HIV+ farmers lead in cultivation of rare veggies, growing income and health

A nutritious farming project in Vihiga County that inculcates people living positively with HIV through cultivation of traditional vegetables and legumes with high nutritional value has been the locals’ saving grace allowing especially the affected live a dignified life while boosting incomes of locals in an area struggling with chronic poverty levels. Dubbed the Rural Outreach Programme, the programme has also been a bond that has united families and allowing them to freely interact with the HIV positive among them, dispelling traditional myths.

Beatrice Jumba 36, an HIV patient, whose husband died of HIV/AIDS related diseases two years ago, is one such farmer. With a vast arable land and elaborate farming skills offered to her by experts from ROP, the mother of two teenagers has ventured into yam and soya beans farming that offers her enough vegetables both for subsistence and commercial purposes.

Yam leaves commonly known as 'seveve' is a delicious vegetable and has zero content of saturated fats with high contents of vitamin A and C that enhance immune system, according to Doris Anjawa, the organisation's field coordinator who has speciality in nutrition. '' I want to ensure that my sons grow stronger enough to depend on their effort when am gone,” she said.

She continues that before Rural Outreach Program came on board, she used to plant maize on sections of the farm hence buying the rest of nutritional foods. 'I could buy 'seveve' at Mbale market for Sh30 thrice a week and six eggs daily for Sh72 but nowadays, am plucking it from my garden and even supply them to vendors in the market,'' added another rural farmer.

Janet Esendi has all praises for the initiative that has seen her ailing daughter continue to breath to the dismay of her village folk who anticipated her death in a month after contracting HIV/AIDS. With all indigenous vegetables like pumpkin leaves, cow peas and Amaranathus also called wondering weed, Esendi is less worried about modern vitamin giving foods that she term as expensive and less nutritious. Echoing Esendi's sentiments is Prof. Ruth Aniang'o, a nutritional science lecturer at Great Lake University in Kisumu who is also the founder of the organisation. The three decade long nutritionist holds that most of indigenous vegetables have medicinal value due to their high vitamin content that boosts immune system.

In a research she conducted and published in her monthly food science journal African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND), she asserts that traditional African vegetables have high levels of vitamin K since they have photosynthetic tissues known as phylloquinone that is a fat-soluble vitamin which lack in many other vegetables and fruits.

Since its inception in 1992, Rural Outreach Program has been the umbilical cord that has united farmers in Western Kenya and offered them a platform to discuss and offer solutions to social economic problems like HIV/AIDS, food insecurity and general health. A close review of HIV prevalence rate in the region for instance tells the success story of this organisation.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic hit the region in late 1980s an aspect that provoked the founder to initiate this programme. Although the prevalence rate was on rise from 1990-1994 with the highest being 7.1 percent, the prevalence rate has dropped over years the least of all times recorded last year at 5.2 percent. Dr. Victor Zimbulu, a medical officer in Sabatia attributes this drop to awareness programmes mostly carried out by Non state agencies.

He singles out Rural Outreach Program as the most influential since it does not only preach the gospel of abstinence and use of contraceptives but also teaches the public on how to eat healthy and improve food security in the region. Prof. Judy Kimiywe Ongaji, an associate professor and lecturer at Kenyatta University's Department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics who hails from Vihiga County has all praises for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa ( AGRA) funded project.

Without mincing words, the academician who has conducted several studies on HIV/AIDS and nutrition predicts that eating of traditional foods and vegetables will raise the life expectancy from 58 to 61 and 57 to 60 in women and men respectively as those foods have less fats compared to genetically modified foods people consume nowadays.