The appearance last April of Professor Abukutsa Mary Onyango of JKUAT’s Department of Horticulture at the African Union (AU) forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she was widely acclaimed and decorated, marked a rare moment of public recognition for the researcher and raised JKUAT’s international reputation to new levels owing to her veritable and groundbreaking research and promotion of African indigenous vegetables. For Prof. Onyango, nothing succeeds like success. As a teacher, numerous students have passed through her tuitions, and as a researcher, she has devoted up to 18 years of extensive research into African indigenous vegetables where she has recorded impressive advances, the most notable being the identification of indigenous vegetables with nutritional and economic value.
It is her interest in the promotion and outstanding contribution to science and forward-thinking research on original African vegetables that led Prof. Onyango to be a remarkable AU guest at the Ghion Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she was crowned with a trophy, presented with $3000 cash award and a laptop valued at $1500 for scooping the first prize of the inaugural Young Professionals and Women in Science competition. The scholar who topped a pack of four other women scientists was decorated for her inspiring and blockbuster dissertation titled development and promotion of technologies for sustainable production and utilization of indigenous vegetables for nutrition security and wealth creation in Kenya, a paper selected from over 300 others submitted from over 20 countries in Africa and reviewed by independent renowned scientists.
The event sponsored by a consortium of six organizations including Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation, African Technology Policy Studies Network, Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture and New Partnership for Africa’s Development at the forefront in the promotion of agriculture in the continent was held during the 4th AU Conference of African Ministers of Agriculture , Land and Livestock. The conglomerate purpose is to identify, recognize and reward the hard work and excellence of young professionals and women scientists who are engaged in innovate and pioneering research and communicating the outputs to improve agricultural productivity and livelihoods of rural communities. Reviewers are keenly guided by critical tangible criteria such as logic and content, communication, impact innovativeness and originality that must be demonstrated in the abstracts.
Professor Abukutsa has a passion for African indigenous vegetables (AIVs) initiated multi-disciplinary research programme at JKUAT in 1991 when she worked as a junior research fellow at the Research, Planning and Extension division and at Maseno University in 1996, with the aim of promoting sustainable production and utilization of AIVs for poverty reduction in Kenya. The indigenous vegetable research continues to date at the Department of Horticulture where Professor Abukutsa is currently housed. Some of the achievements from over 12 funded research projects in the programme that has led to the collection, characterisation, evaluation and multiplication of germ-plasm, packaging of quality seed that was readily available to farmers; seed production and processing protocols among others.
Professor Onyango argues that with over 60 percent of Kenyans afflicted by poverty manifested in malnutrition and poor health AIVs that were rich in vital nutrients and micro-nutrients, with medicinal and other agronomic properties superior to some exotic species have to feature in Kenya’s food security and income generation agenda.
The researcher was gratified that her work was not in vain as some of priority AIVs such as vegetable cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), vegetable amaranths (Amaranthus blitum), spider plant (cleome gynandra), African vegetable nightshade (Solanum scabrum) were now finding their way to the country’s supermarkets. More research efforts she says should be directed in areas AIV’s of breeding, physiology, packaging, value addition, recipes and product development with the aim of ‘including AIVs in our cuisines and menus in hotels, hospitals, schools and other institutions and as export commodity in the Horticultural industry in Kenya’. She encourages governments and other stakeholders to incorporate African food plants in the development agenda as a way of realizing some of the millennium development goals and Vision 2030.