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Busia County in western Kenya is home to a variety of indigenous vegetables. But for decades, a shift in popular taste away from indigenous crops relegated the vegetables to the periphery in favour of kale, cabbage, and other exotic vegetables.
Lately, the tide has been turning. Nutritionists are raising awareness about the value of indigenous vegetables. And kitchen gardens, areas in a homestead where families grow leafy vegetables, fruit, and herbs, are becoming more popular.
Roselida Orodi lives in Busia County and is the chairperson of Esikoma Ushirika Farmers Self Help Group. The group has a demonstration farm where farmers learn how to grow vegetables, which equips them to establish their own kitchen gardens. Mrs. Orodi says most households now produce enough vegetables for their families to eat, and sell their surplus at the local market and beyond.
She says: “Indigenous vegetables fetch better prices compared to exotic ones like kales and cabbages because many people have learnt from experts that they are highly nutritious. It’s a pity they have been ignored by the local community.”
Thanks to a local organization called Sustainable Income Generating Investment, or SINGI, kitchen gardens are having a huge impact on nutrition and food security in Busia County.
SINGI works with over 50 farmer groups in the county. Women dominate the membership. Local farmers can irrigate their crops because of the biannual rains, and most maintain their kitchen gardens throughout the year.
As well as championing indigenous vegetables, SINGI encourages farmers to grow wild vegetable species that have long been ignored.
William Buluma is the chairman of SINGI. He says the Kenya Department of Agriculture and the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization have trained the farmer groups on growing vegetables. Other organizations have supported the farmers to practice organic agriculture, and provided training materials on health, environment, and agriculture.
Mr. Buluma says, “The initiative has enhanced production of indigenous vegetables, leading to their availability in large quantities in homes and markets, unlike some years ago.”
But there have been challenges. Mr. Buluma says the lack of equipment has frustrated farmers, and emerging diseases have wreaked havoc on the vegetables. Local soils are acidic and farmers have been advised to use natural manure. But, because they lack composting equipment, they are unable to produce it in large quantities.
Mr. Buluma is urging the government of Kenya to create a policy which promotes consumption of indigenous vegetables and organic farming. He says this will lead to better health for Kenyans and environmental protection.
Members of Mrs. Oridi’s group grow Indian spinach, jute, crotalaria, solanum, spider plant, amaranth, pumpkin leaves, and African kale. Group members receive certified seeds from the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation and produce seeds for sale.
According to Mrs. Oridi, the vegetables are drought-resistant. This is a benefit during the dry season, as the increased demand means higher prices.
She says the group is exploring the possibility of supplying vegetables to local schools. She adds, “We want our children to eat indigenous [food], for it’s nutritious and healthy [and] thus keeps diseases at bay.”
Anastacia Muleka is a member of the POA farmers group, based in Matayos Sub County, a group which is also affiliated with SINGI. She used to pay $10 a week to buy vegetables from the market, but since establishing a kitchen garden she no longer buys any. She adds, “I have a variety of vegetables. Through SINGI, I’ve learnt value addition, mostly on various methods of preserving vegetables to avert spoilage due to perishability.”
Mrs. Muleka concludes, “Since establishing my kitchen garden, I have never looked back, and my resolve is to plant more.”
Photo: Jessca Muhonje, a resident of Busia County in western Kenya tending to her vegetable garden. Credit: Justus Wanzala/IPS