Over the last one year, Seed Savers Network, a non-governmental organisation based in Gilgil, has been researching on 10 crops that are underutilised in Kenya.
The research involved gathering indigenous knowledge about the crops from growing to utilisation, benefits and even seed preservation and nutritional analysis in a laboratory.
Findings from farmers’ groups, laboratory analysis as well as nutritionists have been documented in a book titled 10 Rich, Underutilised Crops.
This was done under a project dubbed ‘Documentation’ funded by HIVOS, a development organisation.
The results showed that the following 10 crops are nutritionally rich but underutilised.
According to members of Geteti Women Self Help Group, yellow maize is drought-tolerant and less prone to diseases.
Traditionally, yellow maize was popular for preparation of fermented porridge, which was believed to boost breast milk production in nursing mothers just as it would do to dairy cows.
Yellow maize flour would be mixed with others from cassava, sweet potatoes, millet and sorghum to make a more enriched porridge.
While boiled or cooked as githeri (mixture of maize and beans), yellow maize is sweeter and more filling than what maize, according to farmers.
After laboratory tests, yellow maize is nutritionally rich especially in rich in zinc and iron. It is also energy dense.
This research particularly dwelt on the Giikamba variety.
Giikamba pumpkin fruit was traditionally wholesomely utilised, from its skin to seeds.
In the past, farmers say, they would harvest as many as 30 to 40 fruits from a single plant. But production has steadily reduced over the years to about 10 fruits per plant.
Owing to abundance, farmers would give pumpkins freely, unlike today when a kilogramme sells for about Sh100.
Pumpkin was common weaning food for infants owing to its soft and smooth nature when boiled. Unpeeled pumpkin left overnight was used as a de-wormer.
Ground pumpkin seeds powder is believed to boost libido among men, and women of menopausal age.
According to nutrition experts, the wealth in zinc in pumpkin seeds enhances fertility, therefore, farmers are after all right in associating these seeds with increased libido for both men and women.
Growing up in Aguthi, Nyeri in the 1970s, Jackson Kihara recalls his grandmother harvesting cherry tomatoes which grew in her coffee plantation. She would spare some for preparing the family’s meals and sell the others at the local market.
Unfortunately, the crop no longer grows in the coffee plantations due to what Mr Kihara suspects is excessive use of chemicals.
In the early days, birds fed on the tomatoes and broadcast the seeds through their droppings. People would then pick the fruits that grew on farms, along the roads and in forests.
Unlike hybrid varieties, cherry tomato plants are highly resistant to pests and diseases and thrive even in minimal rainfall.
Laboratory analysis has revealed that cherry tomatoes are especially rich in iron, crude protein and fibre.
Many times when she went to her farm, Margaret Njeri would return home with a basket full of gooseberries for her children.
Today, Njeri is shocked that a handful of these fruits is hawked for Sh20 along the Nakuru-Nairobi highway.
Njeri, like many of her age-mates, is saddened that some of her grandchildren have never tasted gooseberries.
Though bitter, gooseberry leaves and roots are said to be medicinal and, traditionally, they would be boiled and the drink offered to people with stomach upsets.
Gooseberries have been proven to be rich in iron, Vitamin A, crude fibre and crude protein.
In 2015, Janet Wanjiru was attracted by a small purplish-pinkish bean variety at a Nakuru market.
She enquired about the bean variety and was told that it is known as kanungunungu, and its origin is Uganda.
She bought a kilo of the beans from the market and planted on her farm in Kiamolo, Gilgil.
She harvested about 20 kilos, nearly double what she harvests from most of other varieties after planting a similar amount.
Since then, she has not only been growing the beans, but also sharing seeds with members of her farmers’ group.
Unlike most other bean varieties, according to farmers, kanungunungu is sweeter, more appetising and does not cause bloating.
Besides, it cooks faster, thus saves on fuel.
Besides being energy-dense, this bean variety is loaded with iron, zinc and protein.
Black Nightshade (Managu)
Wanjiru Gichuki, 90, recalls her youthful days when she would pick managu from the bushes, along footpaths and on her farm, and prepare the vegetables for her family.
By then, the vegetable grew on its own and people would have it in abundance.
Children enjoyed its orange-coloured seeds as fruits, which are sweet-sour, and are known as nagu.
Some farmers would even uproot managu plants to pave way for other crops.
But it has now become one of the most expensive vegetables.
But indigenous managu is no longer easily available on the farms and forests, amid rising demand for this vegetable, which is slowly being replaced by the hybrid variety.
Managu was traditionally believed to boost milk production among breastfeeding mothers and aid digestion.
According to laboratory analysis, managu is rich in protein, fibre, iron and zinc.
Black beans (Dolichos)
The black bean was a popular delicacy during important traditional ceremonies and was thus highly regarded.
So precious was this legume that farmers would not thresh it after harvest. If it was kept threshed and clean, it was believed, women would be tempted to cook it even when there was no ceremony.
Black bean meals were believed to increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers and also helped them regain energy fast after birth.
Newly circumcised boys, it was believed, would also heal faster after being fed on this legume.
Traditionally, people who had fractures would be served dolichos soup to hasten their healing.
The indigenous black beans variety cooks better compared to the hybrids. It is powdery when pressed after cooking. And although it takes longer to cook, it rarely causes bloating, according to farmers.
After laboratory tests, black beans have been found to be especially rich in crude proteins, carbohydrates, iron and zinc.
In the past, roasted red sorghum grains were ground and used to prepare a hot beverage in place of tea.
However, this indigenous beverage is no longer common as it was replaced by tea.
Red sorghum was also used to prepare a githeri-like meal which was known as muthura, a meal that was common during drought among the Kikuyu people.
Red Sorghum was used as a major ingredient in preparing fermented porridge. This porridge was especially popular with breastfeeding mothers as it boosted milk production.
Besides, red sorghum flour was and is still used to make ugali, and is commonly used by people with diabetes and hypertension.
In the olden days, red sorghum was used as a medium of exchange. Farmers from Bunyore for example, would exchange clay cooking pots for red sorghum grains especially during harvesting seasons.
Besides being rich in iron and zinc, laboratory tests show that red sorghum is energy dense.
Virginia Nyaguthii, 90, has never forgotten her childhood experience with mashed red cowpeas. She and her playmates stole servings of red cowpeas from a mean neighbour’s granary to teach her a lesson that she should be generous especially to children.
Her story tells of a crop that was common and significant in the olden days, but which is now being replaced by other alternatives such as green peas.
Red cowpeas are rich in energy as well as in iron, zinc and crude protein.
Like red sorghum, porridge made from red millet was popular with new mothers as it was believed to increase milk production.
It was also used as a medium of exchange.
In some communities, red millet meals were also common among newly circumcised boys.
It was believed that meals rich in red millet helped the initiates heal faster. This belief still stands to date and new initiates are fed on red millet porridge and ugali.
For this reason, red millet prices often shoot up during the circumcision period.
Compared to hybrid varieties, indigenous red millet leaves a strong, sour taste on the throat after swallowing, either as ugali or porridge.
Laboratory tests reveal that red millet is rich in carbohydrates, iron and zinc.
According to Nakuru County Chief Nutritionist Lillian Marita, all these foods have traces of many nutrients, with a concentration of a few.
While traditionally people may not know how nutritious food they consumed were, she says they were wise in their own way.
By fermenting porridge for example, people are able to absorb protein from millet and sorghum.
Ms Marita also says energy-dense foods are fast filling, while iron is vital as a blood builder.
By Rachel Kibui