Mary Abukutsa Onyango, a professor of Horticulture at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, has won the prestigious 2014 Edinburgh Medal. Abukutsa was announced winner during the 26th Edinburgh Medal ceremony and address, Thursday in United Kingdom’s City of Edinburgh.
The steely willed academic won the award following her unique combination of science and social contribution in her search for practical solutions to Africa’s double burden of malnutrition: under-nutrition and obesity; through sustainable production and utilization of leafy African indigenous vegetables.
As she rose to cheers and applause from some of the world’s best minds in science and technology at the 2014 Edinburgh International Science Festival, it was clear Prof. Abukutsa’s research spanning two decades, had finally got the attention and approval of the world. Mary proceeded to dedicate the medal to the millions of Africans living with various forms of malnutrition and diet related illnesses.
‘This is for all the people in the world who are struggling with malnutrition and those facing death as a result of hunger,’ said Prof. Abukutsa, upon accepting the award.
While rendering an oration for the don, Prof Louise Heathwaite, Scottish government chief scientific advisor for rural affairs and environment noted that Prof. Abukutsa is one of the few individuals who have made an immense contribution to health and nutrition for human well being.
‘Your science is helpful in revealing the risks to global food security and how we can leverage on the traditional African crops to optimize health and nutrition, and reduce diet related diseases,’ rendered Heathwaite. ‘You have shown that we should consider a different model of science thinking and decision making; one that promotes indigenous plants as reliable sources of nutritious foods.’
Prof. Abukutsa has dedicated her life and work to leafy traditional vegetables whose potential, she believes can be harnessed to economically empower Kenya’s rural poor besides alleviating nutrition related conditions like anaemia, diabetes, cancers and cardiovascular disorders. She however reckons that farming and consumption of the nutrient dense vegetables in Africa remains very poor due to a number of cultural, technical and agronomic factors.
‘Many Kenyans consider the indigenous vegetables as weeds, a result of colonial mindset that placed exotic species above local ones. Our studies have instead confirmed that African vegetables have great competitive advantage compared to exotic ones,’ Abukutsa told the Edinburgh Festival gathering.
The academic added that the traditional crops like amaranths, jute mallow and spiderplant are also: easy to grow, tolerant to drought, resistant to diseases and matures in a month. These qualities Abukutsa opines can be exploited to give impetus to African economies while cushioning global population from hunger and malnutrition.
Due to Mary’s research and advocacy, a number of African leafy vegetables are now available in supermarkets in Kenya and beyond. Agriculture curricula in various universities in Kenya and Africa now have units on the local vegetables. This is besides the botanic garden at Maseno University where Prof. Abukutsa nurtures over 200 species of endangered African plants including indigenous vegetables.
The researcher has now set her eyes in establishing a research centre to address indigenous vegetables value chain. She believes the venture would be instrumental in providing quality seeds and appropriate farming practices to grass root farmers in Africa besides offering value addition and marketing services to the commodities.
According to the Festival’s website, the Edinburgh Medal is a prestigious award given each year to men and women of science and technology whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and well-being of humanity
The Award is the latest addition to Abukutsa’s long list of awards and recognition by local and international individuals and institutions. The Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear recipient was declared African Union top woman scientist in Earth and Life sciences in 2010. She becomes the second African woman to receive the coveted Award. The other Kenyan recipient was the late environmentalist and Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wangari Maathai.
Abukutsa’s efforts has transformed the status of African vegetables from despised ‘weeds’, into highly regarded commodities likely to find their way into international trade, with a potential to edge out century old exotic commercial crops in Africa.
‘We must all do something. It must not be on African vegetables, it can be on Scottish traditional vegetables. All the little things we are going to do will add up to make human life better, for science is at the heart of what we do,’ concluded Prof. Abukutsa to a standing ovation.