range of 10-15 percent, so it is definitely more nutritious than traditional maize. My recommendation here would be to grow the hardy sorghums and millets in combination with other short-lived grains like amaranths and traditional maize."
It's a scenario that would benefit both Kenyan prosperity and the health of Kenya's inhabitants, since the indigenous crops have been shown to contain more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowances of vitamins and micro-nutrients. This leads to greater dietary and nutritional diversity, which is especially important to growing children and pregnant women.
Many African indigenous vegetables also have medicinal properties. Spider plant is known to help constipation, as well as facilitating birth. Nightshades have been used for centuries to cure stomachache, and Colocasia esculenta, or Elephant Ear (also known as taro root), has been used to treat rapid heartbeat.
There are undoubtedly many more, but their medicinal use has been largely forgotten as Westernized medicine replaced native lore.
Perhaps an added benefit of indigenous cropping would be the rediscovery of natural medicines. Even if this fails to happen, though, Abukutsa-Onyango's work represents not only a uniquely valuable African (and Kenyan) perspective, but also a global trend toward "homegrown" food and an increasing realization that traditional growing methods – like the Native American Three Sisters cultivation (of corn, beans and squash) – are not only more sustainable, but essential to food security in a warming world.
Her final words of wisdom represent an arrow in time, pointing to a future in harmony with the cycles of Nature rather than an attempt to control it. In fact, her prescription may be the only viable solution:
"I believe we cannot talk about meeting millennium development goals pertaining to food and nutrition security and poverty and health issues without the complementary use of African indigenous foods like indigenous vegetables."
(Photos: NAFIS, IRIN)