African nutrition pioneer Ruth Oniang’o continues to champion solutions for the continent’s most pressing food issues.
As a girl growing up in a Kenyan village, Ruth Oniang’o was quite literally a survivor: Her parents lost seven children to malaria. “When you are a survivor at that very early age, you are aware of death. You see your parents suffering, and I think it changed my whole view of life,” she says. “So very early on I wanted to do something that would help humanity.”
Then when she was a teen, Oniang’o saw how a young cousin’s protein deficiency resulted in serious health problems, and decided that studying nutrition was her calling. “I don’t want to deal with sick people—I want to use food to prevent these kinds of conditions,” she remembers thinking.
These early insights led Oniang’o to a lifetime of working for better food and nutrition policy to help the most vulnerable, serving in many roles including legislator, activist, policymaker and teacher. Three decades ago she founded the nonprofit Rural Outreach Africa, which deals with nutrition and food security in Kenya. In 2003 Oniang’o began a five-year term as a member of Parliament in Kenya, advocating for passage of bills addressing biosafety and nutritionists and dietetics. And internationally, she has worked on nutrition policy with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Gates Foundation. Among her many accolades is a lifetime achievement award from the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA), presented to her in Cape Town, South Africa, in June 2014.
Today Oniang’o, who is formally retired but still works in her field, sees tremendous opportunities and challenges for her continent. “The light is shining on Africa right now,” she says. “Unfortunately, we still face food insecurity and civil strife. There’s opportunity for us to make headway, to develop economically, to feed our people.
“So much is undone,” she adds. “We still depend on rain; only 4 percent of irrigable land in Africa is actually irrigated. Hybrid grains—we don’t use it. These oppositions to technology don’t work for us.”
The light is shining on Africa right now.”
— Ruth Oniang’o
Getting to a place of greater African food security, she believes, requires more investment of time in understanding the local context, rather than just assuming technology that works in the developed world will work in Africa.
Reaching out locally
Sometimes the gains at the grassroots level, however, are slow going. For example, a recent Rural Outreach Africa initiative successfully got people to grow soybeans—not part of the traditional Kenyan diet—but it did not get people to actually eat them. “They take too long to cook, they don’t taste good, and so on” were the chief complaints, says Oniang’o. However, farmers who saw that the soybeans fixed nitrogen in the soil, thus enhancing it for other crops, are now looking at the beans more favorably, she says, and experimenting with soybean flour.
“The farmers know us and they know of us. We make them our friends, and they know we are not going anywhere,” she says. “It’s not just a question of money. It’s working with you to make better use of what you have at the ground level, and just being able to appreciate and maintain dignity.”
Spreading the word about good nutrition
Oniang’o began working with local Kenyan populations early in her career while doing field research for her doctorate in food science and nutrition at the University of Nairobi. During that time she found cases of kwashiorkor and marasmus—forms of malnutrition typically affecting young children. “It was not evident then that [Kenya] had these cases of malnutrition. But I saw them at the rehabilitation centers. I went to homes. I saw such bad poverty [and] it really saddened me,” she says. “And that’s when I decided, ‘I’m going to stay in Kenya and work in Kenya.’”
Taking on the formulation of food guidelines, Oniang’o became a government advisor who helped with training materials for both university students and for mothers and the general public. She has also been a pioneer in the academic study of food and nutrition in Kenya, holding the country’s first post as professor of nutrition at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi.
In the several decades that Oniang’o has been teaching—including advisory roles in Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe—the nutrition field here has begun to flourish, resulting in new products (such as high-quality flours from locally grown sorghum and millet), and more jobs for skilled graduates. And as editor of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition, and Development, which she founded in 2001, Oniang’o continues to mentor students.
“More and more, we’re encouraging students to take both food and nutrition,” she says. “With the scaling up of a multidisciplinary approach, they have a much better chance of getting jobs.”
She also has leveraged popular media to discuss food choices and public health education through such outlets as the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and the Kenya Times. For example, as a strong advocate for breastfeeding, she has written articles about the critical importance of early feeding for development.
Ultimately, says Oniang’o, “food is not just what you eat. ‘I’m busy, I’m running around, I just want to put something in my mouth that can sustain me and give me the energy and give me the nutrients as I go about my work,’” she says. “Food is also [that] which can sustain me when I am recovering from disease. Food is also what can help me to grow.”