The Africa Food Prize winner talks about her work with Kenya’s smallholder farmers, and how indigenous crops can be a tool in the battle against food insecurity and climate change.
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’. Read more