My late mother used to describe me as a child who always pestered her with questions she could not answer. I describe myself as a very curious person and always wanting to do more and to know more.
Mathematics was my top subject in school, yet I could not pursue it further as during my time and in my school, girls were not offered Mathematics as an examinable subject at a higher level. I quickly realized that as a top mathematical head and a competitive sprinter, I would not have friends if I did not bring others along. So I started to help them where they were stuck.
So, when I have an idea, I gather people to share it, I seek their opinions and we agree to move and if they do not, I normally say: sometimes it takes just one person to change the world. That is what happened with Nutrition. I was keen to study it instead of medicine when I realized the value of good food and before I knew anything about Hippocrates and what he is purported to have said way back in 400 BC, “let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”. I stuck with this idea, way before people became interested in it. In my twilight years it is now getting recognition. I never gave up. I have learnt through life never to give up once you believe in something as everything and every situation has its own time. I tell that to many people including the young people I mentor and the adults I counsel.
Then there is the action research I conducted between 1985 and 1990 in a sugarcane zone that highlighted serious problems of: child malnutrition, vulnerable and abused women, biting poverty and many hunger months in the year. I was right in the middle of my career then. This region used to be the breadbasket of Kenya. Yet soils were now poor and eroded, the forests I knew had been cleared and now finding firewood was difficult. With poor crop yields and little decent off- farm employment, the situation was serious. After the results, I did not stop there. I founded Rural Outreach Africa (ROA) to address these issues. I mobilized resources from government, communities, friends and self to support my work in the community.
I targeted women as they were the main resource-poor farmers in the community; I felt sorry for them as they looked haggard and neglected. I said to myself: “If Africa relies on these women to feed the continent, it is no wonder there is so much hunger!” I started with water as the very first project to enter any new village. Water quality was bad, from visiting schools, one had identified water and hygiene related problems in school children, and hospital records availed revealed high diarrhea incidence. Fixing water sources was apolitical and would bring everyone onboard, it was fairly inexpensive, and it involved community and both gender participation. World Health Organization (WHO) Kenya Country Director, late Prof. Paul Chuke offered my very first support for water activities. Through these initial activities, water quality and access were improved, thus relieving school children and women. This was automatically followed by sanitation especially in school, dental health, safe motherhood (traditional birth attendants were trained in how to deliver babies safely and hygienically) and nutrition. School girls’ needs were addressed by providing private toilets, sanitary pads, and got them involved in cleaning their own toilets. Some innovative teachers got pupils to collect urine to act as manure for school gardens. A lesson I learnt here was that once the community accepts you, you begin to see many opportunities to innovate and you also identify innovations amongst them. Working with the government of the day was a good idea I thought of to avoid conflict and to ensure we stayed within government policy. Starting AJFAND, a scholarly journal to share Africa’s scientific research findings was an innovation that had stayed in my head for a long time. Now the journal is globally known and we have more papers than we can handle. Getting the University to the people was my idea. When I established ROA my fellow academics did not understand what I was doing. Now every university in Africa is expected to solve local problems and to demonstrate relevance in national development.
“If not everyone can come to the University, then let us take the University to them”, I said.
Childhood hunger and malnutrition, family poverty, lack of potable water, gender inequity, woman illiteracy and inability to feed ourselves a s a nation, and as communities and families are all bothersome to me. Other concerns have been failure by government to promote nutritious indigenous foods and poor policy on cash crops; concerns about climate variability and the environment as a whole are not well articulated. There is demonstrated lack of appreciation for science, research, and innovation. I care for these issues because if not properly addressed, a nation or a people cannot grow. For instance, in 2005, I spearheaded the completion of Kenya’s national food and nutrition policy and that saw nutrition receive good recognition and political space, an aspect that the entire population of Kenya highly gains. I further facilitated the establishment of nutrition departments in public universities and continued to voice the nutrition issues affecting children, women and society as a whole.
I need more finances and ideas to institutionalize the mentoring work I do. We need to be able to link what we do not only to young adult mentees but also to pupils in schools as once these issues are implanted that early, they remain forever; we also know that children are the best change agents. We need to run competitions to encourage innovation and creativity, we need to take advantage of the internet to spur sustainable growth in rural communities and we need to use mobile phones to step up teaching our women how to read and write. Linking young people in Africa and the rest of the world and taking young people from their rural settings to go and visit the amazing natural and wild resources Africa has would be appropriate. These opportunities can be accessed competitively. The political class too needs attention.
ROA works with rural communities in Africa to secure their integration to the continent’s positive growth and development. Our Development Strategy is built on promoting and mediating responsible Research & Innovation Partnerships. We ensure that our innovation & development impacts are driven by holistic values and transformation.
Prof Oniang’o is the founder and first Executive Director of Rural Outreach Africa. She has influenced the development of Nutrition training, research, development and discourse in much of Africa and has participated in consultations and on committees at the international level whose decisions have shaped global food security and nutrition.