Western farmers guard cultural identity with indigenous crop cultivation

A group of farmers in Western Kenya have embraced cultivation of indigenous crops in a bid to help preserve cultural identity, a move that has seen them improve their health due to the high nutritional value in crops and improve on their livelihoods. The programme launched in 2010 is an initiative of Bio Gardening Innovations (BIOGI), an organization that is working towards biodiversity conservation using organic methods and improving on families’ nutrition and livelihoods.

“The urge to help preserve our traditional crops like amaranth, simsim, climbing spinach, night shade, spider plant among others was the main factor for the formation of this group with the major goal of enlightening the farmers to realize that the traditional crops are more nutritious and can also help us conserve our cultural values,” explained Ferdinand Wafula the head of BIOGI. He further stated that the introduction of some modern crops like kales and cabbage has portrayed a negative image to our traditional crops making a farmer who grows them being viewed as backward and yet in the real sense, the monetary and health value of these traditional crops is far much higher than the so called ‘trendy crops’.

The success of the project is anchored on organization of the farmers into smaller manageable groups and their commitment to exchange ideas and personal experiences with various traditional crops. “We have over 15 farmer groups each having about 20 members. The smaller farmer groups are meant to help easy exchange of ideas because each group is established based on village locality. Farmers that come from the same village organize a single group and their interaction is easy because of their proximity and close ties,” noted Wafula.

BIOGI organize a one day training coupled with constant follow ups to the specific group in order to ensure that the farmers grasp every piece of training. The training entails a tour to the demo gardens, explanation of the elements in the garden, demonstration of techniques like composting and environmental conservation. According to Wafula, the farmer groups that are already identified with them never pay for the service as they facilitate the training using the funds from their other development partners like Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) and Slow Food International which oppose fast foods and advocate for traditional heritage foods. “We try to minimize the costs and emphasize the focus on empowering farmers to ensure success of the programme. During a field training day, the group farmers may contribute in logistical resources like firewood and food to help prepare meals for the participants because ideally it’s not easy to train someone who is on an empty stomach,” noted Wafulah.

The training is also open to farmers who are not affiliated to Wafula’s organization. “There are other farmers from other localities where we have no bases that are interested in our concept and approach us for training. We charge them about Sh700 with the cost mainly covering the meals for the day and transport facilitation for the trainers to tour various demo farms.” Due to the high demand for knowledge and technical knowhow among the farmers in rural areas, the initiative is already having the multiplier effect with the trained farmers setting up model farms and training other interested parties a move that Wafula explained will help spread the gospel throughout western Kenya.

“Farmer to farmer training and demonstration programmes are registering quick success because most people prefer and learn better when the knowledge and techniques are transferred to them by their fellow village mates or people they are well conversant with. The doubts and disbelief are minimized and the learners are challenged to mirror their trainers.”
After harvesting, BIOGI affiliated groups organize a field seed exchange day where farmers show case their produce and the seeds of some crops that have performed well. Farmers exchange the seeds and the knowledge in barter trade form. For instance, if one farmer had planted Amaranth and it performed well, she/he will show case the healthy leafy vegetable together with the seeds at the field day for other interested farmers. 

At this event, if  other farmers are interested in planting the crop the following season, then the farmer who has show cased the crop will take them through the basic principles of ensuring that they get the best returns. “The beauty about the whole programme is that one has time to understand because the instruction can even be in the local language,” added Wafula.
Wafula project’s programme’s successes to not only help the locals lead a healthy lifestyle but also help preserve Luhya’s cultural identity. “A crop like simsim which has for long been forgotten was used during wedding rituals among the Luhya people. The newlywed were sprinkled with simsim which was a sign blessing them to be produce abundantly like the simsim,” he explained.

The importance of traditional Africa orphaned crops has been receiving a boost with different players in the agriculture lobbying for their preservation because of not only being nutritious but also their ability to with stand harsh climatic conditions which has been on the rise because of increased emission of greenhouse gases.

In early 2013, The African Orphan Crops Consortium a plant academy for orphaned crops was set up in Nairobi to help scientists develop and preserve these crops. The organization has now initiated plans to research and develop over 100 more nutritious African crop species which were formerly neglected by scientists. Wafula lauds the new initiatives and noted that success to help preserve these crops can only be realized through concerted efforts like use of researchers and his part of ensuring widespread adoption in the rural areas.