A little known yam variety native to Western Kenya is fast replacing bread among the area's middle class, giving the yam farmers an economic upper hand as retail stores compete to stock it to meet the burgeoning demand.
The yam grown by the Tiriki sub tribe of the Luhya Community and locally known as Marugu, is an angular heart-shaped, pinkish-white ‘potato’ and is a climber plant like passion fruits needing no support to grow. It is usually planted along fences or by the sides of streams, near banana or coffee stems or close to trees and comfortably planted along with other food crops. The tubers remain underground and sprout at the onsets of the first rains. This is one of its unique characteristic. Because of its ability to conserve water it can be planted in arid places. It is perennial so that when the stem dies, the tuber remains in the soil and sprouts afresh when the rains return. This gives the farmers an economic advantage because they are able to save on labour and seed.
But while the plant is revered in other plants of Africa as poisonous, the Tiriki People who have planted and depended on it as a source of food in times of drought have perfected the art of harvesting and cooking it which has given them an economic upper hand. At an early age local children are taught to distinguish the edible marugu which has to be mature from the tender ones which are toxic.
The Tiriki's allow it to cook or bake for at least one full hour and is considered ready when a thin thorn, stuck into the “potato”, comes away clean. When cooked, the cover peels off easily leaving behind a whitish pink brownish fluffy potato-like yam.
The yam was a common delicacy among the locals in the 70's and 80. But modernization so many families neglect it for better options like bread. However with the latest increase in bread prices and health conscious consumers realizing the benefits of the yam, demand has gone top notch.
Retail stores and shops are chasing after a few farmers who have domesticated the yam. The farmers sell the yam in slices with one yam producing 3 such slices. Each slice in local stores goes for Sh50. “I dont invest anything in planting the yam, so there are no expenses. The only work I would say is in harvesting and cleaning the yam,”said Meshack Likhomba one of the farmers
Meshack who has intercropped the yam with beans and kales in his half acre of land, harvests over 30 yams after every three months.
To maintain health standards in cleaning the yam and for higher bargaining power, the farmers have formed themselves into a group where delivery is made at one spot. Traders from as far as Kisumu and Nakuru come looking for the yam which is only grown by the Tiriki people. “There are traders who even buy a slice at double the price and sell it way higher in their stores. The demand is high,”said Judy Agamala another farmer.
Scientists in the area are working with the farmers on ways of domesticating the yam and increasing awareness among the locals on the health benefits of the yam. “With erratic weather, farmers who embrace this unique yam are guaranteed of food any time and now that the demand is growing elsewhere growing it can be their source of revenue. The advantage is that it is only available here, another reason why farmers should embrace it,”said Vince Sangale a scientist working with the farmers.
Written by Dominic Wandati for African Laughter
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