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It takes a woman to feed a village: celebrating Prof. Ruth Oniang’o — winner of Africa Food Prize 2017

By Ann Wangalachi

Today, food security and nutrition matters are once again taking center stage in African development dialogue. The dialogue is yielding real commitment from public and business leaders; backed by financial pledges. This week alone, during the seventh edition of the African Green Revolution Forum, $ 280 million has been pledged to contribute to transforming Africa’s agriculture across 11 countries.

This week too, saw the recognition of efforts by two women — both pioneers in their chosen paths and contributions to transforming Africa’s rural areas by working on matters of nutrition and raising the productivity of key food crops. The two — Prof. Ruth Oniang’o and Maimouna Coulibaly — jointly won the Africa Food Prize 2017. The prize includes $100,000 and an ornate handcrafted glass trophy.

Both spent many years and at times their own resources to create enterprises that benefit rural farmers, most of whom are women. They have shown that it is not enough to give women access to improved farm inputs but it is also important to empower them with knowledge on how to produce more food, of good quality. To empower them to feed their families and villages.

I first met Prof. Oniang’o (‘Prof.’) nearly 20 years ago, and remember being struck by how different she was from my long-held mental image of what a food science and nutrition professor looked like and worked on. I imagined that they worked in labs, churning out new scientific discoveries, formulae, and processes that would contribute to food science and nutrition theory. 

This was debunked soon after I joined her non-profit — then Rural Outreach Program — and traveled with her to the program sites in rural Kenya. What I saw there amazed me: Prof. was turning textbook knowledge into pragmatic interventions that could be understood and adopted by the village women to improve nutrition outcomes of their families. As she later told me, this was ‘action research’. In the week that I spent in the villages in Butere, in Kenya’s western region, I saw this research translated into action firsthand.

Mothers were growing and feeding their families nutrient-packed green leafy vegetables, gifting each other a young heifer to boost family milk supplies, and learning how to ‘feed’ the soil on which they depended good food too. Prof. taught them that the soil and plants needed to be nourished for their good health, just as people and animals did. This was through promoting various soil health management practices such as crop rotation, mulching and intercropping of complementary crops (such as legumes and cereals) to balance out the nutrient consumption-depletion cycles. The desire to bring this knowledge and the benefits of these practices to the village women drove Prof. to knock relentlessly on doors of development partners and global non-profits to support this work.

In another part of the village, concrete structures were constructed to protect springs of water which were the community’s lifeline. Village-based extension agents traveled by motorcycle to bridge the gaps in access to extension services; supplying much-needed services and supplies such as artificial insemination, agronomic information, and veterinary supplies. 

The village women were also trained in how to save the money they made from selling surplus milk through ‘table banking’. Prof. also pushed for a more nuanced understanding of ‘gender’: that of men and women working together for the good of the community — thereby promoting the wholesome buy-in of these interventions. The interventions were interconnected and intuitive: adapted to fit in with local cultural norms and practices. As we visited each homestead, we were proudly served a balanced meal of indigenous green leafy vegetables, a glass of fresh cow’s milk and ugali (a stiff porridge made of maize flour). Once considered ‘poor man’s food’, these vegetables had once again taken their pride of place. At the time, I remember getting the feeling that I was witnessing something truly great and probably had the potential to work across Africa.

This week, as I interacted with Prof. and congratulated her on her Africa Prize win, she reminded me that her life’s work was to uplift village women across Africa. She dedicated this win to them and vowed to continue using whatever platforms available — boardrooms, classrooms, conferences — to tirelessly and passionately champion their cause. Congratulations Prof. on this win!

Anne Wangalachi manages Strategic Insights Academy and advises organizations on corporate communications and agribusiness strategy. She has been quoted in the Washington Post, and was the first production editor of AJFAND — a scientific journal founded by Prof. Ruth Oniang’o.

The article first appeared on medium.com

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