Connecting the dots for sustainable food systems in Kenya

Last month, we organised a workshop in Nairobi to discuss the first report of our Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies (SASS) project that analyses Kenya’s southern Nakuru County food system, and identify what is needed to improve this food system. Koen Dekeyser and Francesco Rampa look back at the workshop and share their key takeaways.

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    The workshop, hosted by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), focused on pathways to a more sustainable food system in Kenya’s Nakuru County by better integrating indigenous vegetables. Representatives from farmers’ organisations, government, small and medium-sized enterprises, research and civil society debated the advantages and disadvantages of promoting indigenous vegetables, and the best way to do so. Meanwhile, a hearty meal of managu showed how indigenous vegetables can be both nutritious and delicious.

    But what exactly are indigenous vegetables and why are we so interested in them? And how can we better integrate them in complex food systems?

    Diversification through indigenous vegetables

    Food systems are increasingly recognised as the main contributor to bad health and ecosystem harm, and most people agree we need to transform them towards healthy diets from sustainable production.

    However, this transformation is a formidable endeavour due to the complexity of food systems, the sheer number of livelihoods that depend on them, the complicated interactions between diet and health, and the diversity of ecosystem interactions – to name only a few reasons. Because of this complexity, the outcomes of interventions are often context-specific and variable. Transformation proposals need to be adapted to local circumstances, which requires in-depth research.

    One proposal is to support diversified agroecological systems. A way to diversify is to better integrate indigenous vegetables, which are locally valued vegetables that have a high potential for improvement, but are typically neglected by policymakers and researchers. These vegetables have a generally higher nutritious profile, potentially lower natural resource requirements, and a possibly higher profit margin.

    Promoting the production, distribution, processing and consumption of indigenous vegetables can therefore result in healthier diets from more sustainable food systems and be instrumental in achieving several Sustainable Development Goals.

    The indigenous vegetable managu was served to the workshop participants –Koen Dekeyser / ECDPM

    Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies

    We organised the workshop as part of the multidisciplinary Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies (SASS) project, which aims to improve the social, economic and environmental sustainability of food systems in Kenya and Tanzania through a better integration of indigenous vegetables.

    In Kenya, different research teams – including biologists, economists, anthropologists and sociologists – contributed to a mapping of Nakuru’s food system, combining elements such as natural resources, food production, consumption and policy. On the basis of a ‘food system approach’, the research team formulated pathways to better integrate indigenous vegetables.

    Navigating complexity through dialogue

    During the workshop we discussed and further developed these pathways. First, we presented the current state of the project and introduced concrete pathways to better integrate indigenous vegetables in the southern Nakuru food system.

    We then grouped the participants to discuss four pathways in-depth. These included:

    1. Support for indigenous seeds through legal recognition of small-scale trading and different registration processes.
    2. Increased processing and government guidelines for blending flours.
    3. Marketing strategies, with a focus on multi-dimensional labelling.
    4. A multi-stakeholder platform to advance the indigenous vegetable value chains.

    Through causal loop diagramming, we discussed the reports’ findings and explored and developed a strategy to advance the pathways. These diagrams enable the integration of knowledge and experience of key stakeholders and experts from different sectors on drivers and relationships, feedback loops and potential unintended consequences.

    One of the workshop participants votes on his preferred pathway – Koen Dekeyser / ECDPM

    Main takeaways

    We had lively debates, especially on increased processing and government guidelines for blending flours, and multi-dimensional labelling.

    One of the main obstacles for leafy indigenous vegetables is their short shelf life. But participants agreed that increased processing, such as drying or fermenting, could extend shelf life, decrease food waste, provide more cooking convenience and open up new markets. MACE Foods, for instance, already supplies dried indigenous vegetables such as dodo and kunde to supermarkets in Nairobi and Nakuru, and reaches Kenyan diasporas.

    In light of recent food safety scandals, participants thought increased processing is an important step towards improving food safety, partly because the producer could be tested and traced more easily. However, opinions varied on whether the government should provide a mandatory blending guideline – for example blending the flour of the country’s staple ugali with indigenous vegetables – or whether the private sector should tackle blending voluntarily.

    The reasons against mandatory government blending ranged from political reasons (‘it would be fought in the courts’) to reasons related to consumer acceptance (‘people are reluctant to eat anything but white ugali’). Inclusive policy processes that involve relevant stakeholders could lower the risk for court challenges, and information campaigns that highlight the health benefits of indigenous vegetable consumption could increase consumer acceptance.

    ECDPM’s Francesco Rampa leads a causal loop diagram session – Koen Dekeyser / ECDPM

    Participants in another group agreed on the importance of launching a multi-dimensional labelling system for indigenous vegetables indicating their safety, origin and sustainability benefits such as nutritional value and low environmental impacts.

    This labelling scheme for both fresh and processed vegetables could increase consumer trust, which can boost demand and improve the income of farmers, while contributing to healthier diets and more sustainable agricultural practices. However, the trade-offs of such labels could be higher consumer prices due to (third-party) certification compliance costs and higher rejection rate by retailers of smallholders’ produce, because of the possibly stricter safety standards for indigenous vegetables.

    Participants therefore stressed that a labelling system should be introduced gradually. It should start in formal and ‘guaranteed’ markets via public procurement for schools and hospitals. Once supermarkets can see that demand is indeed enhanced by a label, it can be applied by them. After that, it can be used in informal markets like those dominated by women (‘mama mbogas’), where formal regulatory changes should first demonstrate their sustainability. For these reasons, the gradual introduction of a label for indigenous vegetables should also build on the experience of existing schemes such as Slow Food Kenya’s, with certification of producers based on peer-reviewing by local stakeholders.

    A draft diagram discussed at the workshop, depicting indigenous vegetable processing and government blending guidelines

    Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, JKUAT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and one of the world’s top experts on indigenous vegetables, closed the workshop. She stressed the importance of using research on indigenous vegetables for tangible changes.

    From research to changes

    Before and after the workshop, we had an intense week meeting the people involved in production (farmer networks, seed producers), distribution (supermarkets), processing (MACE Foods), consumption (Organic Consumers Alliance), policy (the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture and Nairobi municipality), and many others concerned with food systems in Kenya and indigenous vegetables in particular.

    We will build on the workshop discussions and the contacts made to promote the indigenous vegetables value chains and more diversified, sustainable food systems, through a conducive policy environment and effective multi-stakeholder partnerships.


    We would like to thank all workshop participants for their enthusiastic involvement and all the people we met during our visit for their time. We thank Nic Pacini in particular for his unabating support and JKUAT for the crucial collaboration. This mission and workshop were organised as part of the SASS project, which is funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR). Asante sana, and see you all again very soon.

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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