In Summary
  • Unfortunately, Abukutsa is allergic to meat and milk. As a child, her mother, who had lost three infants, would pick edible leaves or “weeds” to feed her daughter.

  • “I was an A student and my father wanted me to study medicine. I attended Medical School for two weeks and decided to go back to my course of choice — Agriculture. My father and teachers were very disappointed,” recalls Abukutsa.

  • Her motivation to study Agriculture was to learn about the “weeds” that saved her life. She graduated with an honours degree and got a scholarship to do a Masters in Agronomy, focusing on vegetable crops — specifically sukuma wiki.

It is 12:45p.m. Like clockwork, the Nairobi working class leaves the office and heads out for lunch. “Ugali mbili na kunde!” shouts Atieno. The restaurant is filling up fast. Atieno takes orders and passes them to the kitchen staff.

“We don’t have mrenda today,” Atieno tells another customer who has ordered for her “usual” ugali and traditional vegetables. The customer is disappointed and insist she does not want cabbage or sukuma wiki any other traditional vegetable would do.

Flashback to 1979. Twenty-year-old Mary Onyango Abukutsa arrives in Nairobi from a village in western Kenya.

She is enrolled at the University of Nairobi for an undergraduate degree in Agriculture. Then, like today, university students indulged in roasted meat and alcohol.

My siblings

Unfortunately, Abukutsa is allergic to meat and milk. As a child, her mother, who had lost three infants, would pick edible leaves or “weeds” to feed her daughter.

“I was an A student and my father wanted me to study medicine. I attended Medical School for two weeks and decided to go back to my course of choice — Agriculture. My father and teachers were very disappointed,” recalls Abukutsa.

Her motivation to study Agriculture was to learn about the “weeds” that saved her life. She graduated with an honours degree and got a scholarship to do a Masters in Agronomy, focusing on vegetable crops — specifically sukuma wiki.

This was the launch pad for her career in agriculture. She worked with farmers as an extension officer and was at one time an adviser to the Office of the President in charge of monitoring and evaluation of Kenya’s food situation.

“I then joined the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) as a junior research fellow in the Research Production and Extension Division where I started research work in African indigenous vegetables.”

Research focus

Two years later (1992), she moved to Maseno University, where she got a doctorate scholarship at the University of London — Wye College. She thought she would continue her research on African indigenous vegetables but she was in for a rude shock. “My supervisor recommended that I change my research focus to onions because African vegetables were considered ‘weeds’”.

She was later to apply for research funding and was turned down because African indigenous vegetables were still not recognised as food for humans.  

Today, the crop that Abukutsa wanted to study years back is no longer a “weed”. It is now a very popular food item. She says in Kenya the most popular African indigenous vegetables are: African nightshade (managu or mnavu or osuga, lisutsa), spiderplant (sagaa, saget, dek or tsisaka), vegetable cowpea (kunde), jute mallow (mrenda), African kale (kanzira) and pumpkin leaves (malenge, liseebe).   

From 2000, Abukutsa has received a lot of funding for research. “The Government has also started funding us. In 2011, I got Sh12 million from then National Council of Science and Technology, now the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, one of the highest funding in my career,” she says.

Abukutsa is now a professor of Horticulture at JKUAT. She has been recognised globally for her contribution to strategic repositioning of African indigenous vegetables through pioneering research, dissemination, conservation and development of seeds and restructuring curricula to include indigenous crops.

“I am happy that Kenyans now appreciate the nutritional value of indigenous vegetables. All supermarkets have a fresh produce section. If you go to the market, these vegetables are being sold at a higher price compared to kale and cabbage.”

According to her, vegetables like amaranth, spider plant, cowpeas and African nightshade formed an integral part of Kenyan diets. They were intercropped with foods like maize and beans. This was until exotic crops like cabbage and sukuma wiki were introduced and then the “traditional” vegetables were labeled ‘poor man’s food’.

Exotic vegetables

“Sukuma wiki is an exotic vegetable that was brought to Kenya as cattle feed. During the colonial time, there was a deliberate effort to suppress the consumption of indigenous foods, including vegetables. There was a lot of effort to promote exotic vegetables,” says Abukutsa.

The effect continued even after independence, with the government propagating agricultural policies developed by colonialists.

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